The head of China’s National Association of Taiwan Compatriots (中華全國台灣同胞聯誼會) on Tuesday warned of the dangers of “soft Taiwan independence” at a cross-Strait forum in China.

Su Hui (蘇輝), chairwoman of the association, made the remarks during the opening ceremony of the 25th Cross-Strait Relations Symposium in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. The forum, which brought together close to 100 academics, was sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ (CASS) Institute of Taiwan Studies.

During her remarks, Su said that with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) back in power in Taiwan after the Jan. 16 elections, China had to be on high alert for various forms of “Taiwan independence” and “separatist forces.”

The “peaceful development” of relations across the Taiwan Strait is under “serious threat,” Su said, adding that “separatist” forces in Taiwan were using ever-changing tactics and strategies. This includes what she called a “sugar-coated” form of “soft Taiwan independence,” which is more “covert” and “insidious” and therefore could cause “extensive” harm to cross-strait relations.

Those forces, Su said, are seeking to incite “hostility” and “confrontation” in the Taiwan Strait to harm national sovereignty and cause instability.

Consequently, compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait need to have a clear understanding and “firmly oppose” secessionist forces, no matter what shape they come in.

Ironically, Su then emphasized that relations across the Strait are more complex than is normally thought, and encouraged better understanding through more exchanges, especially among youth learning, employment, and entrepreneurship.

Su is certainly not alone in China in failing to understand the dynamics behind (to use her term) Taiwan’s “soft independence.” Like many others, she seems to regard independence as the outcome of DPP machinations rather than what it really is, a widespread desire by the majority of people in Taiwan to maintain the way of life and political system that already exists in their country. In other words, “soft independence” — which I have often referred to as “civic nationalism” — is not so much momentum towards something, but rather the preservation of something that already exists. It is the common ground that unites the majority of both DPP and Kuomintang (KMT) supporters, defined by support for the “status quo” (de facto independence) and de jure independence. Those overlapping values is what gives Taiwan its strength, which would be all the more formidable if it were more openly acknowledged and not conveniently dispensed with for short-term political gain at home. Su is right to argue that the matter is complex, but her reference point is off the mark; it is not more complex because the DPP has become more cunning, but rather it is so because of the nature of Taiwan’s society.

If Su and her compatriots want to talk about “soft independence,” they therefore need to better understand the local conditions in Taiwan and realize that they have a much greater problem on their hands: that “soft independence” isn’t a conspiracy by the DPP, as she seems to argue, but rather a historical development in Taiwan that, arguably, has existed largely outside political institutions and is much more closely related to Taiwan’s idiosyncratic status as well as process of liberalization/democratization over the past three decades.

And although Su is right to point out that the relationship is “complex,” none of that complexity will be resolved if China continues to regard “better understanding” as a conveyor belt for unification. Far too often Chinese officials and academics have encouraged better understanding without realizing that so far China’s approach to such exchanges hasn’t emphasized learning and understanding, but rather one-way convincing — and failing that, coercion.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White