Several events have driven relations between China and Taiwan recently. The first meeting in 10 years between Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) and the PRC’s Association for Relations Across the Strait (ARATS); the agreement to begin weekend cross-Strait passenger charter flights in early July and Mainland tourist travel to Taiwan two weeks later; and the atmospherics and leadership meetings accompanying Taiwan’s participation in the Olympics have all bolstered a sense of cross-Strait momentum. Despite the opposition DPP’s relentless attacks on Ma Ying-jeou’s cross-Strait policies, Ma and other senior officials have laid out the comprehensive policy rationales for their moves with the Mainland, and thus far they seem to be retaining popular support. At the same time, the administration has suffered a significant drop in overall support due to Taiwan’s poor economic performance. Economic recovery and cross-Strait relations will be inextricably intertwined, as the recovery will depend in important measure on greater involvement with the Mainland, while Ma’s ability to sustain the opening to the Mainland—and to forge a broad consensus for more difficult, political decisions on cross-Strait relations in the months ahead—will depend on his success in turning the economy around.
With regard to matters of “international space,” Ma’s call for a “diplomatic truce” may actually be bearing some fruit—at least for now. His low-key transits of the United States in late August, along with his successful stops in Latin America, have not provoked harsh PRC complaints. How Beijing will react to Ma’s new approach to the United Nations, however, remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Ma has continued to lay stress on restoring a relationship of trust with Washington, and those ties in the first few months of the Ma era have obviously improved over the Chen Shui-bian period. But it may take some time before a significant level of comfort is reintroduced into the relationship. Consistency on both sides could play an important part in achieving that, but so far it has been somewhat lacking. This has been seen, among other places, in connection with a looming issue that will affect relationships along all three legs of the U.S.-PRC-Taiwan triangle: the future of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Taken altogether, the first steps to restore exchanges between Taiwan and the Mainland are generally moving ahead smoothly, with more to come. Even in the economic area, however, some obstacles will likely arise in the months ahead, not to mention in the more sensitive political and security arenas.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics is China’s debut as a global power, and the Beijing leadership made it clear that it wanted everything to go perfectly. After the riots and crackdown in Tibet, protests around the Olympic torch, and bombings in Xinjiang, however, pressure on the security apparatus to fulfill the leadership’s wishes was intense. This article examines the role of the People’s Liberation Army’s in ensuring Olympic security, and assesses the implications of the security command structure for civil-military relations.
On 28 June, at least 10,000 people, and perhaps as many as 30,000 protested the death of a schoolgirl in Weng’an County in southwestern Guizhou, the poorest province in China, overturning police cars and setting fire to the local security bureau. Video and still photographs of the event quickly circulated on the Internet. Shortly after the Weng’an incident, another mass riot broke out in Menglian, in neighboring Yunnan Province, showing that the emotions that fueled the Weng’an riot are not isolated. Whether because of an inability to cover up an incident of this size, the approach of the Beijing Olympics, or for other reasons, Chinese media quickly switched to trying to explain the causes of the incident and to calling for reforms to prevent similar confrontations in the future. Although the Weng’an disturbance was particularly large in scale, similar incidents have erupted in China over at least the last four years. Unlike protestors demonstrating against exorbitant taxation or land requisition, those participating in the Weng’an riot were not involved in the incident that set it off (the death of a girl), suggesting longstanding anger among the populace. Preventing similar incidents in the future marks a serious challenge for the Chinese government.
Following the 11th National People’s Congress in March 2008, a new economics team was installed in the Chinese government. The distribution of responsibilities among this new team was hammered out very late in the day, months after the key vice-premiers were chosen. Whether because or in spite of its late inception, the new division of labor crumbled in the face of a global economic environment of unprecedented complexity that requires difficult and urgent policy choices. At mid-year, the economic leadership responded with a highly scripted and formalized policy exercise that culminated in a significant loosening of macroeconomic policy. Through this process we may dimly perceive a big increase in the behind-the-scenes influence of Wang Qishan, the vice-premier with the strongest economic background.
For several decades, the Chinese leadership has used informal bodies called “leading small groups” to advise the Party Politburo on policy and to coordinate implementation of policy decisions made by the Politburo and supervised by the Secretariat. Because these groups deal with sensitive leadership processes, PRC media refer to them very rarely, and almost never publicize lists of their members on a current basis. Even the limited accessible view of these groups and their evolution, however, offers insight into the structure of power and working relationships of the top Party leadership under Hu Jintao.
Are elections playing an important role in Chinese politics today? The simple answer is no. Is China gradually moving from selection to election in the recruitment of political elites? That is a more difficult question to answer. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is certainly unwilling to give up its monopoly on political power. Chinese leaders continue to claim, explicitly rather than implicitly, that the CCP is entitled to make all of the country’s most important personnel appointments. But since the late 1990s, especially in recent years, the Chinese authorities have experimented with electoral methods in the selection and confirmation of Party and government officials at various levels of leadership. With a focus on both intra-Party and people’s congress elections, this article offers a preliminary assessment of elections in China—their significance and limitations, and their impact on the Chinese political process.