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November 29, 2021 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1608

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, Conquering Taiwan Is A Matter Of Honor And 'Saving Face'

November 29, 2021 | By Chris King*
China | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1608

The Kuomintang government retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after the Communist Party seized power in mainland China. Since then, Taiwan and mainland China have been divided for 72 tears. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has yet to achieve its cherished "reunification," and this is its biggest concern, since not achieving the annexation would mean a "national humiliation." Consequently, to seize Taiwan is a matter of "honor"[1] (荣耀) for the CCP, which cannot afford to lose its national prestige as well as its legitimacy as the sole representative of the Chinese people. In fact, the concept of "honor" is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. An ancient Chinese saying goes: "A man can be killed but not humiliated."

In Chinese culture, the notion of "honor" is connected to the "face"[2] (面子). The "face" concept is so important that "losing face" may even be more frightening than the loss of life itself. Hence, "saving face" is a very important factor affecting judgment and choices.

For Chinese President Xi Jinping, capturing Taiwan means keeping and saving the CCP's national dignity. Since the CCP took power (without the blessing of free elections), it has been boasting that its rule has always been the choice of history. Chinese people have been told that "the Communist Party has saved them from untold miseries," and that "the Communist Party is unequivocal in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity." Chinese people were also told that the CCP will make China rich and strong. This rhetoric has become the source of the CCP's self-proclaimed legitimacy.

Under this kind of indoctrination, a huge part of the Chinese population has a strong sensitivity to and fanaticism about territorial integrity and national sovereign security. For this reason, Beijing cannot "lose face" and give up its plans of seizing Taiwan.


Caption: "Slap in the face" (Source: Twitter).

Xi Jinping: The 'Reunification Of Taiwan' Is The 'Honor' Of China's National Rejuvenation

It has been more than 30 years since Cross-Strait exchanges resumed. Before Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power, [3] the Chinese Communist regime had showed a conciliatory attitude toward Taiwan. At the time, the CCP adopted the so-called "United Front" strategy,[4] and repeatedly expressed its hope for the people of Taiwan. The CCP used this strategy as a delaying tactic, hoping that in time the power balance between China and the United States would change in its favor.[5] Furthermore, the CCP hoped that by releasing goodwill and conveying benefits to Taiwan, the reunification of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait would be supported by the people on the island.

However, when Chinese President Xi Jinping took office, the strategy toward Taiwan changed. As China became economically and militarily stronger, Xi believed that that the CCP should stop being "conciliatory" toward Taiwan, as he considered it dancing to Taiwan's tune and therefore degrading the "national face" of the CCP.

In this respect, on January 2, 2019, at a gathering marking the 40th anniversary of theMessage to Compatriots in Taiwan, Xi stressed once again that the "reunification of Taiwan" is the "honor" ("荣耀") of China's national rejuvenation. Xi said: "The future of Taiwan lies in national reunification and the wellbeing of the people in Taiwan hinges on the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. The Chinese Dream is a dream shared by people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits; only China's rejuvenation and prosperity can deliver a life of plenty and happiness to us Chinese on both sides. As the Chinese nation moves toward rejuvenation, our compatriots in Taiwan will certainly not miss out. We people on both sides should join hands to fulfill the Chinese Dream, shoulder the responsibility and share the 'honor' ['荣耀' also translated as 'glory'] of national rejuvenation." [6]

Chinese Professor Jin Canrong: The 'Resolution Of The Taiwan Issue' Will Bring China International 'Prestige'

Xi's concept that seizing Taiwan represents "honor" has been raised by several Chinese commentators. For example, on September 23, 2021, renowned Chinese professor Jin Canrong, who is also a well-known TV pundit, stressed that the "resolution of the Taiwan issue" will bring China international "prestige" (威望, a synonym of "honor"). Jin Canrong said: "The resolution of the Taiwan issue will really establish China's new international 'prestige.' It is quite possible that the international landscape will change overnight. Because if we take over Taiwan firmly, and there is nothing the U.S. can do but babble about it, then the image of international power order will change. Everyone will know the old big boss is done for. He is weak, you know. The new big boss is coming... Many people are worried that if we resolve the Taiwan issue, the whole world will follow the U.S. to encircle and suppress China. They really will not!"

