In a joint 1992 meeting between representatives from the Chinese (PRC) and Taiwanese (ROC) leadership, longstanding disagreements over territorial sovereignty produced serious debate. At the conclusion of the talks, a ‘consensus’ of sorts emerged, which stated: “there is only one China, but each side of the Taiwan Strait is free to form their own interpretation of what this means.” Despite the consensus in place – albeit one of questionable legitimacy to many – efforts toward unification or outright autonomy have stagnated. Taiwan is not under the direct control of the PRC, and reunification does not appear to be a prospect in the near future. However, despite infighting and gridlock among political elites, a different narrative has surfaced among the general Taiwanese public. Despite a shared cultural and political history, failures in diplomacy and soft power have compounded perceived differences.
Nearly ten years ago, an article from The Economist alluded to the development of a “distinct [Taiwanese] identity.” This shift in self-perception, they contended, is illustrated by a rise in “the number of those who identify as Taiwanese” and a decline in “those who see themselves purely as Chinese.” In the years since the article’s publication, Taiwanese identity has become even more pronounced. According to polling conducted in June 2011, nearly 54% of the population views themselves as distinctly “Taiwanese” compared to 40% viewing themselves as both “Chinese and Taiwanese.” Those who identify as exclusively Chinese are a shrinking minority.
For Beijing, these trends are surely worrisome, especially as it pertains to long-term reunification prospects. They signify increasing differentiation and a desire for self-governance among the Taiwanese people. Yet the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not responded to this shift in public opinion. Instead of catering to Taiwan’s general populace, they continue to target their efforts at the political and economic elites. These efforts manifest themselves in closed-door meetings aimed at economic collaboration over social cohesion. Examples of this shift are visible in the passage of the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, or ECFA. The legislation aimed to “gradually reduce tariffs on goods, remove non-tariff trade barriers, open up service sectors, and lift investment restrictions, thereby promoting closer cross-strait economic cooperation and interaction.” While agreements like ECFA surely bring the two countries closer together economically, they neglect the hearts and minds of common Taiwanese.
Moreover, Chinese foreign policy continues to grab headlines for all the wrong reasons. The recent ‘white paper’ from the PRC on Hong Kong, which stated “the high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization of central leadership,” troubles the general Taiwanese public.
The Chinese government must understand the importance of soft power if reunification remains a top priority. When cultivating soft power, your actions do not occur in a vacuum—public relations matter. Authoritarian posturing towards Hong Kong influences diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and despite symbolic attempts at unification by the PRC, their overarching narrative remains one of hard power. By ignoring the concerns held by the average citizens of Taiwan, public perception continues to shift away from a shared “Chinese” identity. To fundamentally transform Cross-Strait relations, the PRC needs to reevaluate its stance on diplomacy and soft power.
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The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff, editors, or governors.