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China’s Sacred Commitment

China's Sacred Commitment

Jonathan Sullivan23 Apr 2014One comment


Written by Ben Goren.

In a new and illuminating paper published in Foreign Policy Analysis [1], Gregory Moore of Zhejiang University explores why ‘reunification’ of Taiwan is of such importance to the PRC Government and citizens (and perhaps to many ROC nationalists in Taiwan and abroad although this aspect is not discussed in the paper). Moore argues that, in contrast to conventional arguments which posit China’s desire to annex Taiwan as geo-strategic or economic in nature, the obsession with Taiwan actually stems from a more visceral drive which has led Taiwan to be framed in Chinese discourse as a ‘sacred commitment’:

“China’s interests in Taiwan are unwavering and are not based on more pragmatic realpolitik considerations, nor is it likely they will be ameliorated by trade and interdependence. Mainland Chinese commitments to Taiwan are in fact “sacred,” backed by a commitment to reunification with Taiwan much stronger than realpolitik calculations might lead us to expect.”

But what is a ‘sacred commitment’? Moore explains:

“Sacred commitments are defined here as a basket of emotional, nationalistic, historical and almost spiritual notions held by many in China about the “sacredness” of territorial integrity and the commitment of the founders and revolutionaries of modern China to the reunification of the motherland, including Taiwan. “Sacred commitments” accurately describes and reflects the content of numerous Chinese government and scholarly statements on the “sacred” character of Taiwan and the “mission” of bringing Taiwan back to the Mainland. “Sacred commitments” is a label I have given to the following sorts of notions which were found in the secondary literature, statements of policy elites, and in the words of the interviewees:

1. a heartfelt desire to engender a sense of dignity among the Chinese people as they seek to finally end (in part by regaining Taiwan) the period of for- eign oppression and domination they endured after 1839,13 along with a sense of the restoration of national “face” (“mianzi” or ) that the return of Taiwan would bring

2. a historical view of the need for China to be unified to be great (and the sense of perception of national greatness China would then achieve with reunification)

3. a commitment to China’s forefathers to complete the revolution started in 1911 and continued in 1949 (and Taiwan represents unfinished business in this regard)

4. a Chinese sense of identity that Taiwan is simply an important part of China, and the unique place accorded Taiwan in China’s discourse on unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity in the last 60 years. 

Based on the research presented here, sacred commitments, not unlike the commitments of religious practitioners, are commitments that go beyond the pragmatic or utilitarian (and thus material), but are kept because of vows made, beliefs held, and emotions deeply felt. “Sacred commitments” have a life of their own in the mind and the heart, can be powerful motivators, and are “a-rational” in nature, in other words not necessarily “rational” in the utilitarian sense, and yet not at all “irrational” from the perspective of those who hold them.”

Moore quickly identifies that these commitments can be distinguished from simple ‘core interests’ or ‘national interests’. He cites Zheng Wang’s [2] argument that Taiwan ultimately represents ‘unfinished business’ because:

“… since the 1989 Tiananmen incident and the end of the Cold War, the CCP’s overriding raison d’etre has been redefined from class struggle and communist revolution, to national liberation and rejuvenation following imperialist-driven national humiliation (Wang:101–129). In this context, he argues, “Taiwan is fundamental because after Hong Kong and Macau’s return it is the single remaining inhabited Chinese territory not yet returned to the motherland” (131).” 

Key to Moore’s thesis is that although Chinese fears of ‘letting Taiwan go’ would spark a domino effect amongst other occupied territories such as East Turkestan and Tibet, or generate a legitimacy and authority crisis for the CCP leadership owing to the inevitable public outcry, the greatest fear was a loss of face, and humiliating crushing of national pride, especially since members of the public appeared to be more emotional about the issue than the more pragmatic government officials.

Moore illustrates how Chinese nationalism has replaced Communism or ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as a the key engine by which the CCP maintains social and political cohesion in the absence of ‘Chinese values’ or an overarching commonly shared ideology. This is not to say that ‘sacred commitments’ were alone in driving China’s Taiwan policy – the concern of a collapse of CCP legitimacy and severe incapacitation of China’s security/strategic interests were also primary concerns, but not quite to the same extent. Neither of those concerns, Moore finds, have the same semi-religious character to them, and he cites a number of statements made by senior party officials in which the word ‘sacred’ is explicitly tied to the question of Taiwan as a task for the military, for the people, and in terms of the territory’s identity within the historical Greater Chinese nation.

