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What are the main risks arising from Taiwan's election results and why is the island so important to China?

Commentary by a noted political scientist and founding director of the Institute for International Affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong


G e N Iuvinale


Much like Beijing’s own response to Saturday’s election results in Taiwan, reactions by China’s establishment intellectuals have so far been relatively subdued. One of the few scholars to have as yet published a commentary on these results is the well-known returnee political scientist and founding director of the Institute for International Affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), Zheng Yongnian (郑永年). Today’s edition provides a short summary of his views (Source: GBA Review (大湾区评论) – 14 January 2024).


Taiwan and China wall with taiwanese flag as puzzle isolated on white - Photo: Gettyimages

SUMMARY (Source: Sinification – Thomas des Garets Geddes)



I. Two major risks brought about by Taiwan's election results


  1. Lai Ching-te’s government is likely to take more risks than Tsai Ing-wen’s on the issue of independence. An even more radical Taiwanese government such as Lai’s means that cross-Strait exchanges are unlikely to be resumed. This will allow the DPP to continue its policy of “de-sinicising” [去中国化] the island, cultivating a distinct Taiwanese identity and encouraging ROC independence.

  2. If Lai were also to remain in power for eight years [like Tsai], the sense of alienation between the people living on either side of the Taiwan Strait would probably become even more acute.” [如果赖清德也执政8年,那么两岸人民的疏离感很可能会变得更加严重]

II. Taiwan’s importance to China


  1. Geopolitically, Taiwan is the key to China’s becoming a maritime power and to its no longer being constrained by the first island chain. Cross-Strait reunification would also help Beijing safeguard its “rights and interests” in the South China Sea.

  2. No Chinese leader could possibly contemplate losing Taiwan and becoming the next “Li Hongzhang” (李鸿章).

  3. The issue of Taiwan is becoming ever more important to the unity, security and development of the country and is at the heart of the [great] rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

III. Five issues to consider with regards to Taiwan’s domestic politics


  1. Democracy in Taiwan is a double-edged sword for China (‘选举政治’成为解决台湾问题的双刃剑). On the one hand, it can mean China-sceptic governments coming to power and having the freedom to implement their pro-independence policies. On the other, it can also help create political deadlocks in which “everyone can talk, but no one can do anything”.

  2. Reunification through peaceful means would mean that Beijing’s emphasis would be placed on the “two systems” in China’s proposed “one country, two systems” solution. Conversely, reunification through the use of force would mean tending towards a “one country, one system” (一国一制) model.

  3. China should focus more of its communication efforts on Taiwan’s youth. Younger generations in the ROC may not identify very much with the mainland but, contrary to older generations, they see the PRC as a great power in the world. Moreover, they are more “politically apathetic” (政治冷感), less concerned about the issue of cross-Strait reunification and more focused on livelihood issues.

  4. “To promote the resolution of the Taiwan issue in the new era, we must pay attention to innovative cross-Strait communication platforms, with a focus on the use of new media platforms, such as [China’s Instagram-like] Xiaohongshu and Douyin [TikTok], to circulate and change the identity of young people in Taiwan [流转、改变台湾年轻人的认同].”

  5. Beijing should focus its efforts on being able to offer a better life and future for the Taiwanese people in comparison with what Taipei can offer. “Unilateral opening-up” [单边开放] should be implemented, whereby greater numbers of Taiwanese citizens would be encouraged to study, work and invest in the mainland. Only by experiencing life in China at first hand will they be able to develop more positive views towards the motherland.

  6. A hybrid strategy could be adopted towards Taiwan. On the one hand, we [could] increase the strength and precision of our strikes [打击] against those forces supporting Taiwanese independence, while maintaining a sustained high-pressure containment stance [保持持续高压遏制的态势] when it comes to public opinion and military deterrence vis-à-vis Taiwan. On the other, we must promote precise unilateral opening up.

  7. Economic sanctions against Taiwan should be used with the utmost caution [我们特别需要慎用“经济制裁”的方法] since these will not just affect the ROC’s government, but also the people of Taiwan.

  8. Genuine pro-independence fundamentalists have already been and gone on the island. Figures such as Lai and Tsai are mere political opportunists whose risk-taking may be easier for Beijing to deter.

  9. The heyday of democracy in Taiwan has already passed … and people have come to realise what democracy is all about [台湾的民主高峰期已经过去了 … 人们也意识到民主为何物了].”

IV. Three issues to consider with regards to the US’s involvement in cross-Strait relations and Beijing’s Taiwan-related rhetoric


  1. Although the issue of Taiwan is at the core of the US-China relationship, it does not represent the whole of it.” The weight given to Taiwan in Beijing’s relations with Washington should be reduced so as to prevent this issue from holding the whole of the relationship hostage. Chinese interests go beyond the crucial issue of Taiwan. This is even truer for the US.

  2. With Washington more inclined to supporting Taiwan’s incremental moves towards ever greater independence and Beijing’s support of pro-reunification forces, fully maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Strait is almost impossible. Much like what the US has been doing, but in reverse, Beijing should “explore the possibility of using a ‘salami slicing’ approach to promote peaceful cross-strait reunification.

  3. A new three-pronged narrative should be constructed around the issue of Taiwan. First, China will only use force if Taiwan moves towards “independence” [只有当台湾走向“独立”时,我们才会使用武力]. Second, emphasis should be placed on reunification by means of cross-strait socio-economic integration. Third, Beijing must make it clear to the world that its stance towards Taiwan is not about opposing the democratic freedoms enjoyed by the island’s citizens [台湾问题不是民主自由维度的问题 … 我们并不排斥台湾的民主化], but rather about China’s national sovereignty.



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