Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has announced the formulation she wants the party to use in its approach to China. She used the Chinese phrases he er butong (和而不同) and he er qiu tong (和而求同), the meaning of which we will explore below.
The immediate response was not all negative, although much of it was. Former vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), who has announced her intention to stand as DPP candidate in the presidential election, dismissed it as “too obscure.” The Presidential Office called it ethereal and evasive. In China, some academics called it an election ploy. Is it that they truly misunderstand, or are they just being deliberately contrary to serve their own ends?
Tsai’s phrasing is inspired by the Confucian Analects. To be precise, Book 13, verse 23, in which Confucius says: “The true gentleman seeks harmony, but reserves the right to disagree (he er butong, 和而不同); the base person agrees without necessarily seeking harmony (tong er buhe, 同而不和).”
When Tsai talks about seeking harmony, she is referring to the status quo, arguing that the discussion should start with recognizing Taiwan and its values, and from there seek to maintain and nurture relations with China. In this, she does not diverge from the DPP’s consistent position.
The second phrase, he er qiu tong, means “seeking agreement in a spirit of conciliation,” which is basically an extension of the first idea. It is a recognition that Taiwan and China have shared responsibilities and interests and should be seeking peaceful and stable relations and fostering development, not focusing on unification or independence. Not only is this consistent with the DPP’s 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future, it also leaves room for cross-strait relations to develop.
This flexible, conciliatory stance reflects Tsai’s rational and pragmatic style, without compromising the spirit of the DPP’s party platform. It could also appeal to the swing vote and perhaps even to moderate Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) voters. One would expect neither Beijing nor academics in China to look too favorably on any formulation that does not contain the words “one China,” as they will not embrace even the slightest change.
How does Tsai’s idea compare with the offerings of her big-hitting colleagues in the DPP? Former premier Frank Hsieh’s (謝長廷) “constitutional consensus” (憲法共識) emphasizes the differences that exist between the respective political and legal systems. The pan-green camp has its issues with this idea, however, as the Constitution still seeks unification. Lu’s “1996 consensus” says Taiwan became a sovereign nation when it held its first direct presidential election in 1996. Uncompromising in its stance, it appeals to the pro-independence faction, but has little chance of building a consensus outside the DPP.
Former premier Su Tseng-chang’s (蘇貞昌) “Taiwan consensus” (台灣共識) holds that, after four direct presidential elections, Taiwan should be considered a sovereign, independent country, does not belong to the People’s Republic of China, and, according to the Constitution, is currently called the Republic of China. Any change to that would require the consent of the entire country, although such a change already enjoys a majority consensus. Su’s formulation benefits from its clarity and is in line with the “status quo” and the spirit of the DPP platform. The phrase is clear, compared with the opacity of Tsai’s concepts, but it won’t find many advocates in Beijing.