China and Taiwan’s Leaders Meet in Singapore

marks the surprise meeting between Chinese and Taiwanese presidents Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore on Saturday afternoon:

习马会1 拷贝

Ma’s pursuit of closer ties with the mainland faces resounding rejection in looming , with his party likely to lose both presidency and parliament to the opposition . The meeting is the first of its level since the end of China’s civil war in 1949. Like the 1993 Wang-Koo (or Koo-Wang) Summit, every aspect of the event highlights the sensitive situation left in the conflict’s wake, from its venue in Singapore—neutral, but still part of the “Greater Chinese family”—to the minutely negotiated matters of protocol and choreography. From The Associated Press’ Christopher Bodeen:

According to Taiwan, planning for Saturday’s meetings began two years ago, complicated by the need to meet conditions consistent with China’s refusal to recognize Taiwan’s government and insistence on the “one-China principle,” stating that Taiwan and China are part of the same nation.

[…] Mutual non-recognition requires a particular set of protocols and government agencies. Because they don’t recognize each other’s titles, Xi and Ma will refer to each other as “Mr.”, rather than “President.”

Unheard-of for a meeting of heads of state, no flags will be in view, at least where cameras are present. Although Taiwan is more relaxed about the matter, even low-level Chinese delegations to Taiwan threaten to cancel events unless the island’s flag is removed from meeting venues.

[…] With neither leader serving as host, and given the sensitivity over any sign of attempted dominance, the photo opportunities and other events will have to be handled like musical theatre: carefully choreographed, with the proper sets, and, most importantly, careful execution of the script. [Source]

The optical management got underway ahead of the meeting itself: Ma’s Taiwan flag lapel pin was blurred out of state media coverage of a news conference on Friday. (Read more on state media’s handling of the delicate news from Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian at Foreign Policy.)

In a conversation at ChinaFile, Andrew Nathan suggests that Xi’s attendance seems to surrender some ground despite all these precautions.

Like Ma, Xi does not have to give up his basic principle on the question of Taiwan’s status, which is the One China Principle. Yet he pays a subtle price, because meeting with the R.O.C. president on a “mister”-to-“mister” basis risks creating an optic of what some have called mutual non-subordination, something Beijing has never agreed to before. Xi has also had to give up the demand that the price of a presidential meeting would be “political” talks. What political talks would mean was always vague. But Ma’s statements in advance of the meeting indicate that he will not engage in anything that would rise to that level.

Xi therefore has taken more risk than Ma with this meeting. (Ma, after all, with his popularity at rock bottom, has nothing left to lose.) What looks like a sudden decision to hold it, at an awkward time, suggests a certain desperation. I speculate that Xi shares Ma’s view that it is important to send a message to the Taiwan public about the bright prospects of cross-strait cooperation. Perhaps he, unlike Ma, thinks that this can affect the election. But more likely he is playing a longer game, hoping to stem the rapid rise of anti-mainland sentiment in Taiwan, and in that way to influence the behavior of the next Taiwan administration. [Source]

At The New York Times, Austin Ramzy proposes the origin of Xi’s “desperation”: that growing trade—illustrated in a series of graphs at Bloomberg—has failed to reel Taiwan in, even as it fuels fear of that outcome among the Taiwanese.

The historic encounter, scheduled to take place on neutral ground in the city-state of Singapore on Saturday, will be trumpeted by both sides as a milestone in cross-strait relations. But it also seems to be an implicit acknowledgment by Mr. Xi that the Chinese effort to woo Taiwan with economic benefits alone has been unsuccessful — and that Beijing’s dream of unification with the island is as distant as ever, despite a long courtship.

[…] In many ways, the Communist Party’s approach to Taiwan has mirrored its policies in volatile Chinese territories like Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang, where it opens its checkbook to distribute economic benefits but refuses to compromise on political matters.

[…] Part of the problem in Taiwan has been slow growth; gross domestic product contracted in the last quarter, despite all the Chinese tourism and trade. Many are worried that investment in China has undermined Taiwan’s own industries. And even when the island’s economy performed better, wage growth stagnated, with the benefits of cross-strait trade going disproportionately to Taiwan’s business elite.

The larger concern, though, has been China’s intentions. Beijing considers Taiwan to be Chinese territory that must be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary, and the demonstrations against Mr. Ma’s policies have been driven by fear that China is using trade to achieve what decades of military bluster could not. [Source]

These demonstrations culminated in the occupation of Taiwan’s legislative chamber last year, a feat which around a hundred protesters tried to repeat on Friday night in protest at the meeting.

At The National Interest, Jonathan Sullivan of the University of Nottingham argues that “Chinese attempts to influence Taiwan’s elections have invariably backfired,” and describes “an arrangement that will ‘lock in’ the direction of cross-Strait relations” as “unlikely.” Nevertheless, he argues at South China Morning Post that “constraining the DPP, pre-emptively circumscribing its room for manoeuvre and limiting the ‘damage’ that a DPP administration could do to the unification project is the aim of this meeting.”

The losers in all this, surprise surprise, are the Taiwanese people. Yet, contrary to the reaction of their hyperactive politicised media, Taiwanese society appears fairly relaxed about it. Indeed, Taiwanese have reacted with remarkable equanimity considering what is, to many, the galling spectacle of a reviled leader pursuing his personal goals against the wishes of the majority, and witnessing an outside power conspire to influence the outcome of hard-won democratic processes. The “maturity” of this response is a resounding rebuttal to Chinese, and some of the KMT elite, who complain that Taiwan’s democracy is undermined by the emotional and immature nature of the people. Despite the exigencies of political competition and the heightened sense of drama that accompanies Taiwan’s hard-fought elections, there is actually a high degree of consensus on Taiwan’s status – functional autonomy within the framework of the ROC with future endpoints still to be decided.

