One consequence of this dynamic is that Xi and his CCP henchmen have painted themselves into a corner when it comes to China’s plans for Taiwan: hubris and unbridled nationalism. These characteristics of Xi’s worldview and key pillars of his legitimacy have created false expectations on the issue of unification, blinding the CCP leadership, and much of the Chinese population, to the fact that Beijing’s plans have been failing miserably. No combination of sticks and carrots by Beijing, from incentive programs to military coercion, has succeeded in arresting, let alone overturning, the trends in Taiwanese society which militate against a takeover by their authoritarian neighbor. Having oversold his ability to resolve a “core issue” that his predecessors had neglected, Xi now finds himself in an uncomfortable position. Sweeteners and punitive action, the full array of Chinese “sharp power,” aren’t working. The problem with dictators—especially dictators who are feared rather than loved by those around them, as is arguably the case with Xi—is that they cannot admit that they are wrong, or that their entire policy platform has been a mistake. Given the high pitch of CCP ideology concerning Taiwan and the repeated references to the historical inevitability of unification, no CCP leader could ever turn around to face his counterparts and state that they were wrong, that efforts to annex Taiwan have been fruitless.
The only alternative to admitting defeat, therefore, is to engage in deception, to use propaganda to maintain the illusion that things are moving in the right direction. This explains why incidents in which famous Taiwanese politicians or members of the entertainment industry publicly state their allegiance to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and their ethnicity as Chinese receive so much attention in Chinese media and social media, when in fact the impact on Taiwanese society is negligible and quite possibly counterproductive. That is perhaps why the CCP continues to insist that only a small number of Taiwanese from the reviled Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), along with malicious foreign forces, stand in the way of eventual “peaceful” unification. And this also explains why the Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) and other CCP organs have repeatedly inflated statistics concerning the number of Taiwanese who have chosen to take advantage of the 31 and 26 incentive programs offered by China—the aim here being to demonstrate to the Chinese public that the Taiwanese cannot wait to reap the benefits of work in China, which of course in the CCP playbook is tantamount to support for “rejoining the Motherland.” With information in China under strict control and heavily censored, the general Chinese public is led to believe that the situation in the Taiwan Strait indeed is moving in the “right” direction and that the Taiwanese are fully embracing China. The alternative, of course, is unacceptable to the CCP, and the Chinese cannot become cognizant of this inconvenient fact.
Another—and not unrelated—element that helps explain why political warfare is such an important instrument of propaganda for domestic consumption is the possibility that Xi remains convinced that the ultimate option to resolve the “Taiwan issue”—the use of force by the PLA—is too premature or would have catastrophic consequences for his grand ambitions. Propaganda, this time aimed at the PLA and other agencies in the national security establishment, therefore becomes necessary to quiet those voices calling for a more drastic course of action against Taiwan. Only progress, or in this case the illusion that things are progressing, can help counter forces that, if they prevailed against the current narrative, would in the process demonstrate that Xi’s entire Taiwan policy since 2012 has been a failure.
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