The Chinese government for years has – through bluff, bullying, bribery and a staggering amount of so-called “hurt feelings of the Chinese people” – managed to get the world to do its bidding to perpetuate their narrative. Alternating between thuggish, threatening behavior and tantrums, China has waged a long psychological united front war to great effect to perpetuate their highly specialized worldview and accentuate its power. Nations the world over– aside from a few countries like Vladimir Putin’s Russia – tiptoe around China, afraid of doing something that might set them off on another one of their temperamental tirades. Generations of diplomats have been trained to accept this behavior, so much so they panic at the slightest possibility of inadvertently causing the slightest insult to “one China” (never questioning its premise), and treat a visit by a pleasant, elderly man – he Dalai Lama – as a huge deal. In the last few weeks American president-elect Donald Trump has called them on their bluff and served notice he sees through their game. The implications for the Chinese leadership are potentially disastrous, both domestically and abroad.
Donald Trump has one goal: winning. In a related article I discussed at length the strategy and his tactics used during the election and how it is already starting to translate over to the world stage. In that article I stated this:
At the core, as he frequently states, is his love of winning, and yuge. He’s relentless in pursuit of it, he’s not afraid to set seeming outrageous goals, he’s not beset with too many scruples, he doesn’t play by the rules if they don’t suit him and he disposes of anyone in his path. He’s psychologically and mentally a predator in pursuit of ever bigger and better wins.
He has one basic strategy: Seize the initiative and never let it go. Never, ever. He employs a wide range of tactics to accomplish this, and which tactic he uses has much to do with what he wants from the other player, whether they are friend, foe, pawn or the object of his desire (the American electorate, particularly in key states, being his most recent conquest).
I also summarize the recent chain of events:
First, he takes a call from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, something no president or president-elect has done since the 1970s. Worse, from China’s perspective, he “called a spade a spade” by referring to her in a tweet as the President of Taiwan. He went on to – to the absolute horror of China – -to question the American “one China policy”, noting that Taiwan buys a significant amount of military hardware from the U.S. and that it is polite to take a congratulatory phone call from her and noting that he wanted a better deal on issues like trade and North Korea.
Then he announced that a long-time friend of China’s, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, is to be his ambassador to China, commenting: “He successfully developed close trade ties with China while serving as chief executive of the Hawkeye State,” Trump said. “That experience will serve him well as he represents America’s interests and further develops a mutually beneficial relationship with Chinese leadership.” This was followed by the choice of fierce China hawk Peter Navarro, author of Death by China as his pick for top trade negotiator.
What is Trump up to here diplomatically? First, he’s seized the initiative with the Chinese. China’s government is confused, concerned and don’t know what to do. He’s spotted one rule that China needs to play by to maintain its legitimacy with its own people – China’s one China Principle – and has grabbed on firmly to that cage China’s government is in, and shook it hard. Second, he’s seizing the initiative with the world’s diplomats and leaders – they have no idea what’s he’s going to do next. World leaders have been so browbeaten by China’s constant bullying attacks (much like Trump does to wear down some of his adversaries) about “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” they’ve been brainwashed into thinking this actually makes sense. Trump is forcing the world’s leaders and diplomats to rethink the premises underlying their relationships with China. That terrifies the Chinese Communist Party – their legitimacy depends on a return of China to great power status. China is shaken, Trump now has the initiative.
Further, when China seized an American research drone, the U.S. asked for it back. Had the shoe been on the other foot China would have howled and raged and demanded an apology, but the current administration did nothing of the sort. Donald Trump, however, sneered in a tweet that China could keep it. From a sitting president, that would have called out China on their bad behavior and kept the door open for retaliation by a Trump administration. China was no doubt nonplussed by his response.
