China's Taiwan office deputy head under investigation

By the Associated Press | January 20, 2016 | 9:51 PM EST

BEIJING (AP) — A deputy head of the Chinese Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office has been placed under investigation for apparent corruption amid renewed scrutiny of Beijing's policies toward the island following its election of a new independence-leaning president.

The ruling Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in a brief statement that Gong Qinggai is suspected of "serious violations of discipline," which is usually a euphemism for graft. No other details were given.

The announcement dated Tuesday came three days after Taiwanese voters elected Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party as president, although there was no indication of any connection between the two events.

Multiple online reports speculated that Gong's problems were related to the hiding of personnel assets, feuding within his family and his relationship with disgraced officials from Fujian province where he previously worked.

In a statement on its website, the Taiwan Affairs Office said it "resolutely embraced" the investigation of Gong and would continue policing itself for discipline violations.

Whatever triggered Gong's investigation, Chinese President Xi Jinping is believed to be highly dissatisfied with the Taiwan Affairs Office's failure to win over Taiwan's 23 million people to China's goal of political unification.

Although China largely held back in commenting on the election, it has since restated its opposition to Taiwan's formal independence and said it welcomes contacts only with those who accept Beijing's "one-China principle" that casts the island and the mainland as part of a single Chinese nation.

Tsai has refused to endorse that view, although she has promised to make no change in the status quo of de facto independence and said neither side should provoke the other. She has also pledged to utilize all existing channels of communication, although whether she can do so without explicitly endorsing China's stance, also known as the "'92 consensus," remains unknown.

"It looks as if China would demand Tsai come out and endorse the '92 consensus, but there is room for negotiation," said Huang Jing, a China expert at Singapore National University's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Tsai defeated Eric Chu of Taiwan's China-friendly Nationalist Party, who had hoped to succeed outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou after eight years of Nationalist rule.

Skepticism over Ma's push for closer economic ties with China was a major factor in the result, with young voters in particular fearful of an erosion of the island's competitiveness and their future earning potential. Anti-China sentiment also helped the Democratic Progressive Party gain a majority in the national legislature for the first time.

The loss may prompt Xi to exert greater personal control over Taiwan policy, as he has done with the economy and foreign affairs.

Already, it was Xi's personal staff, rather than the Taiwan Affairs Office, that arranged a watershed November meeting between Xi and Ma in Singapore that was the first face-to-face contact between leaders of the two sides since they split amid civil war in 1949.

"That may show that Xi thinks the TAO too conservative," Huang said.

Xi has also made a sweeping anti-corruption drive his signature policy and rumors have long circulated about TAO officials facilitating private deals between Taiwanese and Chinese businesses, side-stepping the sort of checks usually required for approval. China's state-controlled media and opaque political system make it difficult to assess the rumors' validity.

Still, some sort of shake-up is likely, observers say.

"There's a tendency to think that Xi will have to find someone responsible (for the election result) in the Taiwan Affairs Office. He can't let people think that his own policy direction is the failure," said Alexander Huang, a political scientist at Taiwan's Tamkang University.

The sides are now entering a wait-and-see period in the months before the May inauguration of Tsai, Taiwan's first female president. She is expected to spend the time picking her Cabinet and laying out her economic policies, with relatively little time spent on China relations.

China during the same period will likely overhaul the Taiwan Affairs Office, if not its entire approach toward Taiwan policy at all levels, Huang said.

"Everything is very sensitive right now," he said.

While the focus may be on policy failures, the real reason that Taiwanese voters rejected the Nationalists lies in the fundamental difference between Taiwan's thriving democracy and China's autocratic one-party communist system that Beijing has refused to reform despite sweeping social and economic changes, said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian and independent commentator.

"No doubt something went wrong with the mainland's policies toward Taiwan. But the key problem lies in the lack of democracy in the mainland and the Taiwanese voters were actually afraid that the situation would spread to Taiwan," Zhang said.

"They feared they might be betrayed by the Nationalists over their close relations with the mainland," he said.