Since Tsai Ing-wen was elected President by Taiwan's electorate in January, the PRC has been nervous about the possibility of a turn in policy towards independence. Spokesmen in Beijing have reiterated many times that the government of the PRC remains opposed to any moves towards independence. For Taiwan watchers, this is business as usual, especially with a DPP President in Taipei. We are used to hearing these pronouncements, especially when China's internal political situation is experiencing difficulties. Taiwan is a convenient issue to distract the Chinese from problems at home and mobilise their support for a nationalist agenda.
However, what is most striking is that the new DPP administration in Taipei has not given any reasons to suggest that Taiwan is moving towards independence. Unlike Chen Shui-bian, Tsai has not been particularly vocal on cross-Strait issues, and has focused instead on problems in the South China Sea and challenges at home. Indeed, the government's silence on cross-Strait relations has been deafening (and welcome).
It is clear, therefore, that China's anti-independence rhetoric is aimed not so much at Taiwan as at Hong Kong, On Saturday 3 September, before polls opened in Hong Kong for its Legco elections in which pro-independence candidates were competing, China's Xinhua reported that Xi Jinping had told Barack Obama: "China will resolutely safeguard sovereignty and territorial integrity, and curb 'Taiwan independence' activities in all forms."
For Taiwan, read Hong Kong. It is a classic technique of Chinese propaganda and political communication to refer to one individual/country/issue when targeting another. This allowed Xi Jinping to send a clear message to Hong Kong without being seen as interfering in Hong Kong's internal affairs.
On Sunday 4th September, the Twittersphere became animated by the apparent 'snub' of President Barack Obama when he arrived in China for the G20 summit. While other world leaders received the red carpet treatment, Obama was not provided with a staircase to leave his plane, disembarking from Air Force One via a little-used exit in the plane's underbelly. Was this a deliberate insult? The Chinese are adamant that it was not, but the symbolic consequences have not gone unnoticed. Jorge Guajardo, Mexico's former Ambassador to China was in no doubt of the meaning: "These things do not happen by mistake," he said.
It's a snub. It's a way of saying: 'You're not that special to us.' ... It's part of stirring up nationalism. It's part of saying: 'China stands up to the superpower.' It works very well with the local audience.We may not know what really happened and why; and to his credit, Obama played down the story, choosing to focus instead on the agreement reached with China on climate change. Yet this episode does remind us of two important facts: First, diplomacy is as much about symbolism, signalling, and protocol as it is about negotiation. How governments and their emissaries behave is just as important as what they say, and choosing to reject the routines of diplomatic protocol can send a powerful message, This is particularly the case in the era of social media when stories are picked up, distributed worldwide, and consumed in the blink of an eye. Diplomats cannot afford protocol to be a casualty of this new information age, otherwise we focus more on the possible meaning and weight of what may be innocent oversights. International relations turns on such small issues.
Second, China's propaganda and public diplomacy activity is designed for domestic as much as for international audiences (1). Anne-Marie Brady famously described the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a campaign of mass distraction (2). When China engages in international posturing, we should see what is going on inside the country for a possible explanation.
(1) See Kingley Edney's The Globalization of Chinese Propaganda: International Power and Domestic Cohesion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
(2) Anne-Marie Brady, 'The Beijing Olympics as a Campaign of Mass Distraction', The China Quarterly, Vol.197 (March 2009).