Why Trump rattled China’s “one China” cage
In China’s civil war the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopted a united front strategy, which is today a network of organizations that – plus strict adherence to the CCP party line – is intended to get everyone on the same page singing to the same tune. This is done both overtly (for example, bullying this teenager) and covertly. They single-mindedly pursue this agenda wherever they can, even in the most petty of cases, like ripping pages out of brochures or having conniptions at conferences when Taiwanese are identified as Taiwanese. This massive propaganda effort has, up to now, largely yielded the results they wanted. Taiwan is only recognized diplomatically by 21 small-to-tiny nation states, is forced to compete in international sporting events as “Chinese Taipei,” is frequently barred from international organizations and forces them to deal with Taiwan through China and has convinced the vast majority of the population of China that Taiwan is a part of the motherland awaiting “reunification”. Even the international press frequently follows the Chinese line, using such phrases as “Taiwan, which has been self-ruled since the Republic of China government lost the civil war to the Communists in 1949 and retreated to Taiwan” and “Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province”.
The authoritarian Chinese state under the CCP derives its legitimacy– especially since the Tiananmen massacre – through two means: economic growth and “making China great again” (to borrow a phrase). Chinese empires have, for most of the last few thousand years, been the preeminent power in Asia. Chinese are taught they are members of a powerful civilization and by rights should be a pre-eminent power again. Central to this story is the so-called “century of humiliation,” when the Manchurian and then later the Republic of China governments repeatedly had to offer concessions to the European, American and Japanese imperialist powers. In spite of having suffered much worse at the hands of the Mongols and Manchurians – both of whom subjugated the entire Chinese empire and made them their subjects, which the Western imperialists never did – there is a crucial psychological difference: The Chinese were forced to accept that their culture was no longer pre-eminent, and they had to emulate what they had previous thought of the barbaric and racially inferior West in order to catch up. The Mongols and Manchurians were both excellent warrior nations, but no one considered them culturally superior to the Chinese, and both eventually started to emulate the Chinese as their dynasties wore on. For the first time they encountered a civilization –emanating out of Europe – that looked down on them as backward, not the other way around.
The CCP has made a huge mistake. It has elevated the “Taiwan issue” to an almost mythical status. They have been teaching their public that Taiwan is Chinese territory that was lost to the Japanese in the “century of humiliation” and that, backed by the imperialist Americans, allowed the Republic of China government they defeated in China in 1949 to survive – meaning the civil war hadn’t really ended in a complete victory for the CCP. They sold the public – and the world – on the idea that following the return of Hong Kong and Macau, that “reuniting” with their “compatriots” across the Taiwan Strait is the last piece in the puzzle to ending their national humiliation and is the fervent wish of all Chinese everywhere.
Unfortunately for China that’s not true, which is why Trump hit them hard, right in this weak spot. China is caught between a rock and a hard place. With Trump’s call to “Taiwan’s President” and his comment about not seeing why he has to follow the One China Policy, following the initial flurry of “he doesn’t know what he’s doing,” serious heavyweight articles in top international publications started to ask that very question: Why? Why is the U.S., or other countries, tiptoeing around China on this, when Taiwan is a prosperous liberal democracy, staunch ally and whose people don’t consider themselves to be Chinese and have no interest in being annexed by China? Why do countries play host to the Dalai Lama, but not Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文)?
