Despite Optics of Zhang’s Visit, Taiwan Remains Wary of China’s Intentions.
By Joel Atkinson, July 7, 2014
Zhang Zhijun, director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, recently concluded a four-day visit to Taiwan. He is the highest-ranking official from the People’s Republic of China ever to have visited Taiwan, making the trip something of a milestone in relations across the Taiwan Strait.
First up on Zhang’s itinerary was a meeting with his Taiwanese counterpart, Wang Yu-chi, the director of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. The two had held the first such government-to-government talks in February in Nanjing, where they agreed in principle to establish mechanisms for official communication, including representative offices. This time they moved one step closer to setting up representative offices, agreeing that staff could make humanitarian visits to detainees. They also agreed to look at greater participation for Taiwan in regional trade pacts.
But the most important purpose of Zhang’s mission was to show the Taiwanese public that Beijing has a softer, friendlier side. Zhang made a point of visiting nursing homes, nursery schools and other places where he could get to know “ordinary Taiwanese” during his stay. He also met with several mayors, including one—Chen Chu, the mayor of Kaohsiung—who belongs to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.
Zhang wasn’t authorized to make any concessions on China’s road map for unification with Taiwan—the formula of “one country, two systems,” compelled by the threat of war that the majority of Taiwanese find skin-crawling. Instead, he had to rely on smiles and constructive ambiguity to try and build some common ground.
The Taiwan Affairs Office spokeswoman had only recently angered many Taiwanese by declaring that the future of Taiwan must be decided by all Chinese people, not just those in Taiwan. Zhang offered nothing to contradict his subordinate, but softened the tone with some friendly metaphors, saying, “People across the Strait have the same root, so we have to think and act as a family when facing common difficulties in order to solve these problems.”
Seemingly loath to mention or validate Taiwan’s democracy, Zhang talked about how Beijing understands “that people in Taiwan greatly treasure the social system, values and lifestyle they have chosen, and we respect their choices.”
Zhang met the mayor of New Taipei, Eric Chu, who said that “Taiwan and China should continue seeking exchanges while respecting differences.” Zhang suggested instead that the two sides should create conditions favorable to cross-strait exchanges and “endeavor to resolve” those differences.
Zhang even managed to put a positive spin on China’s longstanding unwillingness to engage with prominent pro-independence Taiwanese politicians, businessmen and even entertainers, talking up China’s willingness to work with all in favor of the “peaceful development of cross-strait relations.” Given that only China threatens to resort to war to resolve Taiwan’s status, this last phrase has distinctly—and chilling—Orwellian overtones. Yet, such word play appears to have successfully kept the tone of Zhang’s trip upbeat.
Zhang also did what he could to make sure that the protests that followed him around the island did not interfere with that positive messaging, even when a few visits on his final day were canceled due to security concerns. Those prompted Zhang to refer cryptically to “some situations” he had experienced that he felt did not represent the Taiwanese people. When asked if he was treated discourteously in Taiwan, he diplomatically left that “for the public to decide.”
Zhang would presumably have experienced more intense protests if it wasn’t for the hard-line stance the Taiwanese government took toward the demonstrators. As a result, a trip aimed at showing the Taiwanese public Beijing’s softer side ironically hardened the perception of a growing number of Taiwanese that President Ma Ying-jeou’s administration is moving in a more authoritarian direction.
But was the visit a success? The Chinese government, of course, is calling it one. