The Closing of the Chinese Mind

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Why you need to know

‘If we are to avoid major tensions in the Taiwan Strait, there will have to be a time when the people in Chinese academia and government who actually know what is going on in Taiwan are allowed to speak up.’


Given how often Beijing has stated that Taiwan is a “core interest” of China, it is fascinating — disturbing, in fact — how little Chinese “experts” seem to understand Taiwanese society, even after eight years of much more frequent interactions between the two sides. Since Chinese annexationist designs on the democratic nation-state remain a potential cause of armed conflict between China and the U.S., one would hope that influential Chinese thinkers would be more refined in their analyses of the situation. Sadly, whether as a result of groupthink, fear of angering Beijing authorities or blind nationalism, Chinese academics are simply not delivering.

No doubt there are academics in China who have a better grasp of what’s going on in Taiwan and the decades-long developments there that have contributed to its distinct identity. The problem, however, is that those tend to remain silent, or their views are, due to censorship, not given the oxygen they need to spread.

Consequently, editorial pages and TV shows are instead occupied by mediocrities or “experts” whose eagerness to put their nationalistic fervor on display results in absurd positions on Taiwan that, aside from their unintended comic value, contribute nothing to de-conflicting of the always dangerous situation in the Taiwan Strait. Although it is difficult, due to the closed political system in China, to know the full extent of the advice that President Xi Jinping (習近平) receives from his brain trust — think tank types, academics, professors, journalists and so on — it is hard to imagine, given what is made public, that such advice conforms with reality. In fact, highly ideological authoritarian systems such as exists in China often encourage groupthink and avoidance of information that is likely to contradict the preferences of the top leadership. 

One example of top academics who, for one reason or another, are completely off when it comes to Taiwan is Yan Xuetong (閻學通). Dean, no less, of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University, Yan is also the author of books on ancient Chinese strategy, editor-in-chief of the Chinese Journal of International Politics and president of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Management Board. I use Yan as an example not out of special animosity toward him, but rather because of his prominence and the representativeness of his views.

In a recent interview with the CCP mouthpiece Global Times on the sidelines of the just-concluded World Peace Forum (of which he is secretary general) in Beijing, Yan shared his opinions on the future direction of the triangular relationship between Taiwan, China and the U.S.

“It won’t be long before the Taiwan issue becomes the core divergence between China and the U.S.,” Yan says. “The separatist principle adopted by Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen [蔡英文] is unlikely to change. One consensus between Chinese and U.S. scholars is that the strategic conflict between China and the U.S. will sharpen.”

What President Tsai’s “separatist principle” is, Yan doesn’t say. Nor, for that matter, does it seem to register to him — and the many other experts like him — that if there indeed is a “separatist principle” in Taiwan, it exists independently from the leader at the top and is very much the norm among the majority of Taiwanese who simply have no interest in being absorbed by a country whose patriotic narrative, vision, goals, way of life and political system have little in common with them, shared language notwithstanding. What Yan is doing is repeating the CCP propaganda which claims that only a small coterie of “separatists” (i.e., the DPP) opposes unification with China. Worse, it personalizes the sentiment by blaming it on the leader. Taiwan doesn’t need Tsai—it doesn’t even need the DPP—to not want to be part of the People’s Republic of China, something that the pro-establishment intelligentsia in China seems unable to come to grips with (or cannot say).

Yan then turns to something that he should know more about: “core interests.”

“China defines Taiwan as its core interests, while the U.S. sees arms sales to Taiwan as its core interests,” he observes. “When the two sides discussed about respecting each other's core interests, the first divergence was on the Taiwan issue. The ‘One China, One Taiwan’ advocated by Washington contradicts Beijing’s reunification [sic] efforts.”

Arms sales to Taiwan a “core” U.S. interest? Washington advocating “One China, One Taiwan”? If they are indeed a core interest of the U.S., then why is it that Taiwan has not been able to procure the kind of weapons from the U.S. that would dramatically alter the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait, which has irreparably shifted in Beijing’s favor in the past decade? Where are the submarines? The F-35s? THAAD? SM-3s? Aegis destroyers? U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are not an “interest,” but rather a means to an end, and in this case it is to help democratic Taiwan defend itself against an expansionist authoritarian giant while giving it the assurance it needs to be able to negotiate peacefully with Beijing. Surely Yan, what with his many titles and access, should know that. Or is it that he simply cannot say these things, lest doing so compromise his position?

“If Taiwan goes on the path of separatism, this conflict will be inevitably intensified,” he then says. For once he is right, except, of course, that being already separate, Taiwan cannot go down the path of separatism. It is, instead, stubborn resistance to annexation. And if the conflict inevitably intensifies, as he claims, then the causative factor will be Beijing’s refusal to accept reality, not irrational and belligerent “splittists.”

Yan then moves on to other things, such as the recent THAAD deployment in South Korea, where his perspective is also, shall we say, self servingly myopic. If those are China's best strategic thinkers, we're in for a period of serious trouble.

I refuse to believe that every Chinese academic is this wrong about Taiwan and the dynamics that continue to push the two societies apart. But if we are to avoid major tensions in the Taiwan Strait, there will have to be a time when the people in Chinese academia and government who actually know what is going on in Taiwan are allowed to speak up. The continued propagation of fiction, due to lack of knowledge or cowardliness, can only lead us down the path to catastrophe.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White

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