He then added: "They are all opportunistic countries with no principles. They follow whoever is the big boss. When they all see the new big boss coming – I'm telling you, no one will run with the old big boss, you know... There's a trilogy. Step one, you must have power. Real power. When you go out to the world without real power, you will be quickly beaten to death. You must have real power. You must practice your craft well before you show up on the world stage. Second, you must have the will and determination to exercise your power. Third, you really need to put your power to practical use, you know. At that point, people will be convinced. It ought to be said that our country has amassed enough power already. Now, under the leadership of Chairman Xi, we also have the will to use it. But really, we have to use it only once. I believe that once the Taiwan issue is resolved – that should be enough. This goal will be achieved."[7]

Taiwanese President Tsai's First "Slap" To Xi's "Face"

Yet, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen knows very well how important "honor," "prestige," and "saving face" is for Chinese President Xi Jinping. On October 10, 2021, in her speech to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Tsai lashed out at Xi in an unprecedentedly tough text. Her speech was given a day after Xi's major address on October 9, 2021, which marks the anniversary of the 1911 Revolution, in which he stressed that "the historic task of complete reunification of the motherland must be and will be realized!"[8] Consequently, on Taiwan's national Day, Tsai decided to hit Xi on his Achilles heel: the "face."

Tsai said: "... Resolving cross-strait differences requires the two sides of the strait to engage in dialogue on the basis of parity... There should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure. We will continue to bolster our national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us. This is because the path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people... We all get upset when our national flag is not displayed. We all get angry when Taiwan is suppressed... The past 72 years of development have transformed the face of our nation. But throughout this transformation, our resolve to uphold our sovereignty and defend our homeland has remained unchanged.

"This conviction has been key to ensuring Taiwan's stability and preserving the fruits of our democracy. Over the past 72 years, our military's dedication to protecting our nation, as well as our understanding of why we fight, have been rooted in that conviction, which has been passed down by generation after generation of Taiwanese. This resolve has never been limited to a single political party or faction. Kuomintang Chairman Eric Chu (朱立倫), Taiwan People's Party Chairman Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), and New Power Party Chairperson Chen Jiau-hua (陳椒華) are all in attendance today. Your being here at this event is one of the beautiful scenes in Taiwan's democracy. There will always be competition between political parties. But whenever our nation's dignity or the future of our people is at stake, we come together for the sake of the Taiwanese people to defend our sovereignty and our free and democratic way of life.

"Let us here renew with one another our enduring commitment to a free and democratic constitutional system, our commitment that the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China should not be subordinate to each other, our commitment to resist annexation or encroachment upon our sovereignty, and our commitment that the future of the Republic of China (Taiwan) must be decided in accordance with the will of the Taiwanese people... Over the past few days, many people in Taipei stopped to look up at the planes rehearsing for our National Day Celebration. What they were looking at is our Air Force, which keeps us and our country safe. In addition to our Air Force, many other military units were practicing for our National Day Celebration on the streets of Taipei... These are our troops – our troops who safeguard our homeland. When disaster strikes, they come to the rescue. When our sovereignty, territory, freedom, or democracy is threatened, they defend our country with their lives..."[9]

Several netizens commented that Tsai's speech was a "slap" in Xi's "face."[10] Tsai's remarks that Taiwan's "commitment" is that "the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China should not be subordinate to each other," and that Taiwan will "resist annexation or encroachment" carried the heaviest weight. Tsai's stance essentially supported the "Special State-To-State Relations"[11] proposed by former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui and the "One Country On Each Side" formula of former President Chen Shui-bian.[12] For Xi, Tsai's speech was humiliating and a huge setback.

Consequently, on October 12, 2021, the People's Liberation Army Daily published an article, which was reposted by dozens of CCP media outlets, in which Beijing tried to "save face" after Tsai's remarks. The last paragraph of the article read: "'The historic task of complete reunification of the motherland must be and will be achieved.' This is a historical conclusion drawn in the course of the development of Cross-Strait relations, a necessary requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era, and a sacred mission of the people's army. The PLA has the firm will, full confidence and sufficient capability to thwart any interference by external forces and separatist acts for 'Taiwan independence,' and resolutely safeguard China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. If the 'Taiwan independence' secessionist forces dare to separate Taiwan from China under any name or by any means, the people's army will resolutely crush it at all costs."[13]

Furthermore, on October 17, 2021, Sun Yafu, vice chairman of China's Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits, delivered a keynote speech at the fifth Tianfu Forum on Cross-Strait Relations. In his address, Sun Yafu threw down the gauntlet and warned: "In general, the motherland must be reunified, and Taiwan must be reunited with the mainland. Whether Taiwan wants to be reunited with the mainland is not negotiable. How to reunify and how to make arrangements after reunification can be discussed."[14]

Tsai's Second "Slap" To Xi's "Face"

On October 26, 2021, speaking with CNN in an exclusive interview, Tsai confirmed for the first time the presence of U.S. troops on Taiwanese soil.[15] This was another blow to Xi's honor.

