Troops, Noodles and Familial Love: China Lays Out Its Ideal Taiwan

BEIJING — As tensions in the Taiwan Strait reached their highest level in decades, China held the world rapt with a show of military might, deploying its largest-ever military exercises to intimidate Taiwan and its supporters. But the message that China has sought to convey involves far more than warships and fighter jets.

Alongside its flashy display of raw power, China has been laying out its most forceful vision — political, economic, cultural — of a future unified with Taiwan.

Under that vision, guided by China’s leader, Xi Jinping, not only would the Chinese navy navigate at will through the Taiwan Strait, but mainland troops could also be stationed on the island, to enforce a system of political subordination similar to that in Hong Kong.China and Taiwan would work together to repel shadowy foreign powers seeking to use the island to weaken Beijing. And the Taiwanese people themselves would set aside the separate identity that has emerged on the island, recognize their blood and cultural roots and return to the motherland’s embrace.

This envisioned future has been laid out in recent weeks through a combination of the military drills, a new policy paper, propaganda and social media campaigns. Seizing on a visit to Taiwan by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, earlier this month, followed by another congressional delegation on Monday, China has accused the United States of stepping up its efforts to divide China and said it needs to reiterate its own position.

“Taiwan is China’s Taiwan, and the Taiwan issue permits no foreign interference,” China’s defense ministry said in a statement on Monday, as the military announced more drills. “The People’s Liberation Army continues to train and prepare for war.”

Xi Jinping has given special emphasis to China’s desired unification with Taiwan.Credit…Pool photo by Selim Chtayti

Many elements of this vision are not new. Nor is it likely that they would be implemented easily, especially against growing anti-mainland feeling in self-governing Taiwan. But they are a window into what Beijing means when it talks about China’s rise and rejuvenation — a goal it has emphasized more and more in the run-up to a party congress this fall, when Mr. Xi is expected to break with recent precedent and claim a third term.

“The C.P.C. has always been the spine of the Chinese nation, exercising strong leadership in realizing national rejuvenation and reunification,” the white paper said, using an abbreviation for the Communist Party of China.

The first step toward achieving that vision would be unification itself, and China has used its military exercises to flex its increasing ability to make that happen by force. Military jets have made dozens of incursions over the informal median line in the Taiwan Strait this month, and for the first time China launched missiles over the island.

Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said the exercises were the first major test of recent modernizing reforms in the military. “What we saw is, theoretically, the Eastern Theater Command is able to pull off exercises of this scale,” he said.

Taipei, Taiwan, last week. Beijing’s view of the future would have Taiwanese people embrace being part of China, in part because of blood and cultural ties.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The drills have also given China an opening to be more aggressive, more regularly, in the Taiwan Strait. Last week, it extended the drills past their originally announced end date of Aug. 7. Even after those exercises formally concluded several days later, Taiwan has continued to report flights by Chinese jets across the median line.

Chinese officials have used the actions to signal a new standard, asserting that no part of the Taiwan Strait can be considered international waters because Beijing claims Taiwan as its own.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

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Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

What does China mean to Taiwan? China claims Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy of 23 million people, as its territory and has long vowed to take it back, by force if necessary. The island, to which Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces retreated after the Communist Revolution of 1949, has never been part of the People’s Republic of China.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

What does Xi Jinping want? China’s leader has made it clearer than any of his predecessors that he sees unifying Taiwan with China to be a primary goal of his rule — and a key to what he calls China’s “national rejuvenation.” Mr. Xi is also keen to project an image of strength ahead of his expected confirmation to an unprecedented third term this fall.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

How is the U.S. involved? In an intentionally ambiguous diplomatic arrangement adopted in 1979, the United States maintains a “one China” policy that acknowledges, but does not endorse, Beijing’s claim over Taiwan. U.S. leaders have remained vague about how they would help Taiwan if China attacked, but President Biden has pledged to defend the island.

Understand the China-Taiwan Tensions

Why are tensions rising now? Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent trip to Taiwan — the highest level visit to the island by an American official since 1997 — has ignited regional tensions, prompting China to conduct its largest-ever military exercises near Taiwan. A chorus of official Chinese bodies portrayed her trip as part of an American effort to sabotage China’s efforts at unification with Taiwan.

“The median line is no longer going to be respected,” Mr. Koh, the analyst in Singapore, said.

But the Communist Party’s preoccupation with Taiwan is not merely about territory. Under Mr. Xi, Beijing has emphasized an ideal of national greatness closely linked to bloodlines and cultural heritage. In that view, Taiwan, with its majority ethnically Chinese people, is irrevocably bound to China.

