by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Storm Media

RECENT COMMENTS by current DPP general-secretary Joseph Wu stirred waves. Wu stated the incoming DPP government under Tsai Ing-Wen will preserve the spirit of cooperation of the 1992 Consensus. Wu’s comments, which were made in English at the Center of Strategic and International Studies in Washington said, “The most important thing to [sic] what happened in 1992 is that the two sides decided to set aside the differences, to move on for mutual interest. And that is the kind of spirit we should follow.” This is now being reported in Taiwan as Wu affirming the “spirit of the discussions of the 1992 Consensus” (九二會談精神).

PhotoCreditTVBSJoseph Wu at the Center of Strategic and International Studies. Photo credit: TVBS

Notably, Wu is the former head of the Mainland Affairs Council from 2004 to 2007, successor to Tsai Ing-Wen, and representative to the United States from 2007 to 2008 under the Chen Shui-Bian administration. Wu left for America on January 18th, two days after the end of presidential elections. Obviously, the timing is deliberate. But what is surprising about Wu’s comments is that the DPP has in the past never acknowledged the existence of the 1992 Consensus.

History of a Floating Signifier

IN SEMIOTICS, a floating signifier refers to a signifier without a referent, that is, a word without any actual agreed upon meaning. The 1992 Consensus would certainly seem to be a floating signifier The 1992 Consensus was made up by KMT legislator Su Chi in 2000 in order to relieve cross-strait tensions during the handover of power from the KMT to DPP in 2000, the first political handover of power between political parties in Taiwanese history. Su Chi himself has admitted as much.

The 1992 Consensus was purported to have been the result of a meeting between the semi-official bodies of the Chinese Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and the Taiwanese Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). For the reason that it was not possible to conduct official relations in any form between Taiwan and China, diplomatic relations were instead conducted through semi-official organizations that were technically private organizations.

PhotoCreditCNSConference celebrating the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Consensus. Photo credit: CNS

The 1992 Consensus states that there is “One China,” but “two interpretations”. This means both the ROC (Taiwan) and PRC (China) governments agree that there is only one China, but differ on their interpretations of what “China” is. Su Chi’s admission was that he had made up the term 1992 Consensus eight years after the fact in 2000. As a result, the DPP and Lee Teng-Hui, president of Taiwan during 1992, have never acknowledged the 1992 Consensus.

Is the 1992 Consensus, then, a fiction? If it certainly was a fiction in its inception, the 1992 Consensus most definitely has attained a form of “reality” of its own, with both the KMT and China claiming the 1992 Consensus to be the fundamental basis for exchanges between Taiwan and China. We see this most prominently in recent memory with the meeting of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou and Chinese president Xi Jinping in Singapore, with both politicians touting the 1992 Consensus as the foundation for the relation between China and Taiwan.

Indeed, “one China, two interpretations” sounds rather like an absurdity. Within this framework, “China” itself becomes a floating signifier. But we see that cross-strait relations between Taiwan and China would seem to be conducted on the basis of floating signifiers.

A Shift on the Part of the DPP Towards Acknowledging the 1992 Consensus?

IN AN ARTICLE prepared well before election day, but released approximately thirty minutes after Tsai Ing-Wen declared victory, I wrote:

“To avoid the fate of being perceived as a second Chen Shui-Bian, that is, a dangerous warmonger bent on realizing Taiwanese independence even if it means war with China, Tsai will present herself as not seeking to change the status quo of cross-strait relations in any dramatic way. But this may mean preserving the fictive construct of the KMT’s 1992 Consensus, except “DPP-izing” it in a way.”

Immediately subsequent, during her victory speech itself, Tsai telegraphed that cross-strait relations would be conducted on the basis of the Republic of China framework. To drive home the point, the backdrop unto which she gave the speech had a DPP flag side by side with the ROC flag, which for many is an emblem of the hated ROC framework. To further drive home the point to the international sphere that Tsai would not be a dangerous provocateur in cross-strait relations, Tsai’s victory speech was also simultaneously live-interpreted into English.

PhotoCreditNowNewsTsai’s victory speech. Photo credit: NOWNews

Tsai indicated she would not attempt to revise the Republic of China constitution, in the way that many call for a revision or total rewriting of the constitution to localize the ROC government and shift towards a “Republic of Taiwan”. Tsai would view this as overly provocative on China, as this may be viewed as a declaration of Taiwanese independence. Tsai has emphasized this point about stability in cross-strait relations in subsequent interviews.

All this would presage Joseph Wu’s comments, which seem to suggest DPP acceptance of the 1992 Consensus in some form. Again, the DPP has in the past never accepted the 1992 Consensus, but now we see that the DPP de facto accepts the 1992 Consensus. What is slightly different is that the DPP has to come up with a new set of words to rebrand the 1992 Consensus to make it amenable to Taiwanese.

