China's heir apparent tied to Taiwan
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - To a certain extent, the life of every person on the planet will be
affected by China's next leader. But the people who are most aware of this fact
are the Taiwanese. For better or worse, their fate and that of their children
is directly connected to cross-strait relations.
Ever since it became apparent that Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is set to
succeed President Hu Jintao in 2012, there have been good reasons for the
Taiwanese to watch Hu's heir apparent closely. Taiwan's intelligence agency
pursues its trade of observing and assessing, and its reporters are fascinated
by the news that Xi's singing-star wife has family ties to Taiwan.
Xi is further said to have maintained ample connections to Taiwanese
businesspeople based in China. But whether the next
supreme leader's personal bond to Taiwan will bring about genuine changes in
Beijing's cross-strait policy, or merely mean the replacement of one leader
with another, remains the big question.
Most experts say it's likely to be the latter. In terms of cross-strait policy,
China is simply not expected to change its course.
"Xi Jinping will, just like Hu Jintao, be a moderate leader," says Wong
Yiu-chung, a professor of political science at Hong Kong's Lingnan University
and an expert on China-Taiwan-Hong Kong relationships. "Regarding Taiwan, Xi's
policies won't differ much from what we have seen from Hu."
To the Taiwanese, what stands out most about China's next president are his
personal connections to the island. It's there that his brother-in-law and
other of his wife's relatives live. However, although confirmed by Taiwan's
National Security Bureau, the exact whereabouts of these relatives has been
treated as a state secret. The only two things the public has been told are
that the clan resides in the southern backwater town of Chiayi, and that Xi's
wife, Peng Liyuan, a well-known folk singer in China, paid an eight-day visit
to Taiwan in 1997 for the purpose of cultural exchanges.
Shortly after Peng's visit to Taiwan, Xi began his ascent to the post of
governor of Fujian province. Peng, whose songs could once be sung in any of
China's karaoke bars, was muzzled by the Chinese Communist Party. She was
allegedly prohibited from pursuing her career as a high-profile entertainer so
as not to interfere with Xi's political career. Her Taiwanese family relations
also became a matter of national security. Still, it's not as if Peng was
banned from singing. Presently, she hums tunes in her role as a major-general
in the General Political Department of the People's Liberation Army, where she
heads the PLA song and dance troupe.
It's not only through his wife that China's next president has a personal bond
to Taiwan: there's another relation that raises questions that are about as
A Taiwanese legislator in the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), whose identity hasn't
been disclosed, is said to have been a good friend of Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun.
Xin was one of the founders of the Red Army, was purged by Mao Zedong in the
late 1950s, and later became a pioneer of Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening-up
in the 1980s.
The unnamed Taiwanese legislator reportedly has known Xi Jr since he was a
child, giving room for speculation that there has been an inappropriate
uncle-nephew relationship between a high-ranking KMT official and China's
future leader. When grilled by legislators over the matter, Taiwan's Mainland
Affairs Council chairwoman Lai Shin-yuan, who is responsible for handling
Taiwan's relations with China, acknowledged the existence of such a link and
justified it by saying that in times of warming cross-strait ties, friendships
between Chinese and Taiwanese were normal. Nevertheless, just as it is with the
mysterious brother-in-law, the name of Xi's Taiwanese friend is kept secret.
All through Xi Jinping's astonishing ascent, he has had extensive contacts with
Taiwanese businesspeople. To some observers, this reality has helped shape him.
After Xi became governor of Fujian - which lies just across the Taiwan Strait
and is the ancestral home of many Taiwanese families - in the late 1990s, he
was credited with having had the right touch when dealing with Taiwanese
entrepreneurs active in China. Xi managed to attract investment from Taiwan and
boost Fujian's free-market economy. Later, he was appointed governor of
neighboring Zhejiang province, and he then became Shanghai's party chief and
Xi's political and personal background suggest that from 2012 on, China will
have a leader friendlier to Taiwan than Hu. After all, Hu promulgated the
infamous Anti-Secession Law, which makes the use of force against Taiwan
mandatory if the island were to declare independence. But Taiwan's National
Security Bureau director Tsai Teh-sheng cautioned that Xi's rich knowledge of
Taiwan would not necessarily make him a friend.
Tsai's assessment of Xi taking the helm could not be much bleaker. "In the
past, Chinese officials were categorized as either belonging to the dove
faction or hawk faction in terms of their stances toward Taiwan," Tsai said at
a recent legislative session. "But now such a categorization is meaningless,
because as far as sovereignty and territorial issues are concerned, all Chinese
leaders are hardliners and nationalists."
Whether China's next president will make it into history books as someone
friendly to Taiwan is likely to depend on who will rule the island during his
tenure. It's far from certain whether Taiwan's next president - to be elected
in 2012 - will belong to the now-ruling KMT, or the now-opposition Democratic
Progressive Party (DPP), which China has branded in hundreds of its hallmark
tirades as "Taiwan independence separatists".
The DPP's official line is that if the party were to regain power, its China
policies would be consistent with that of the relatively China-friendly KMT.
But Taiwan's DPP-leaning media have long taken a position against any notion
that Xi should be liked by the Taiwanese.
The media campaign pinpoints Xi's lack of academic credentials - he entered
university without having finished high school - and his background as a
privileged "princeling" as the offspring of a high-ranking party cadre. Xi's
wife Peng has also been pilloried. Citing her love of the limelight, media
reports suggest that after Xi's inauguration she will be a modern version of
the hated Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong's domineering wife who became mastermind of
the Cultural Revolution, the 1966 to 1976 social, political and economic
For Professor Wong, how the winner of Taiwan's presidential elections will get
along with Xi Jinping depends almost solely on that person. If the Taiwanese
president leans toward independence, Xi will be tougher. If he or she looks for
closer cooperation, Xi will be softer. The most likely scenario, however, is
that China's stance stays exactly as it is. As Wong puts it, "Whoever has the
say, the CCP [Chinese Communist Party} will keep on pressuring Taiwan to have
political talks with the mainland as soon as possible."
Jens Kastner is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.