Written by J. Michael Cole.

According to reports in Taiwanese media on 4 September, China’s former point man on Taiwan affairs, Chen Yunlin, may have become the latest target of President Xi Jinping’s “anti-corruption” campaign. In an odd twist, Chen also appears to be blamed for stalled progress in cross-strait relations and Beijing’s efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese.

In the current political environment in China, there is nothing overly surprising about the former head of the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and ex-chairman of the semiofficial Association For Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS)—as well as his spouse, Lai Xiaohua—coming under scrutiny by the  Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) for possible misappropriation of funds. The Chinese system is such that virtually any official will at some point have done things that constitute corruption. Under President Xi, such infractions are then investigated and brought to light whenever an official has fallen out of favour, a process rise and fall that is reminiscent of the fate of many an official under the U.S.S.R.’s Joseph Stalin.

Far more interesting is the fact that revelations that Chen is being investigated come to light amid a series of internal reports, requested by Mr. Xi, into the reasons why the unification of Taiwan remains as elusive a goal today as it was seven years ago before the “China friendly” Ma Ying-jeou assumed the presidency in Taipei and launched a series of measures to improve ties with Beijing. Mr. Chen was deputy head and then head of the TAO during the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian presidencies, and headed ARATS from 2008 until 2013. Conceivably, it the 2008-2013 timeframe constituted the critical period in cross-strait relations, with the signing of several agreements, the opening of tourism, and the relaxation of various rules concerning investment and exchanges between people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. As chief negotiator, Mr. Chen visited Taiwan in November 2008, sparking mass protests and arguably sowing the seeds of future action by civil society against the government’s dealings with China.

According to the high-level sources quoted in the local media, Mr. Xi ordered the reports after the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) unexpectedly poor performance in the 29 November 2014 “nine in one” local elections, in which it also lost control of Taipei City. Mr. Xi and his close entourage reportedly were fed poor intelligence about the KMT’s prospects in the race and were taken aback when the KMT was pummelled at the polls. The KMT’s Sean Lien, the closest thing to a Taiwanese “princeling” who like his father, Lien Chan, enjoys a close relationship with officials in Beijing, fared poorly in Taipei against Ko Wen-je, a political neophyte who was running as an independent.

What has also troubled Beijing has been the lack of palpable progress on the “re-unification” front, a situation that was driven home when tens of thousands of student-led protesters in March and April 2014 occupied and surrounded the Legislative Yuan in Taipei to block implementation of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) and a subsequent Trade-in-Goods Agreement. Though it may have come as a surprise to Beijing, the Sunflower Movement was both a manifestation and source of a new identity among the Taiwanese which emerged in large part due to the greater contact that had occurred between China and Taiwan since 2008. President Ma, whose ability to deliver what Beijing wanted was already weighed down by democratic checks and balances, never fully recovered from the occupation. From that moment on, progress in cross-strait relations not only lost its momentum: it practically came to a standstill. As a result, Beijing increasingly showed signs of impatience and accused the Taiwan side of dragging its feet, such as on the planned opening of reciprocal representative offices.

Initially, the individuals who were asked to prepare a report for Mr. Xi explaining what had gone wrong blamed this on the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which presumably had “misled” the Taiwanese. Mr. Xi would have none of it and ordered that the drafters return to the drawing board. After several iterations, the approved report drew an accusatory finger at Chen Yunlin, who supposedly had relied “too heavily” on personal networks and contacts in the business community (evidently this would have greatly facilitated the corruption he stands accused of). The conclusion of the report was that Chen Yunlin’s “comprador”-based approach to cross-strait relations had failed to convince the Taiwanese of the material benefits of “peaceful” relations with Beijing and had in fact backfired by creating mounting resentment against China.

In other words, Chen Yunlin had “lost Taiwan,” and by becoming highly unpopular, President Ma had contributed to that outcome.

For all his faults, Mr. Chen is being unfairly accused by a regime that, despite multiple occasions to learn from Taiwan’s open society, stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the drivers of Taiwan’s distinct identity. Beijing seems to regard the trend lines that indicate a rising self-identification as Taiwanese and single-digit support for unification as a sign that it—the TAO, ARATS—has failed to properly communicate with the Taiwanese people and explain why its Taiwan policy, which is largely influenced by a belief in economic determinism, should be embraced by its 23 million people. The problem is that Beijing appears to have become a victim of its own propaganda, a phenomenon that may have been exacerbated by the authoritarian nature of its political system which discourages officials from providing their superiors with information that doesn’t fit the accepted model.

The reality is that most Taiwanese, even if few have actually reaped the benefits, already have a pretty good idea of the material advantages that might accrue from closer economic ties with China. However, while most are amenable to liberalized economic ties, only a very small number of them are willing to sacrifice their nationalism at the altar of economics. Thus, even if the segment of Taiwanese society that benefits from closer economic ties with China were substantially enlarged, it is unlikely that this would have a major incidence on self-identification and desire for unification. No amount of suasion by TAO or ARATS officials will change the fact that “Taiwanese consciousness” is informed not only by the island-nation’s separate rule since 1895 but, increasingly, by a “civic nationalism” that draws from Taiwan’s liberal democracy and the public expectations of transparency, fair play, justice, and accountability, all of them key ingredients of the Sunflower Movement recipe. For some reason, the leadership in Beijing, as well as those who keep it informed about developments in Taiwan, have failed to treat economic matters and nationalism as one and the same, or assume that the former could have primacy, and eventually substitute for, the latter. Although Mr. Chen may have played a role in reinforcing the myopia (and it is not inconceivable that his partners in Taiwan misled him into believing that he was on the right track), he can hardly be singled out for being wrong about Taiwan.

Thus as he faces investigation and a fall from grace, Mr. Chen stands as a convenient fall guy for a Taiwan policy that drew from the centre’s ideology and which never had a chance of succeeding. Mr. Chen may fall into oblivion (or worse, end up in jail), but as long as Beijing remains unable to appreciate the dynamics of Taiwanese identity, his successors at the TAO and ARATS will continue to get it wrong, and all of them will also one day stand accused of “losing Taiwan.”

Michael Cole is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the China Policy Institute, an Associate researcher with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) and Editor in Chief at Thinking Taiwan. Image Credit: CC by VIA Gallery/Flickr.