For some time, there has been a sense that a new set of words would have to be found to advance “beyond” the 1992 Consensus. The “1992 Consensus” now carries a sense of historical baggage so something new was needed, but what was needed was a new set of terms without changing the foundations upon which cross-strait relations are conducted.

PhotoCreditXinhua:Lan HongguangMeeting of Eric Chu and Xi Jinping. Photo credit: Xinhua/Lan Hongguang

The KMT has been conscious of this for some time, hence first the meeting between Eric Chu and Xi Jinping in Beijing in May, at a time during which Eric Chu was chairman of the KMT but not its presidential candidate. This was billed as a inter-party summit between the CCP and KMT, but was followed by the Ma-Xi summit in Singapore between Ma and Xi as presidents of Taiwan and China respectively that took place in November.  Certainly, as the meeting of the presidents of Taiwan and China, this was an infinitely higher-level event than the meeting of the heads of Chinese and Taiwanese semi-governmental bodies in 1992 which later served as the basis for Su Chi’s post-facto creation of the 1992 Consensus in 2000.

The Ma-Xi Summit: A 2015 Consensus?

IF THERE WAS some talk of a “2015 Consensus” which would come to replace 1992 Consensus after the Ma-Xi summit in Taiwanese political discourse, probably this was the attempt of the KMT to create something “beyond” the 1992 Consensus as the new terms for conducting cross-strait relations. The “spirit of the discussions of the 1992 Consensus” may be the DPP’s own attempt. The DPP would need to create something sufficiently distant from the 1992 Consensus to save face about going back on previously refusing to accept the 1992 Consensus, but without substantively different contents.

PhotoCreditAFPThe Ma-Xi Summit in Singapore. Photo credit: AFP

Indeed, when asked during the press conference following the Ma-Xi summit about whether a “2015 Consensus” would come to replace the 1992 Consensus, Ma brushed off the question because he emphasized that the talks with Xi had been conducted on the basis of the 1992 Consensus and in its spirit. Ma also emphasized during the press conference that, regardless of any possible change of administration, he hoped that high-level meetings between Chinese and Taiwanese presidents would continue.

This may actually come true—under Tsai’s administration. The Tsai administration’s response was notably muted during the Ma-Xi summit, given that Tsai condemned the grounds upon which the summit which were conducted, but did not use play the event as an occasion to attack the KMT to the full hilt. Tsai expressed during the events of the Ma-Xi summit a willingness to meet Xi Jinping in Beijing as well. This was notable given that the Ma-Xi summit took place in the supposedly neutral ground of Singapore and probably the first sign that Tsai would move to “KMT-ize” relations with China. Indeed, it is probably a priority for Tsai to secure and sustain the DPP as a political party capable of winning subsequently elections, which may mean compromising with the KMT-set present status quo.

What Now For Cross-Strait Relations?

FOR THOSE of us who have been paying attention to cross-strait relations, we should all know very well by now that Tsai Ing-Wen will not be a dangerous provocateur in cross-strait relations. What is more opaque, however, is whether those who have not been paying any attention to Taiwan at all since the Chen Shui-Bian era—but have a significant influence on international foreign policy where Taiwan is concerned—will pick up on this fact. And it is further a question how much Tsai Ing-Wen will compromise in order to try to get the message across that she will not be a provocateur of cross-strait relations.

It is another question entirely as to whether China will change its behavior towards Taiwan after the Tsai presidency. Tsai Ing-Wen declaring that she would be willing to meet with Xi Jinping with Beijing and her openly declared policy that she wishes to join the China-led RCEP free trade agreement is a clear signal that she is not opposed to rapprochement with Beijing in some form. Beijing should know this. With the election of a DPP candidate, Beijing needs to at least rehearse a theatrical, performative opposition to Taiwanese independence, but it remains a broader question whether Beijing is willing or able to step down from its invective in order to negotiate with Tsai.

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 1.51.59 PMMeme by Chinese netizens posted as part of recent Internet mass trolling

Beijing is not helping with its extreme reaction to the DPP presidential victory this election. Tsai’s election saw mass trolling of Taiwanese social media by Chinese netizens and claims of military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. In this light, Beijing may actually be shooting itself in the foot.

Nevertheless, though it is likely she will find a new term for it, if Tsai aims to stick to the contents of the supposed 1992 Consensus. The recent Chou Tzu-yu incident indicates the failure of the 1992 Consensus, making explicit that what holds up out of “One China, two interpretations” is almost always “One China” without “two interpretations”. We saw this during the Ma-Xi summit as well where the “two interpretations” were dropped in favor of the “One China Principle” of the 1992 Consensus. In other words, within the framework of the 1992 Consensus, it has been that “One China” has almost always taken precedent over “two interpretations”.