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, expressed that idea in a Twitter post about the number of restaurants in Taipei serving noodles from Shanxi Province. “Palates don’t cheat,” she declared, claiming it as proof that Taiwan was China’s “long lost child.”

A Chinese People’s Liberation Army aircraft flying over Pingtan island earlier this month. China deployed its largest-ever military exercises to intimidate Taiwan and its supporters.Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

She was thoroughly ridiculed. But Twitter is blocked in the mainland, and on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, users gloated about finding regional Chinese food in online maps of Taiwan. One hashtag, “The owner of a Shanxi knife-cut noodle shop in Taiwan Province speaks out,” has been viewed more than 920 million times. (The owner supposedly promised discounts for mainland diners.)

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, also suggested this month that Taiwan had a filial obligation to China, when he said Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, had “betrayed the ancestors.”

The project of eliding differences between democratic Taiwan and Communist China is also, of course, political. And it was at the heart of the nearly 9,000-word white paper published last week.

The paper, the first that Beijing has published on Taiwan since 2000, largely restated longstanding rhetoric, including that Beijing would not rule out the use of force. But, in a reflection of China’s more authoritarian turn under Mr. Xi, it also offered a harsher view of what life under unification would look like than had previous versions of the policy paper.

The party has long said that Taiwan would be governed in a “one country, two systems” model — like that in Hong Kong — that maintained certain characteristics, and potentially rights, not found in the mainland. The 2000 paper said nine times that negotiations between Taiwan and China to determine that framework would be conducted on “equal footing,” or other similar language. But that pledge appeared only once in the new paper.

And China has decimated many of Hong Kong’s freedoms, despite its promises.

Chinese and Hong Kong flags in Hong Kong in June. Beijing has long said that Taiwan would be governed in a “one country, two systems” model like that in Hong Kong.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Also absent from the paper was a previous pledge not to station Chinese troops or administrative personnel in Taiwan. It also hinted at efforts to remake Taiwanese identity, which the island’s young people increasingly view as distinct from mainland China’s. It vowed to “increase our compatriots’ knowledge of the mainland” to reduce “misconceptions and misgivings.”

Some Chinese officials have been more explicit. China’s ambassador to France said recently that unification would be followed by “re-education” — a chilling echo of the so-called re-education camps that China has used to intern Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Despite its firmer stance, some experts said the white paper’s overall message was one of restraint. It repeatedly asserted that China preferred a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan issue, in recognition of the fact that open conflict would still be extremely costly, said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University.

More Coverage of the China-Taiwan Tensions

  • A Turning Point?: There is a growing sense among U.S. officials that China’s military exercises are evolving into a long-term strategy of heightened military pressure on Taiwan.
  • Narrowing Options: China’s 72-hour display of military might indicated how few policy carrots Beijing has to entice Taiwan toward unification.
  • Urging Resistance: When a Taiwanese democracy advocate was imprisoned in China, his wife publicly resisted Beijing’s authority. Now reunited, the couple is inspiring others not to be intimidated by China.
  • Fight or Surrender?: A generational shift in Taiwan has transformed the island’s relationship with China. While the older generation tends to see China more positively, attitudes among the young have hardened.

It was also most likely a way of steering the tone of public discussion for more nationalist Chinese, Professor Zhu added. Many had expressed outrage and disappointment that China did not forcibly block Ms. Pelosi’s visit.

Taiwanese soldiers during a live-fire drill in Pingtung, Taiwan, last week. China’s plans would not be implemented easily, especially against growing anti-mainland feeling in self-governing Taiwan.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“If the Taiwan issue is not handled well, it will only create new comprehensive issues for China,” he said.

Still, the paper is unlikely to convince perhaps the most important audience, Taiwan itself. Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council dismissed it as “wishful thinking.” And Taiwan’s leaders have made clear they are not cowed by China’s show of force.

The audience most likely to hear this vision for unification, then, is the one Beijing has always had the most control over: its own people.

Chinese state media has maintained a slew of headlines about its pursuit of unification — a barrage that has pushed aside other issues like a slowing economy, a banking scandal, attacks on women and continuing Covid lockdowns of millions of people.

Chinese internet regulators were most likely eager to keep fanning that distraction with a mixture of propaganda and censorship, said Xiao Qiang, who researches Chinese censorship at the University of California, Berkeley.

“Covid control, the economy going through this dramatic decline — those are real issues,” Mr. Xiao said. “There are many other things that people are concerned about in their daily life. And right now it’s all being repressed, those issues, under this nationalist issue.”

News footage of military exercises near Taiwan at a restaurant in Beijing this month.Credit…Tingshu Wang/Reuters

Claire Fu and Amy Chang Chien contributed research.

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