Commenting on Tsai's remarks, Duowei News, a Chinese media outlet not accessible in China, titled: "Tsai Ing-wen confirms U.S. troops' presence in Taiwan, PLA general calls it an open 'slap in the face' to the Mainland." The article reported by renowned Retired Chinese lieutenant general Wang Hongguang's recent comments to the Chinese media outlet "Today's Toutiao,"[16] stating that publicly acknowledging that the U.S. is stationed in Taiwan is a key step for Tsai's progress on the path of Taiwan independence and a public slap in the Mainland's "face." "If the Chinese mainland can tolerate this, what else can it not tolerate?" Wang Hongguang added. [17]

Duowei News added that Wang Hongguang believes that "severing diplomatic ties [with Taiwan], withdrawing troops [from Taiwan] and abolishing the treaty [i.e., the Mutual Defense Treaty between Taiwan and the U.S. signed in December 1954][18] are the three principles for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China and the United States in January 1979.[19] If U.S. troops are stationed in Taiwan, even if they are not deployed in combat, even if there is only one U.S. soldier, [the U.S] has violated two principles: the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Taiwan and the abrogation of the U.S.-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty. [Hence,] Sino-U.S. relations are already in crisis."[20]

Conclusion

It is worth noting that, in March 2005, the CCP passed the Anti-Secession Law, which paved the way for the military annexation of Taiwan. Article 1 clearly states: "This Law is formulated, in accordance with the Constitution, for the purpose of opposing and checking Taiwan's secession from China by secessionists in the name of 'Taiwan independence,' promoting peaceful national reunification, maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Straits, preserving China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and safeguarding the fundamental interests of the Chinese nation." Article 8 of the law then adds: "In the event that the 'Taiwan independence' secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan's secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan's secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity."[21]

Thus, according to Article 8, the legal prerequisites that could trigger a Chinese military attack on Taiwan are very vague and broad. In other words, even if there is no significant deterioration of the situation across the Taiwan Strait, Xi could lower the threshold to attack Taiwan by force. The CCP could find a so-called legal basis to attack Taiwan by creating extreme incidents and invoking ill-defined provisions of the law. There is no doubt that even President Tsai's speech could be regarded by the CCP as one of the important pretexts and justifications for starting the process of seizing Taiwan. The CCP is countering the U.S.' "strategic ambiguity" on Taiwan with its own "strategic ambiguity."

The next step for Xi is to find the best moment to use force against Taiwan. Xi can no longer tolerate the CCP's continued inability to unify the country, resulting in a loss of "face" that leaves the CCP's legitimacy at risk. If Beijing's soft hand does not work, it will look for opportunities to play the hard hand and interpret the anti-secession law on its own, giving the green light to attack Taiwan.

*Chris King is Senior Research Fellow for the MEMRI Chinese Media Studies Project. King was an active participant in the student protests in China in 1989.

 

[1] The Chinese words for "honor (or glory)" are: "荣耀 (róng yào)", or "荣誉 (róng yù)". "" means glory, "耀" means brilliance and the original meaning of "" is: praise. The meanings of "glory (or honor)" include: 1. Noble recognition; 2. Glory; 3. Good reputation or social standing.

[2] The Chinese word for "face" is "面子 (miàn zi)". "" originally means "face". "" here is a common colloquial suffix for nouns in Chinese. "面子" means: 1. Good-looking on the surface, by extension, respectability and luster; 2. Sensibilities; 3. The way things look. The ostensible meaning of "面子" is the face. The deep meaning of "面子" can be interpreted as one's image and dignity in the eyes of others, or one's social status. Although in any country, there are concepts of personal image and social status, in China, the "face" is especially important.

[3] Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the CCP Central Committee and Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission on November 15, 2012, and became President of the People's Republic of China on March 14, 2013, the following year. The resumption of exchanges between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits began on November 2, 1987. Under the huge pressure of public opinion in Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo, then President of the Republic of China, felt that relatives on both sides of the Taiwan Straits had been separated for too long, so he decided to open the door for family visits, allowing Taiwan people who had relatives on the mainland to visit their relatives on the mainland. On July 15, 1987, the Government of the Republic of China lifted martial law in Taiwan, which had been in place for 38 years and two months.

