April 17, 2014, by Editor
The ‘United Front’ Unveiled: Through The Looking Glass on Cross-Strait Relations
Written by Ben Goren.
In a ground-breaking paper in the Journal Of Current Chinese Affairs entitled The KMT–CCP Forum: Securing Consent for Cross-Strait Rapprochement, André Beckershoff examines the close relationship between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The relationship between the two political parties has previously been the subject of debate within Taiwan, and labelled a ‘United Front’ by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and pro-Taiwan academics. Beckershoff’s paper is arguably the first substantial analysis conducted outside Taiwan of how the KMT and CCP have cooperated to shape and constrain cross-Strait relations between Taiwan and China, to the benefit of both parties’ political agendas. Beckershoff demonstrates how the KMT and CCP began the most active phase of their cooperation following the defeat of KMT candidate Lien Chan in the 2004 Presidential elections. Lien re-organised a private organisation as the National Policy Foundation (NPF) and set about building a relationship with CCP elites to discuss how the KMT could act as an informal bridge across the Strait in the absence of formal ties between the ROC and PRC, and in the context of strained relations following Beijing’s refusal to interact with the democratically elected DPP administration. In 2005 Lien travelled to China to meet President Hu Jintao. There they initiated the KMT-CCP Forum, at which a ‘Five Point Vision’ was determined for how the two parties would move forward in tandem to limit the ability of Taiwanese to reinforce and deepen Taiwan’s de facto independence, whilst at the same time creating the conditions for closer economic integration prior to advancing on to ‘political discussions’.
Between 2005 and 2014, the KMT-CCP Forum has initiated and concluded extensive talks and agreements that, following the KMT return to power with the election of Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, have via semi-official government organisations of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) in Taiwan, and the Association of Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) in China, transformed party to party discussion points into specific policies and agreements, most notably the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2011 and the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) in 2013. Analysing the content of the activities of the KMT-CCP Forum, Beckershoff notes that “the recent political cooperation across the Strait rests on the shoulders of party-to-party contacts, academic connections and business resources, rather than more conventional, formal and institutionalized intergovernmental channels”. Since 2008, this cooperation has been increasingly formalised and institutionalised, most notably this year in the first ever meeting between cabinet level heads from the Mainland Affairs Council (Taiwan) and the Taiwan Affairs Office (China). In contrast to SEF-ARATS talks, the more regular KMT-CCP Forum meetings have all taken place in China, away from the spotlight of Taiwanese media, yet the connection between the two levels of talks, especially since 2008, has been intimate. For example, Beckershoff explains how “the fourth (KMT-CCP) Forum in December 2008 laid the groundwork for the agreement before it was passed on to the SEF-ARATS channel to be negotiated in detail and signed” and “After the KMT regained power in Taiwan, it proceeded with a deepening of the Forum’s dovetailing with the state apparatus. Starting with the fourth Forum, cabinet-level officials in Taiwan began to participate in the event.” Furthermore, the KMT connected the Legislative Yuan to the Forum and the SEF-ARATS mechanisms by engaging the participation of twenty KMT legislators in the Cross-Strait Forum. Thus the party have actively tried to appropriate the main body of legislative deliberation and law making in Taiwan to ensure that it can formally legalise a policy agenda discussed and determined in secret, and semi-formalised as agreements via semi-official Government bodies that are little more than visible mouthpieces for party to party, not country to country, negotiations.
