Two high-ranking Chinese officials with responsibilities for relations with Taiwan have been suddenly removed from their posts in the past two months.

Both dismissals were linked to corruption. However, one analyst in Taiwan suggests Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) may be using the officials as a scapegoat for a “failed” cross-Strait policy, and another warns Taiwanese doing business in China may be targeted in the future.

Zheng Lizhong (鄭立中), an official previously responsible for Taiwan affairs and still closely linked to cross-Strait relations, had been removed from China’s top advisory body, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported late last week. And in January, SCMP reported that Gong Qinggai (龔清概), deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of the State Council – described as a “clean-handed” and a “rising star” – was likewise being investigated for corruption.

Read more:
The ‘Risky Business’ of China’s Extradition Demands on the West
A Threat to Xi? The Emergence of China's Wang Qishan Faction
Fears for Cross-Strait Economic Backlash after Trump-Tsai Phone Call
How Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign Reduces Local Discretion and Policy Innovation

J. Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute. He notes that Chen Yunlin (陳云林), China’s former Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) chairman, faced similar accusations in late 2009 and suggests the changes may have more to do with China’s approach to Taiwan.

“Looks like Xi needs more scapegoats for a policy that has entirely failed to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese,” Cole says. “Since authoritarian regimes cannot admit failing (or convince themselves that they cannot), they tend to attribute failures to a handful of individuals, and portray this as errors in application – in this case supposed corruption – rather than to policy failure as a whole.”

Cole does see the personnel changes as indicative of a new policy toward Taiwan by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

“The CCP wouldn't admit its approach to Taiwan has completely failed; since the Party seems to have something on just about everybody, alleged corruption is the way for President Xi to clear up the air,” Cole adds.

After President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took office in May 2016, Beijing has cooled ties with Taipei. It has also blocked Taiwan’s involvement in a number of international institutions, saying that Taiwan’s participation should be made with respect to the “one China” principle and the “political basis” of the so-called 1992 consensus, which the Tsai administration has refused to recognize.

Ross D. Feingold is an analyst who advises clients on political risk including Taiwan-China relations. He suggests that recent personnel changes at the Taiwan Affairs Office could simply be part of an ongoing rearrangement of personnel as President Xi Jinping organizes the party apparatus prior to this year’s 19th National Congress.

“Regardless of who are the individuals serving in the Taiwan Affairs Office, only President Xi Jinping will decide whether or not China will accept how President Tsai Ing-wen describes the bilateral relationship, and whether to re-engage with Taiwan on a government-to-government basis,” he says.

Feingold describes China’s policy adjustment following Taiwan’s 2016 election of a DPP majority legislature and a DPP president as “an ongoing mix of anger and friendship depending on who the target is, such as President Tsai’s government, Kuomintang leaders, non-DPP municipal governments, retired military officers, Taiwan’s tourism sector, or Taiwan companies that invest in, or sell to, China.”

But he does warn that for Taiwanese companies doing business in China, corruption charges linked to senior officials involved in Taiwan relations indicates that practices previously considered business-as-usual are no longer feasible and past actions may come under scrutiny.

“This could also manifest itself in the prosecution of business people from Taiwan involved in making payments to local or central government officials, even if at the time the payment was made the payer viewed it as money spent on facilitation rather than a bribe,” Feingold says.

He further suggests the TAO moves could be a sign of potential repercussions from the historic phone call between U.S. President-elect Donald Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, which took place on Dec. 2, 2016.

“We knew that one possible response by China after the teleconference between President Tsai and then President-elect Donald Trump was that the previous United Front tactic of befriending Taiwan companies could change to an operating environment where the activities in China of Taiwan companies face greater scrutiny whether through permitting denials, audits, lost procurement sales, and now, corruption investigations,” he says.

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council did not respond to requests for comments on this story.

Editor: Olivia Yang