The term ‘1992 Consensus’ was coined in 2000 by Su Chi, the unification-leaning nationalist KMT politician and former Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, in order to set the parameters of communication between Beijing and the government of the newly elected independence-leaning former president, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian. Chen, however, never accepted the veracity of this term during his two tenures because he – along with many DPP supporters and some independent analysts – believed that no ‘consensus’ had actually been reached in the 1992 meeting which is its namesake (an semi-formal meeting held between PRC and ROC representatives in Hong Kong in November of that year). The succeeding Ma Ying-jeou government, nevertheless, used this ‘imagined consensus’ as a foundation for improving cross-strait relations. From 2008 onward, the Ma government and Hu Jintao’s Chinese administration tacitly acknowledged this ‘consensus’ as having been built on two pillars: 1) Taiwan could interpret the 92 Consensus as meaning that there is ‘one China, but two different interpretations [in relation to the identity of its government].’ In this formula, One China meant the Republic of China (ROC) to Taiwan (i.e., the constitutional name of the government currently ruling Taiwan), while for China, it meant the People’s Republic of China (PRC); and 2) China would not publicly denigrate Taiwan’s understanding. By adhering to this ambiguous ‘One China’ framework, Taiwan and China found a basis for sustaining a temporary modus vivendi.
However, since the ascendance of China’s current leader Xi Jinping, China has attempted to gradually narrow Taiwan’s leeway to freely interpret the meaning of ‘one China.’ By Ma’s second term, China tried to force Taiwan to accept a new version of the 92 Consensus—“the 92 Consensus = One China = the PRC.” But this strategy backfired politically. Xi’s perceived slight on Taiwan’s sovereignty was a critical factor behind Ma’s extremely low levels of approval in the last few years of his tenure. Tsai’s tougher line on China helped Tsai secure victory in the 2016 presidential election, and in January 2019, Tsai’s refusal to accomodate Xi’s proposal of a Taiwanese version of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ helped her bolster support among younger Taiwanese in particular.
Tsai’s rebuttal against the 92 Consensus has often been ambiguous in order to avoid crossing ‘red lines’ which could provoke more firm forms of retaliation from Beijing – a point that many analysts have neglected. From 2016-18, Tsai never publicly stated that she accepted the 92 Consensus, as China had demanded. However, she did not directly contradict the ‘one country’ premise either, nor did she make statements which were not aligned with the ROC Constitution – which claims that the Republic of China is the legitimate government of China proper. The most obvious evidence of this balancing act is that ‘mainland China’ was the term her government used to refer to the PRC, which suggests that they were willing to work with China under some form of a ‘one China’ framework.
Nevertheless, following China’s aggressive attempts to poach Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, changes in the use of language began to occur – a watershed moment being when China convinced Burkina Faso to abandon its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in May 2018. Since that time, the terms Tsai used to refer to the PRC changed from “mainland China” to “Beijing authority”, and finally “China” – which implied that Tsai has little interest in continuing negotiations with China under the “one China” framework. Shortly after the election Tsai claimed that Taiwan was “already independent” – although she shortly followed this assertion by noting that Taiwan under her administration would not formally “claim independence.”