Having established how Taiwan is positioned and framed as a ‘sacred commitment’, Moore then looks into why this might have happened. The first clue lies in the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki in which a decaying and defeated Qing Dynasty sued for peace and ceded Taiwan to Japan, acting as a key nodal point, a symbolic narrative foundation for the birth of contemporary Chinese nationalism. Moore refers to the work of John Garver which illustrates how the failures of CCP policies in the Great leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Massacre only served to spur the CPP’s use of nationalism as a bulwark against cracks in its legitimacy making the Taiwan issue much more sensitive. Taiwan also became the issue by which younger post-Deng technocratic party leaders could demonstrate their loyalty to the older generation in the absence of revolutionary credentials. Annexing Taiwan became a ‘no compromise’ principle. And although the Taiwan issue emerged as a result of an unfinished CCP-KMT civil war, Chinese scholars instead framed it as an internal problem that existed primarily because of external interference and was therefore a symbol of Chinese humiliation at the hands of foreign powers.

The second clue lies in how Taiwan has been constructed as a part of China’s inherent territory as an integral component in the production of Chinese identity, an identity that is built upon the theme of a ‘century of humiliation’ (roughly 1839~1949), which Peter Gries argues can be characterised as ‘the victimization narrative’. Interestingly, Moore argues that this narrative has been exploited most significantly since 1992 as a means to shore up party legitimacy. Thus, to allow Taiwan to formally secede from either the ROC or PRC is regarded in China as a direct assault on Chinese identity itself. Or to put it another way, if the same logic were applied in the current debate over Scottish Independence, we would see the Better Together campaign argue that Scottish independence is a treasonous and unacceptable attack on the legitimacy of English, and British, identity, and ultimately upon the authority of the Conservative Party. Moore points out that to ‘let Taiwan go’ would immediately raise a glaring contradiction to narratives of the CCP as the party that raised China from the ashes of humiliation and foreign oppression, and would by implication undermine and negate the reputation and work of Mao, Deng, Jiang, Hu, and Xi. Moore argues this would set off a wave of cognitive dissonance between ‘what is’ and ‘what should be’. Adding to the insult, a formally independent and successful Taiwan would be regarded as an insult to Chinese ancestors who suffered in the hundred years of humiliation and toiled to recreate the nation. For a society built on Confucian values of filial piety this would be an unforgivable abrogation of generational responsibility and respect.

One important element that Moore omits in his paper however is the fact that both CCP and KMT claims to Taiwan were explicitly constructed and put into party charters in the mid 1930s.  In fact the man who is commonly regarded as the most important leader of the Xinhai Revolution and founder of the ROC, Dr Sun Yat-sen, visited Taiwan in the early 20th century and advocated for its full independence, both from Japan and China.  This position is reflected in the 1911 and 1923 ROC constitutions in which Taiwan was conspicuous by its absence from a list of stated ROC territories. Whilst losing Taiwan was an important symbolic element of the campaign against the Qing Dynasty, in reality few Chinese had ever visited Taiwan or thought of it as an integral Chinese territory until after the 1930s, when the then Japanese colony was unilaterally incorporated into Chinese party platforms, and then utilised as a foundational symbol of Chinese territorial integrity in the face of foreign occupation and aggression. Thus we might start to understand the intensity of both the KMT and CCP in their efforts to frame and determine the ‘correct’ historical record for domestic and then international audiences in terms of Taiwan’s historical connection to China. Both parties’ legitimacy and authority rests on the revisionist and ideology driven assumption of Taiwan ‘as a part of China since ancient times’, a claim that is both inaccurate and absurd for its implications if applied to other states and their former territories around the world.

