Odds are after this weekend’s Jan. 16 presidential election, Taiwan (an island which Beijing says is officially part of one China but de facto self-governing), will be ruled by Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen.
The DPP is an organization created decades go to push for the formal independence of Taiwan. Beijing has for years made clear that any such move would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
Yet even without such a rupture, which seems far-fetched in the current upbeat mood on the both sides of the Straits, Beijing is especially wary of any step that might rock the region’s very delicate political balance. With the Chinese economy hitting a speed bump in the past months, with a Hong Kong anti-communist student movement still brewing, tensions in the South/East China Sea and with Japan still high, any “wrong” development in Taipei about Beijing or in Beijing about Taipei could kindle dangerous chain reactions.
An authoritative and comprehensive book that was recently published in Taiwan, Bamai zhongguo (“Taking the Pulse of China”), offers some key insights on the sensitive conundrum facing China and Taiwan. It was written by Reuters Beijing correspondent Benjamin Lim and deals with everything that Taiwan deeply worries about — Xi Jinping, Taiwan, Sino-US relations, and the future of China.
Born in Manila to Chinese parents, Lim studied engineering in the Philippines and Chinese in Taiwan. He has been a journalist for more than 30 years.
According to Lim, the Taiwan elections aren’t simply a contest between old-fashioned Nationalists of the KMT and the newly ambitious DPP. The huge elephant in the room is China, with its potentially enormous impact on the future of the island and the rest of the world.
We don’t know how the Taiwanese public will react to Lim’s work. But the author has a special place in the hearts of islanders. Unlike other Hong Kong and Taiwanese China-watchers, Lim is a longtime resident of China, where he has worked for over two decades for Reuters, getting more scoops than any other journalist in town. Unlike other western observers, he is ethnic Chinese, making it easy for him to mix with the locals and understand them inside out.
His voice then can’t be ignored at a moment when the DPP, critical of Beijing, will likely elect a new president, Madame Tsai, with the island’s subsequent policies having a definite impact on the future of Beijing and the region.
China, as Lim explains, is in the midst of delicate transition both internally and internationally, and he underscores the point that there are a series of problems plaguing China, although he dismisses the theory of a coming collapse of the country.
“At the fall of the Soviet Union, many party members in China took their heads in their hands and started crying, fearing they would be next. But 20 years after the Chinese communist party has become stronger not weaker,” writes Lim. The party has huge reserves of stamina and the ability to change and adapt. So hoping and working for the collapse of communist rule in China could prove disappointing, the author argues.
However, this is not the end of the story. The nine sets of problems Lim sees are about the growing social differences between haves and have-nots, the lack of freedom of expression, and the police crackdown on religion and media. There is the cumbersome and ossified education system, that is leaving a growing number of Chinese unhappy. But there is also the complexity of the Chinese Communist Party’s response which goes well beyond the simple dilemma of, as Lim puts it, “zuo ma, bu zuo ye ma” (you get insulted whatever you do, if you do one thing or not).
The central question, according to the author, is how Chinese president Xi Jinping can drive changes in the face of such obstacles. He didn’t have his life served to him on a silver platter, and his personal and political life was full of ups and downs, which made him tough, resilient, and also nimble. “In being soft he is hard; in being tough, he is soft,” is how Lim describes Xi.
He goes further by providing some deep insights into Xi’s character that could influence the future government of Taiwan’s political calculations regarding China.
Lim notes that Xi has a deep interest in Buddhism and religion, and speculates that Buddhism could play a bigger role in bringing Beijing and Taipei closer together. At the same time, he paints Xi is also a reformer, while making clear he is no Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought about the end of the USSR. As a political comparison, Xi is said to be closer to Jiang Jingguo, the president of Taiwan who initiated political reforms on the island.
But in order to roll out the political reforms for which China is nearly ready, writes Lim, China’s leader must play an old game: act as a “leftist” (a communist conservative in Chinese political jargon) and then move to the “right” (in favor of liberal reforms). This is what Xi is doing.
This assessment of Xi’s political strategy should play a crucial role in influencing the future choices of Taiwan’s leaders toward China. The role that Lim’s book plays in the island’s internal politics over the next weeks and months could also be very important in shaping the delicate discussions between Beijing and Taipei that are bound to take place.
For Beijing the bottom line is that for the next few months, its relations with Taiwan, the island squarely in the center its political interests, should proceed smoothly and with no mishaps.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Research Associate of China Renmin University. The author of Asia Times’ Sinograph column, he was also Asia Editor for the Italian daily La Stampa and Beijing correspondent for Il Sole di 24 Ore, and has written for numerous Italian and international publications. He was the first foreigner admitted to the graduate program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he is the author of eight books on China and a frequent commentator on CCTV.