[4] Taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=4&post=4917, January 1, 1982.

[5] This strategy could be considered expedient and as a delaying tactic based on the needs of China's development at that time and the fact that there was a big gap between China and the United States, Japan, and Taiwan.

[6] Gwytb.gov.cn/wyly/201904/t20190412_12155687.htm, April 12, 2019. The Message to Compatriots in Taiwan is an open letter to Taiwan issued by the CCP's Central Government or its National People's Congress in the 1950s and 1979 respectively after the founding of the People's Republic of China. They are regarded as the earliest policy documents of the CCP and the Government of the People's Republic of China on Cross-Straits relations. The Message to Compatriots in Taiwan appeared six times in history. Among them, the most famous one was issued by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of the PRC on January 1, 1979, and its influence continues to this day. It mainly discussed ending the military confrontation between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits, proposed three direct links between the two sides, and expanded exchanges between the two sides. On the morning of January 2, 2019, a gathering to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of issuing Message to Compatriots in Taiwan (1979 version) was held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In a speech titled "Working together for the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and Promoting the Peaceful reunification of the Motherland," Xi Jinping made five requirements on the Taiwan issue, also known as the "Xi's Five Points." Xi reiterated the 1992 consensus and said China must be reunified. He also proposed that "the two sides of the Taiwan Straits should jointly explore the implementation of 'one country, two systems' for Taiwan." Xi Jinping's speech was met with a sharp reaction in Taiwan, where a majority of public opinion did not accept Beijing's "one country, two systems" policy, and the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's firm rejection of Xi's speech, in line with Taiwan's public opinion, gave a strong boost to her once flagging approval ratings. Some analysts believe that President Xi Jinping's outrageous remarks contributed to Tsai Ing-wen's re-election as Taiwan's president in 2020.

[8] Language.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202110/12/WS6164dd28a310cdd39bc6e3fc.html, October 12, 2021.

[9] Focustaiwan.tw/politics/202110100004, October 10, 2021.

[10] Club.6parkbbs.com/military/index.php?app=forum&act=threadview&tid=16638235, October 11. 2021.

[11] Roc-taiwan.org/sk_en/post/2331.html, July 31, 2021.

[12] Taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2002/08/09/0000159534, August 9, 2002.

[13] Guancha.cn/military-affairs/2021_10_12_610414.shtml, October 12, 2021.

[14] Bj.crntt.com/doc/1062/0/1/4/106201444.html?coluid=1&kindid=0&docid=106201444&mdate=1017001317, October 17, 2021.

[15] Edition.cnn.com/2021/10/27/asia/tsai-ingwen-taiwan-china-interview-intl-hnk/index.html, October 27, 2021.

[16] Toutiao.com/?wid=1636738714014

[17]Dwnews.com/%E4%B8%AD%E5%9B%BD/60266976/%E8%94%A1%E8%8B%B1%E6%96%87%E8%AF%81%E5%AE%9E%E7%BE%8E%E5%86%9B%E9%A9%BB%E5%8F%B0%E8%A7%A3%E6%94%BE%E5%86%9B%E5%B0%86%E9%A2%86%E7%A7%B0%E5%AF%B9%E5%A4%A7%E9%99%86%E5%85%AC%E5%BC%80%E6%89%93%E8%84%B8, October 29, 2021.

[18] Avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/chin001.asp, December 2, 1954.

[19] Mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceus//eng/zmgx/zywj/t36256.htm, December 16, 1978.

[20]Dwnews.com/%E4%B8%AD%E5%9B%BD/60266976/%E8%94%A1%E8%8B%B1%E6%96%87%E8%AF%81%E5%AE%9E%E7%BE%8E%E5%86%9B%E9%A9%BB%E5%8F%B0%E8%A7%A3%E6%94%BE%E5%86%9B%E5%B0%86%E9%A2%86%E7%A7%B0%E5%AF%B9%E5%A4%A7%E9%99%86%E5%85%AC%E5%BC%80%E6%89%93%E8%84%B8, October 29, 2021.

[21] China.org.cn/china/LegislationsForm2001-2010/2011-02/11/content_21898679.htm, March 14, 2005.

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