Finally Moore tries to illustrate why Realist approaches to understanding China’s obsession with Taiwan fail.  He argues that whilst there is a geo-strategic, and security concern for China in annexing Taiwan (break through the US-sponsored island chain containment strategy and secure important shipping lanes which provide Chinese access to energy), these are not more salient than the substantive evidence of beijing’s concern for its ‘sacred commitments’ and their effect on domestic political stability. For Beijing, Taiwan’s de facto independence is tolerable in the short to medium term for as long as the country is under colonial ROC administration and identifies as the ROC.  Moves to gradually decolonise Taiwan or permanently delay ‘unification’ threaten to unravel the tight mesh of symbolism and nationalist narrative that underpin the legitimacy of the CCP and Chinese identity domestically. Realists might argue that since the US largely facilitated the rise of the Chinese economy (and sustains it today through relying on China as a manufacturing base), and since a war with the US would be very costly, if not fatal, for the PRC and CCP, Beijing would not risk a confrontation with the US over Taiwan, despite passing the 2005 Anti-Secession Law mandating and making compulsory the use of force to annex Taiwan. Moore find this to be a limited argument, and  I would add that events in both the East and South China Seas in the last few years validate his concerns in so far as they show a marked shift from accepting the ‘status-quo’ to direct attempts to change facts on the ground through gradual incursion on the territories of neighbouring countries.  In fact, the KMT-CCP United Front since the early 1990s has led to and facilitated this change in PRC strategy, temporarily easing Chinese fears of Taiwanese succession, thereby allowing the CCP and PLA / PLAN / PLAAF to shift focus towards other targets, which are less ‘sacred commitments’ than plain geo-strategic objectives. Moore agrees, noting how Beijing generally applies a ‘sacred commitment’ value to Taiwan alone and not other islands in the South and East China Seas. Moore correctly notes that even for Mao, the Senkaku Islands did not become a Chinese ‘core interest’ until the 1970s. Moore however does make one serious mistake when he claims that …

“Fourth, most of the nations of the world recognize Taiwan as belonging historically to China based on historical documents …”

The major danger here is that having boxed itself into a corner and thrown all its chips on Taiwan, the CCP has only created for itself two possible outcomes – either it goes to war and wins Taiwan at the cost of its international reputation, influence, and any trust into the future (not to mention the possibility of decades of damaging, expensive, and morale crushing Taiwanese resistance), or it goes to war and loses Taiwan forever and the party and nation are destroyed by the resulting Chinese public backlash. This might explain why the party has so invested in the KMT-CCP United Front (something Moore alludes to but fails to identify the importance of when considering PRC ‘flexibility’ over the Taiwan issue). To win Taiwan without a battle would be the greatest victory, ensuring no possible contest from outside and leaving China with a clear naval and airborne hegemony in the Western Pacific. The United Front is a deep concern for Japan which sees Taiwan-China tension displaced and transformed into a Japan-China conflict, especially when there are reports of Chinese enthusiasm for a short sharp military conflict with Japan to seize the Senkakus and perhaps other nearby islands too. The US, conflicted by its prioritisation of economics over principle and whose foreign policy has been typified by doing the right thing when all else fails and stumbling from one costly economically imperialist foreign policy disaster to another, is currently dangerously behind the curve and needs to adjust fast, and much more substantively than a rhetorical and ambiguous ‘pivot’.

Moore concludes his paper by arguing that:

“… China’s interest in regaining Taiwan is constituted by a combination of the following variables, in order of salience: “sacred commitments,” domestic politics (which include leaders’ fear of angering people and leaders’ fear of loss of legitimacy and loss of power if Taiwan was let go), security interests, the fear that losing Taiwan could presage a loss of other areas (Tibet, etc.), and economic interests … all of these have worked in conjunction to serve construct China’s “interest” in and policy of striving to regain (or at least not lose) Taiwan.  These are not mutually exclusive because, for example, the domestic political pressure on the leaders not to “lose” Taiwan comes in part from the peoples’ own notion of “sacred commitments” to Taiwan, which was created in part by government-run media sources and educational institutions.”