This has caused the international media to ask those questions, and more and more are beginning to understand that China’s line is simply wrong. Only 3 percent of Taiwan’s population considers itself to be “Chinese only” (which drops to less than 1 percent if the over half million immigrants aren’t counted), with about one-third considering themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese – but for many of that minority that is an ethnic or cultural in the sense of being “Western” or “European” is for someone from Switzerland, not a national designation. Taiwanese are ethnically and culturally mixed, most notably between the indigenous population and settlers from China who starting coming over at about the same time as Americans settled North America in the 1600s in large numbers. Indigenous rulers maintained control over about one-third of Taiwan until into the 20th century, and the largely Chinese immigrants came in under Dutch, Spanish and Manchurian colonial authorities. Over the centuries Taiwanese culture had become distinct from China, and grew even further apart over the 20th century during 50 years of Japanese colonial rule. At the end of WWII, Japan was handed to the US and Taiwan to the Republic of China (ROC) to occupy on behalf of the allied powers. The new occupiers hated the Taiwanese, who didn’t speak Mandarin (they spoke Japanese, variants of Fujianese and Hakka from south China, and indigenous languages) and had fought on the Japanese side of the war. The ROC government within two years had wrecked Taiwan economically and corruption and violence by their soldiers had caused social breakdown, which led to protests. The occupiers responded with a massacre that left tens of thousands dead and imposed a brutal martial law regime that lasted until the late 1980s. When the ROC government lost the civil war in China to the communists in 1949, they formed a government in exile in Taiwan on what was technically still Japanese soil. Japan renounced claim to Taiwan in 1951, but it was never specified to whom. While the exiled ROC regime had some successes in making Taiwanese more “Chinese” – such as making them learn Mandarin – even the exiled government was living in a very different world than China, mingling with U.S. GIs and listening to rock n’ roll while China’s Red Guards ran amok during the Cultural Revolution. Since the 1980’s Taiwan has developed into a thriving democracy with strong social and civil institutions. Taiwan has been ruled separately from China for longer than Australia has been a country, and was already culturally very distinct before the Japanese colonial era started in 1895.
Taiwan is an independent, democratic state saddled with the constitution and name of a foreign government in exile. The current government in Taiwan is ruled by a party that identifies as Taiwanese and traditionally has campaigned for Taiwan to be normalized as the “Republic of Taiwan”, but the current president has promised to not do so to pacify China, which passed a law in 2005 mandating that China is legally bound to go to war if Taiwan does so – a move that the Chinese public would support. The Taiwanese public, and the current government, doesn’t support normalizing the name and constitution because of China’s threat of war, but would if that threat were removed.
Only 21 countries now diplomatically recognise Taiwan, and Taiwan is blocked by China from participating in the UN and in most international organizations under what China calls the “One China Principle”: that there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China. This is different from the U.S. “One China Policy,” which as Wikipedia notes: “The United States has not expressed an explicitly immutable statement regarding whether it believes Taiwan is independent or not. Instead, Washington simply states that they understand the PRC's claims on Taiwan as its own.” Many other countries have a similar formulation as the U.S.
There is nothing stopping the U.S. and many countries from recognizing Taiwan as a country. Countries haven’t done so for fear of offending China.
This is the weak spot Trump hit. If Trump wants to increase ties, either officially or unofficially, China has little recourse but bluster. Trade sanctions would likely do China more harm than good. China could cut orders to Boeing, but they’ve been playing the U.S. off of Europe for years, so this isn’t new. They could loosen sanctions against North Korea, but so far Chinese sanctions have been useless in stopping North Korea’s nuclear program, so no big loss. Threaten to sell arms to America’s enemies? China has Islamic terrorists of their own, they’re not about to help ISIS. Arm the Assad regime in Syria, or Iran? Not likely, they need Saudi oil and Assad is already supported by the Russians. If other countries join suit with the U.S., then China has even less leverage. The Japanese have recently been improving ties, much to the dismay of China.
What China is terrified of is Trump leading an international move to improve, or even normalize Taiwan’s situation. This would embarrass the Communists domestically, undercutting their case that they are a budding superpower. If widespread enough internationally, and the Taiwanese people overwhelmingly continue to reject Chinese identity and annexation by China, it could even cause the Chinese public to question their own government’s policy.
In theory, China could launch a trade war, or even launch a real war – but either would threaten the other pillar of the Communist legitimacy: their economy would tank. Plus, how much stomach would the Chinese public have for casualties after years of a one-child policy?
China really only would have one recourse: protest internationally and pin blame for the domestic audience. Aggressive actions short of war, but that blow over – like firing missiles off the coast of Taiwan like they did in the mid-1990s. Bullying smaller nations into continuing to accept their line. Economic and diplomatic reprisals leading to cooler ties and increased tensions. In short, causing an international diplomatic and economic stink with lots of bluff, but not really backed by much. Domestically they would blame imperialism, the “hegemonic USA and their Japanese lackeys,” and use it to stoke resentment – anything to disguise that the emperor has no clothes.
Editor: Edward White