The effect of this United Front on Taiwanese democracy and electoral preferences has been swift and deep. By working with the CCP, the KMT was able to deliver results in cross-Strait interactions that were blocked by Beijing during the DPP administration of 2000 to 2008. This allowed the KMT to present itself as a party of peaceful relations and ‘positive action’, delivering economic benefits to certain sectors of the Taiwanese economy, and industry opinion leaders which in turn gave them an electoral advantage over the DPP and its stymied cross-strait policy. This in turn certainly aided the return to power of the KMT in 2008. Where the KMT appeared competent in dealing with cross-strait relations, the DPP looked antagonistic. Where the KMT seemed to be building ‘peace’, the DPP appeared to embrace ‘tension’. Where the KMT was ‘expanding’ business opportunities, the DPP was ‘isolating’ Taiwan. Yet there has been little to no international analysis of the way in which the KMT essentially made a deal with the CCP to bypass and undermine Taiwanese democratic processes to seize control of and run Taiwan’s relationship with China outside of formal democratic institutions, against the wishes of the legitimately elected DPP administrations, and n a vacuum of political accountability and transparency that left most Taiwanese completely emasculated from input in the direction the United Front was taking cross-strait relations. It bears remembering that the KMT did this outside of any democratic or legal mechanism that could restrict or restrain the impact of their United Front activities. To the frustration of many Taiwanese, international media, scholars such as China analyst Bonnie Glaser (Senior Advisor for the Freeman Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies), as well as international political actors such as the US State Department, have consciously acted as amplifiers of United Front talking points by by reiterating, reinforcing, and encouraging the dissemination of the theme of ‘warmer cross-Strait relations’ without ever providing the context for them or highlighting their conditional and anti-democratic nature. In this sense then, the CCP and KMT have utilised willing international partners, many of whom are financially invested in enterprises in China, as another arm of the United Front, isolating dissenting voices in Taiwan as ‘running against the tide’ and ‘seeking to turn the clock back’. Those who raised concerns and objections have found themselves shouting into the wind, or, in a description that reflects the inability of so many so called international analysts and journalists to understand what is happening on the ground in cross-strait relations, playing Mozart to cows. Too many of those cows have, it appears, become accustomed to a steady flow of Chinese corn and are reluctant to shift diet for fear of not being fed at all.
The United Front has arguably not only changed the content and scope of cross-strait relations but has also worked to limit the terms of debate within Taiwanese political discourse and constrain the outcomes that the electoral process produces. It has done so mainly via use of the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’, an convenient remoulding of a meeting between ROC and PRC representatives that actually ended not in consensus but an unbridgeable divide as to the definition of ‘One China’. In 2000 a prominent member of the KMT elite, Su Chi, claimed that there had been consensus after all – that both sides agreed to have their own definition. China has denied this ever since but that did not prevent President Ma from using this to legitimate the KMT-CCP Forums and talks and claim them as a basis for ‘progress’ in cross-strait relations. As Beckershoff concisely explains, “the KMT–CCP Forum gives the narrative of the 1992 consensus a practical manifestation. Every meeting and every enacted decision refers to the One China principle as the foundation of the party-to-party dialogue, thereby linking all the progress in cross-Strait relations, especially the advantages and concessions made to Taiwan, to the 1992 consensus.” Thus, when the DPP rejects the ‘1992 Consensus’ this allows the United Front to equate that to trying to destroy ‘progress’ in cross-strait relations, which is immediately perceived as an threat to Taiwanese businesses who have invested in economic relationships with Chinese companies.
Furthermore, Beijing plays its part reinforcing the KMT domestically by making explicit its projected displeasure should Taiwanese democracy deliver an administration that does not want to be constrained by the United Front policy agenda. For example, in a recent response to debate over the CSSTA, Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Fan Liqing warned that “The normal process of equal cross-strait consultations should not be interfered with, nor obstructed.” Aside from seeking to normalise and institutionalise what are actually very unequal and asymmetrical cross-strait ‘consultations’ (in which a majority of Taiwanese have no input and no ability to change), Fan clearly indicates that Taiwanese democracy has its limits – Beijing will not tolerate it actively shaping cross-strait relations. In other words, Taiwan’s de facto political and economic sovereign democracy is only acceptable when it has no real power to express and execute an independent China policy. As the KMT struggles in democratic Taiwan to implement permanent hegemonic control of Taiwan’s relationship with China, regardless of whether it is in power or has a democratic mandate to do so, China acts as a two-faced gatekeeper: ‘conceding’ benefits to demonstrate the efficacy of KMT policy, and threatening Taiwan to persuade Taiwanese from taking back control of that aspect of their political sovereignty and international relations. This is the manifested goal of the United front. Constraining Taiwanese democracy is the shared ideological and policy goal of both the KMT and the CCP.