In short, when it comes to Taiwan, China is driven as much by idealpolitik as realpolitik. Realism doesn’t explain why China would risk its security and economy in a war with the US over Taiwan (unless it believed the US really wouldn’t intervene). China’s obsession with Taiwan is not conventionally rational or utilitarian, Moore says. It is principally emotional and ideological, and it is substantive despite the largely rhetorical manifestation of it. The policy implications of this are severe – China will not negotiate nor modify its position and cross-strait relations will almost certainly turn to the worse if the pro-Taiwan DPP wins the 2016 Presidential election, and especially if the party also wins a majority in the Legislative Yuan. The current ‘positive relations’ are a hollow construct of the KMT-CCP United Front and entirely contingent upon the KMT staying in power. Beijing hasn’t warmed towards Taiwan, the KMT have warmed towards Beijing and moved against Taiwan’s consolidation of its evolved, self-determining democracy and attempts at decolonisation and transitional justice. Moore argues this point explicitly saying that if the cross-Strait balance of military power continues to slide in Beijing’s favour, if there is a leadership transition in 2016, Beijing may construct a plan for instigating tensions and a short sharp conflict to retake Taiwan by force before the US can react, principally by using surprise and denial of entry. If the US really feels that Taiwanese have the right to determine their own future and identity free of forceful coercion then they may only have two years in which prepare a set of plans to safeguard that.  Moore thinks that the US makes a tactical mistake in not reassuring Beijing that it does not want to keep Taiwan and China separate and it is here that I strongly disagree.  The key tactical mistake made by the US has been to rely on its policy of strategic ambiguity for too long, although President Obama’s unambiguous comments on US recognition of the Japanese administration of the Senkaku Islands, and opposition to attempts to undermine this, do mark a step in the right direction. However, the US appears so far to have failed to recognise that China have adapted, that the CCP and KMT are utilising the United Front to neutralise the ability of the US to keep the choice of annexation or independence, or even status-quo as it was defined pre-2008, open for Taiwanese, and that facts on the ground, including the nature and content of the ‘Status-Quo, have substantially shifted in China’s favour in the last six years. The US and other Taiwan allies, official and unofficial, have been blindsided by China’s economic influence and soft power initiatives, and by a partnership of the KMT and CCP that has managed to move the playing ground and change the rules all whilst hiding in plain sight.  Moore’s paper is an important contribution to understanding some of the reasons how and why China has taken this approach and what it stands to gain and lose if it loses the window of opportunity to annex Taiwan without a use of force.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan, one of the most prominent blogs on Taiwan in English. He tweets@BanGaoRen.

[1] Moore, Gregory J. (2014) The Power of “Sacred Commitments”: Chinese Interests in Taiwan. Foreign Policy Analysis, online first.

[2] Wang, Zheng. (2012) Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations. (New York: Columbia University Press.)

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1 comment to “China’s Sacred Commitment”


  1. Hans Kuijper says:

    In all modesty, I would like to refer the author/reader of the reviewed paper to an article of mine published in China Report: A Journal of East Asian Studies, Volume 40, Number 2, April-June 2004, pp. 189-208. It is entitled “A Proposal to Solve the ‘Taiwan Problem'”.

    He/she may also be interested in reading

    1) Ted Galen Carpenter. 2005. America’s Coming War With China: A Collision Course over Taiwan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan;

    2) Alan M. Wachman. 2007. Why Taiwan? Geostrategic Rationales for China’s Territorial Integrity. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press;

    3) Brantly Womack. 2010. China Among Unequals: Asymmetric Foreign Relations in Asia. Singapore: World Scientific (in particular Chapter 15: Asymmetric Triangles and the Washington-Beijing-Taipei Relationship);

    4) Chas W. Freeman Jr., “The Taiwan Problem and China’s Strategy for Resolving It”, Remarks at the Center for Naval Analysis, September 14, 2011 (online);

    5) Aaron L. Friedberg. 2011. A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. New York: W.W. Norton;

    6) Richard C. Bush. 2013. Uncharted Strait: The Future of China-Taiwan Relations. Wasdhington, DC: The Brookings Institution;

    7) Robert G. Sutter. 2013. U.S.-Chinese Relations: erolous Past, Pragmatic Present. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield; and

    8) Weixing Hu (ed.). 2013. New Dynamics in Cross-Taiwan Strait Relations: How far can the rapprochement go?. London: Routledge.

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