Meeting between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping in November 2015 (source: Voice of America [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons)
From 2008 to 2016 Taiwan’s Guomindang administration and China’s Communist Party sought to deepen cross-strait dialogue and improve relations between the two sides. The meeting between Zhang Zhijun, the chief of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), and Wang Yuqi, the chief of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), as well as Zhang Zhijun’s visit to Taiwan in 2014, showed that the two parties were committed to taking cross-strait relations to a new level. Ma Ying-jeou, the chairman of the Guomindang, repeatedly defended the so-called “1992 Consensus” as the basis for dialogue between Taipei and Beijing. PRC’s state-run news outlet China Daily echoed this view in a 2012 article, arguing that “the 1992 Consensus will be the proven foundation for future peaceful cross-Straits relations“. But the rapprochement between the Guomindang and the Communist Party, which culminated in the historic handshake between Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping in 2015 (see picture above), alienated a large number of Taiwanese voters. They feared closer ties with the Communist giant, which still threatens to invade Taiwan and annex it if no other options for unification were left. In 2016 the Taiwanese electorate punished the Guomindang, gaving a broad popular mandate to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), thus putting an end to reconciliation as based on the 1992 consensus. 

But what is exactly the 1992 consensus and what does it mean for the development of China-Taiwan relations?

“Liberate Taiwan”, “Retake the Mainland”: China-Taiwan Relations Before 1992

In 1949, the Guomindang government was overthrown by the Communists and retreated to Taiwan, which was the last province under the full jurisdiction of the Republic of China (ROC). In Beijing, Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Both the PRC and the ROC saw themselves as the only legitimate government of all China. 

Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Guomindang, believed in his sacred mission of retaking the mainland from the Communists. He not only continued to build up the military, but also hoped to encourage armed anti-Communist revolts on the mainland (Martin Edmonds / Michael Tsai: Defending Taiwan, 2013, p. 181). Mao Zedong, on his part, wanted to “liberate” Taiwan by force. 

However, the Cold War, American military aid to Taiwan, and the Cultural Revolution, led to a standstill. The two regimes remained isolated from each other. However, both governments continued to uphold the principle that there was only one China and that Taiwan was part of it. 

In the 1970s the death of both Mao and Chiang ushered in a new era. Their successors, Chiang Ching-kuo (pinyin: Jiang Jingguo) in the ROC and Deng Xiaoping in the PRC shelved the plans to use force to bring about unification. Chiang Ching-kuo focused on the development of Taiwan’s economy and society (see Dennis V. Hickey: Foreign Policy Making in Taiwan, 2006, p. 111), while Deng Xiaoping proposed the famous “one country, two systems” formula, which would have given Taiwan broad autonomy – including the right to elect its own government independently and to maintain its own army – as a special administrative region of the PRC (Suisheng Zhao: Across the Taiwan Strait, 2013, p. 132). 

In January 1979 the PRC issued “A Message to Compatriots in Taiwan“. Among other things, Beijing announced in it the end of its symbolic year-long bombardment of Jinmen island. At the same time, PLA military presence in Fujian, the Chinese province that is closest to Taiwan, was reduced (Sheng Lijun: China and Taiwan – Cross-Strait Relations under Chen Shui-bian, 2003, p. 6). Ye Jianying, then chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, solicited Taiwan to open “three exchanges” (post service, trade and tourism) and “four contacts” (academic, cultural, scientific and sports) with the mainland.

The ROC, on its part, abandoned its previous three no’s policy towards mainland China: no contact, no negotiation, no compromise (George T. Yu: China in Transition, 1993, p. 23). In the 1980s, a ban on travel to the mainland was lifted, and Taiwanese businesses were allowed to invest in China. In 1991, President Lee Teng-hui declared the end of the “Period of Communist Rebellion”, a decree issued by the Guomindang government during the Civil War.

The 1992 Consensus

Beijing urged Taipei to engage in cross-strait talks aimed at solving disputes and promoting peaceful unification. Taiwan agreed to do so on an unofficial level, and created the Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF). Beijing followed suit, setting up the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS). In September 1991 Taiwan established the National Unification Council (NUC) and the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC). The same year, the NUC and the Executive Yuan issued the “Guidelines for National Unification” (Lijun 2003, pp. 7-8).

On April 4, 1991, then vice chairman and secretary general of SEF Chen Changwen (陳長文) went to Beijing for the first round of talks with representatives of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) of the State Council. The semi-official talks were intended to solve practical problems arising from cross-strait postal communication and other issues. However, it soon became clear that no exchange could be conducted without a broad consensus on the status of the two sides. Tang Shubei, the head of TAO, proposed that the two sides should recognise the one-China principle as the basis for cross-strait talks (Xu Shiquan: The 1992 Consensus. In: Zagoria / Fugarino, 2003, p. 84). However, it was obvious that the one-China principle was interpreted in completely different ways by the Chinese and the Taiwanese authorities. 