The majority of Taiwanese identify themselves as Taiwanese, identify with the Taiwanese form of democracy, enjoy the freedoms of Taiwanese society and distinguish very clearly between Taiwan and the PRC. Taiwanese are angry but they also have sufficient confidence in the robustness of their democracy to let their votes do the talking. They know that, come January 16, their opportunity will come to pronounce on Ma and the KMT’s eight-year tenure. The worry is that the right to sanction the KMT will be a pyrrhic victory if Taiwan’s future has already been influenced by something as decidedly undemocratic as an ad hoc meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Ma. [Source]

Taiwan-based Tiananmen exile Wu’er Kaixi writes in an op-ed at The New York Times:

[… L]et us imagine that the two leaders make the smartest of possible moves, and Mr. Xi offers Taiwan a concession — such as removal of the missiles just across the narrow Taiwan Strait — that wins the KMT some of those elusive parliamentary seats.

It would be a victory for Mr. Xi and for Mr. Ma — particularly if the KMT were able to hold on to Parliament. The presidential duo could package it to the international community as a major stride toward peace and reconciliation. Western columnists would rub their hands in glee and write in adulatory terms of China and Taiwan’s push for peace in a strife-riddled world.

Nevertheless, the truth will remain that whatever happens on Saturday in Singapore is nothing more than cynical politics — cynical politics that come at a huge cost for Taiwan. The reason: for the first time since the Chinese Communist Party took power in 1949, one of its leaders will have become a broker in Taiwan’s electoral process.

This is not something that China’s leadership has earned. It is a position the Chinese have bullied their way into. Meanwhile, Mr. Ma has betrayed his voters by joining forces with the greatest threat to their sovereignty — and purely for political gain. [Source]

At Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish suggests that “bringing the two sides closer together not only may warp Taiwan’s democracy, which many on the island fear — but could also nudge China towards a more democratic future, a great and seemingly unobtainable hope for many on the mainland.”

In this increasingly close relationship, China is the dominant partner: it is far larger in size, population, economy, and global sway. Although militarily the United States is required to arm Taiwan, and maybe even defend it from a Chinese attack, Beijing still has an estimated 1,200 missiles directed at the island. And yet, power and influence doesn’t only flow one way. Taiwan has long influenced the mainland — culturally, religiously, and politically — and to some liberals in China’s party establishment, the mere existence of Taiwan represents the best hope for Chinese democracy. In his February 2014 meeting, Xi claimed that the Chinese and Taiwanese possess the same spirit, culture, and blood. That may be true — but the Taiwanese are also living proof that modern and successful Chinese can oppose Communist Party rule and support democracy.

In particular, Taiwan’s existence shows the lie behind Beijing’s longtime assertion that Chinese aren’t fit for democracy. “China can tell you, ‘with our 5,000 years of Confucian society, democracy doesn’t work,’” the popular Taiwanese writer and critic Lung Ying-tai told journalist Richard Bernstein. “But with Taiwan, you can imagine China differently.” Taiwan, Ma told students at Stanford University in 2013, “represents a shining example of how democracy can take root in the Chinese-speaking world.” For the first time in Chinese history, he added, “we in Taiwan have proved that democracy can thrive in a Chinese society. It presents a shining ray of hope to the 1.3 billion Chinese people on the mainland.” […] [Source]

Similarly, NYU’s Jerome Cohen commented last year that Taiwan “offers mainland human rights advocates a ray of light at the end of today’s dark tunnel.” Chinese authorities conceal that light as best they can. Ahead of Taiwanese “midterm” elections last December, a leaked media directive warned:

Do not hype Taiwan’s “nine-in-one” election. Take note to contain [online] commentary, uniformly delete all content attacking the political system of the mainland, and immediately close the accounts of serious violators. [Source]

As Stone Fish notes, Taiwan’s elections have repeatedly drawn mainland visitors seeking to “enjoy the carnival-like atmosphere,” despite reported restrictions on tour group numbers during election seasons. In 2012, two mainland tourists interviewed by Reuters appeared unmoved:

“China’s way is better in that the new leaders are those selected for their experience, in a systematic manner [as illustrated here] … I don’t think it’s a good idea to elect someone who has no experience just because they have more votes.”

[…] “It’s pretty good to have democracy, but it wastes a lot of time and resources. […] China’s democracy is different from Taiwan’s [as discussed here]. Taiwan’s democracy is loud and explicit, but China’s is more subtle and low key. The style is different, you wear a suit, we wear jeans.” [Source]

Some on Sina Weibo, though, were more impressed. From CDT:

@darkillzhou: Just now, a Taiwanese friend said to me at the end of our conversation, “I am going to vote tomorrow morning, and we will know who will be the President by the evening.” I suddenly do not know how to respond to him. Although there is no real communication barrier between us, I felt thoroughly ashamed in front of him. I could only say to him, “You guys are too backward. If we had to vote tomorrow morning, tonight we would already know who would be elected….”

@李不三四: Watching the hot Presidential election on the other side of the strait, my heartfelt jealousy also arises like the ocean waves. I really want to shout loudly: the mainland is an inseparable part of China as well! [Source]