China’s communist party is not known for bumper stickers—those slogans that fit a political philosophy into a six-inch space next to a car’s brake lights. (Chaguan once covered an election in Kentucky in which the Republican candidate’s bumper sticker read, in its entirety: “Coal. Guns. Freedom.”) Party slogans need not trip off the tongue to be printed on red banners and displayed on streets, as in: “Hold high the great banner of Xi Jinping Thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.”
A tolerance for complexity comes in handy when trying to comprehend the approach of Chinese leaders to Taiwan, a democratic island which China deems a province that must unite with the mainland. For their pitch is a mess of contradictions. On the one hand China’s rulers talk of deep ties of blood and kinship with Taiwan’s 24m people, even as the proportion of islanders who define themselves as Chinese falls each year. This campaign does not just involve wooing Taiwanese business bosses with access to mainland markets. Despite covid-induced travel headaches, a small legion of Chinese officials remain employed in a hearts-and-minds industry, planning summer camps, study tours and other people-to-people exchanges across the Taiwan Strait.