In this sense then, one could argue that the Chinese Civil War didn’t end in the 1990s but was transposed, from an ideological and territorial contest between the KMT and CCP, to a battle between the KMT and those Taiwanese who were seeking to extend and deepen democratic reforms and practice and actualise a process of transitional justice. Arising out of this fundamental shift in KMT-CCP relations, the United Front has had three distinct phases – the first in 1992 when the two parties came to recognise that they shared a common enemy in Taiwanese democracy, de facto independence, rising Taiwanese national identification and a desire for self determination. The second started following Lien Chan’s visit top China in 2005, and the third began with the institutionalisation of KMT-CCP cooperation post 2008. Accordingly, despite claims by President Ma in a recent video conference with the CSIS to the contrary, the cross-Strait political ‘Status-Quo’ has not remained unchanged but has been substantially altered, moving Taiwan ever closer into the orbit of Chinese political influence, and at the cost of Taiwanese democratic choice and self determination. Underpinning this is the KMT’s use of a convenient and inaccurate interpretation of the ROC Constitution, and its amendments, to claim that unification is a predetermined constitutionally mandated outcome.
It should be clear to any serious academic studying processes of democratisation that the ROC Constitution has been manipulated and amended to become a birdcage by which the KMT blocks Taiwanese democratic reform, or law, which moves towards outcomes it, and the CCP, find unacceptable. For the KMT the ROC on Taiwan is their nation, it is their link to China, and it is the foundation of their identity as a Chinese people and party. The ROC and its constitution belongs to them, not the Taiwanese. This perhaps explains why President Ma immediately altered the cross-strait ‘Status-Quo’ after assuming office in 2008 when he declared that the Constitution regards Taiwan as only an area of the ROC, and not as mutually equivalent terms as a majority of Taiwanese came to perceive post-democratisation. According to Ma, Taiwan is not a nation and it belongs to the ROC. As the guardians of the ROC, the KMT feel Taiwan is their province, whose political future and identity they are the ultimate arbiters of. Taiwanese are not a nationality and Taiwan does not have international relations with China. Despite this outmoded Martial Law era thinking being rejected by the majority of Taiwanese, the KMT has attempted, via educational reforms and government propaganda, to revive and institutionalise them, and the United Front has thus far proven a very effective mechanism i helping them to do so. Taiwanese democracy then is riven by an eternal schism deliberately maintained by the KMT and CCP as they resist Taiwanese self-determination and freedom of democratic influence upon the nature and shape of the nation’s identity and its relations with China. The United Front will not allow Taiwanese democracy to mature or transcend this schism, freezing the nation in an eternal ‘blue-green’ battle played out in scuffles in the Legislative Yuan and an increasingly self-censoring pro-United Front media that capitalises on, and encourages, confrontation, division, and antagonism, mostly as spectacle and distraction.
Berkershoff concludes his analysis by warning that the United Front has deliberately shaped a ‘cross-Strait peace’ that is antithetical to Taiwanese democracy and which is the preserve of the KMT only. He astutely points out that, “the politicization of the Taiwan Strait in general and the emergence of the KMT–CCP Forum in particular are not simply reactions to quasi-natural economic and social processes. They are part of a conscious strategy for legitimating the transformation of cross-Strait relations. Transnational politics across the Strait represent a political form which both results from and ultimately aims to resolve the political standstill across the Strait. But the fact that the transnational political channels are limited to the pan-blue camp has already severely distorted Taiwan’s democracy.” The United Front, President Ma, and the KMT, should not therefore be lauded for delivering ‘peaceful cross-strait relations’, for they are little more than a highly conditional and tenuous state of affairs that can only survive if the KMT is in power. Instead they should be censured and condemned for acting as a regressive force upon Taiwanese democracy, for deliberately seeking to constrain and nullify Taiwanese expression of de facto national sovereignty, and ultimately for trying to permanently remove the right of Taiwanese to express and execute through democratic means their own decision as to the content and depth of their relationship to China into the future.