The Fallacy of Yang Hengjun’s ‘Third Option’ for Unification

The Fallacy of Yang Hengjun’s ‘Third Option’ for Unification
Photo Credit: Chiang Ying-ying / AP Photo / 達志影像
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In a recent post (original in Chinese here), Yang Hengjun (楊恆均), a former official in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs-turned “independent scholar, novelist, and blogger,” presents three scenarios through which unification between Taiwan and China could occur. The first two — “natural unification” following a convergence of social institutions and unification by force triggered by a declaration of independence — were suggestions by netizens after Yang invited his followers on Weibo to discuss the matter. Yang, however, argues that a third option exists to achieve what he calls the “great cause of national unification”: factionalism in Taiwan. Here’s why Yang is probably wrong.

First, let us briefly look at the first two scenarios proposed by Yang. The first goes as follows:

China could introduce elections into its political process, just like Taiwan, and politicians in Taiwan could run for elections in the mainland [sic]. If this comes to pass, the thinking goes, Taiwan will have no reason to refuse unification.

The second (“brutal”) scenario is simpler:

If the rulers of Taiwan declare independence, Beijing would use force to unify the island.

Disagreeing with the argument that China would be reluctant to use force, Yang writes that Beijing “does have the military capacity to do so,” adding that “As one of the strongest military powers in the world and with a population of 1.4 billion, mainland China could neutralize an island of 23 million people.”

Yang acknowledges (rightly) that president-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is unlikely to engage in the same kind of risk-taking that Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), her predecessor from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was known for. Whether this has anything to do with Tsai’s advanced degree from the US, as Yang argues, is debatable. But there is no doubt that Tsai has indeed adopted a more careful, if not conciliatory, position vis-à-vis China (in all fairness to Chen, we should point out that he also opened his presidency with a soft stance on China, which hardened only after Beijing refused to return the favor and when, seeking a second term, he turned to “deep green” elements in Taiwan for support).

Tsai’s move toward the safe political center, Yang says, suggests that neither of the first two scenarios will likely come to pass in the next four or eight years. “If Taiwan is unwilling to either hold hands with mainland China or declare independence,” he writes, “it seems the only option now is to maintain the status quo, with no unification in sight.”

However, Yang proposes that a third possible path to unification exists:

the political climate in Taiwan undergoes drastic changes, creating a rift between the two [“green” and “blue”] factions. One faction leans overwhelmingly toward Beijing, and regains control of Taiwan with the military support of mainland China, bringing about unification.

The author’s conclusions stem from discussions he claims to have had with 15 observers from the “deep green” and “deep blue” camps during a visit to Taiwan.

From what follows, it is easy to tell that Yang hasn’t spent much time in Taiwan, that he is, to use a variation on a Graham Greene theme, a “quiet Chinese” way in over his head in the complexity of Taiwanese society. “For the first time,” he writes, “I witnessed the strong presence of factionalism within Taiwanese society.” He continues, “The opposition is so intense that neither faction now considers Beijing as their opponent or the largest threat; they see each other as sworn enemies.”

Yang then offers the two usual — and antipodal — positions: of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) as “a foreign power” that “oppressed and enslaved the Taiwanese people for decades” (green); and “if the KMT does not take power again, Taiwan will be trapped in the swamp of the pro-independence faction, and mainland China’s only option will be to use force” (blue).

Based on his discussions, the author observes that “the behaviors of both the ‘deep-green’ and ‘deep-blue’ camps are casting some serious doubt on democracy in Taiwan. Many of them have no trust in democracy and are only interested in power struggles.” Yang also remarks that the “vehemence with which” one of his deep blue interlocutors “went about attacking his opponents was something that I had only seen in the class struggles during the Cultural Revolution.”

The least of our worries is Yang’s failure to even attempt to mask his attempt to discredit Taiwan’s democracy or the hyperbole in which he engages by comparing a deep blue’s language to struggle sessions during the CR. Above all, the problem lies with his methodology — the 15 individuals he’s allegedly spoken with. Not only is this far too small a sample, but it is dangerously vulnerable to sample bias (and in fact I am convinced that his sample is biased). Yang gives the impression that the deep blue faction is something more substantial than the marginal factor that it has become in Taiwanese politics.

Undoubtedly, one can easily find and interview 15 deep blue individuals who will “vehemently” lambaste their enemies from the green camp (the unelectable dinosaurs from the New Party and the China Unification Promotion Party come to mind). But then again, one could also probably find an equal number of individuals here who believe that Taiwan should become the 51st U.S. state or return to Japan. The selection bias in Yang’s “sample” is so transparent that it undermines his entire argument (it would have helped if he had identified a few of them or at the very least said something about their affiliations). The fact of the matter is that the deep blues he describes are utterly irrelevant and insufficient in numbers to facilitate the kind of scenario (regaining control of Taiwan with the military support of mainland China) that he proposes. There is no doubt that such elements exist in Taiwan (e.g., Chang An-le, aka “White Wolf”) and that they will willingly cooperate with Beijing’s United Front and political warfare departments to undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions, but their efforts are easily countered by the overwhelming support within Taiwanese society and in both blue and green camps for Taiwan’s liberal-democratic way of life. In fact, even “deep blue” supporters of the Beijing-friendly Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) told me before she was elbowed out of the presidential race by her own party that the Republic of China isn’t the People’s Republic of China and that preserving their democracy was a key consideration. His claim that the two camps see each other, and not Beijing, as the main enemy is patently false; at a minimum, it attempts to portray animosity between two neighborhood chain gangs as a reflection of larger social forces, a view that entirely skips the consolidation of values that has occurred in Taiwan over the past three decades.

Yang’s error is to have isolated the most extremist views within Taiwanese society—those who, he claims, have “a soft spot for Beijing and the mainland” — without assessing whether such opinions have any traction within society, and to suggest that they are significant. They simply aren’t.


J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, and an associate researcher with the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. The views expressed in this article are his alone.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White