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On August 1992, the NUC issued a statement “On the Meaning of ‘One China’ “. It declared:

Both sides of the Taiwan Straits adhere to the principle of “one China”, but the two sides attach different meanings to this. The Chinese Communist authorities regard “one China” to be “The People’s Republic of China, ” and after unification, Taiwan would become a “Special Administrative Region” under its jurisdiction. Our side feels that “one China” should refer to the Republic of China, which was founded in 1912 and has continued to exist to the present; its sovereignty extends to the whole of China, but at present its governing power only extends to Taiwan, the Penghu Islands, Quemoy and Matsu. Taiwan is indeed part of China, but the mainland is also part of China. 

This position has been maintained by the Guomindang government ever since. The Guomindang’s adherence to the one-China principle should not be misunderstood as acceptance of the PRC’s position that Taiwan is part of the PRC. In 2014 Ma Ying-jeou reiterated that the “one country, two systems” model is irrelevant to Taiwan. He thus held on to the conservative Guomindang position that the Republic of China is a sovereign state and that it is China’s rightful government. 

The ARATS acknowledged the NUC’s position and did not directly object to it:

[w]ith regard to the meaning of “one China” in the talks between the SEF and our Association on an agreement over functional matters, relevant parties in Taiwan stated their “conclusions” on August 1 and confirmed that “both sides of the Taiwan Straits adhere to the principle of one China.” Our Association feels that making this point clear has great significance for the cross-straits talks on functional affairs. It demonstrates that adherence to the one-China principle in talks on functional affairs has now become the consensus on both sides of the straits. Of course, our Association does not agree with the Taiwan side’s understanding of the meaning of “one China.” Our position of favoring “peaceful reunification and one country, two systems” and opposing “two Chinas, ” “one China, one Taiwan” and “two equal political entities” has been consistent (Xu Shiquan 2003, pp. 86-87).

Therefore, a consensus was achieved between the two sides, summed up with the formula “one country, respective interpretations“.

However, Taiwan’s democratisation and the rise of pro-independence parties broke the monopoly of the Guomindang’s pro-unification discourse. While the Communist-controlled PRC stuck to Chinese nationalism and unification as state-sanctioned dogmas, Taiwan experienced a deep internal crisis. A Taiwanese national identity began to emerge in public discourse, challenging the Guomindang’s traditional Chinese nationalist dominance. Therefore, while China and Taiwan became more integrated economically, the latter was less and less committed to unification. This prompted angry responses and threats of military intervention by the PRC. 

The victory of DPP’s pro-independence candidate Chen Shuibian in the 2000 elections came as a shock to the PRC leadership. The growth of Taiwan’s independence movement forced the CCP to rethink its strategy. While Deng Xiaoping had insisted that Taiwan “return to the motherland” as a special administrative region of the PRC, the Communist leadership now focused on the one-China principle and left more space for a discussion about how reunification should be achieved. 

In 2003, PRC President Hu Jintao stated in his “Four Points” speech:

so long as the Taiwan authorities recognise the “1992 Consensus,” cross-strait dialogues and negotiations can resume immediately, and all issues can be discussed. Not only can we discuss about ending cross-strait hostility … the international status of Taiwan region and its corresponding international space, the political status of the Taiwan authorities, the structure for stable development of cross-strait relations, we can also discuss all practical issues which need to be resolved to realise peaceful unification…. (Sow Keat Tok: Managing China’s Sovereignty in Hong Kong and Taiwan, 2013, p. 100)

However, Chen Shuibian re-election in March 2004 confirmed that Taiwan and China were increasingly drifting apart. As a consequence, in 2005 the PRC promulgated an Anti-Secession Law that legalises the use of force to bring about unification should Taiwan declare formal independence, i.e., drop its commitment to the one-China principle. The Anti-Secession Law, despite its aggressive language, proves that the PRC had shifted its focus from the “one country, two systems” model to the minimum demand that Taiwan not secede (ibid., p. 101). 

The Ma Ying-jeou administration remained until the end committed to the 1992 Consensus. However, the electoral triumph of the DDP, which does not embrace the “one-China Principle”, poses a new challenge to how Taiwan can preserve peace with the Communist regime. A new way will have to be found in order to safeguard cross-strait stability. But while Beijing demands that dialogue must be based on the “one-China principle”, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has so far been reluctant to publicly commit to a political idea that is so unpopular among her electors. 

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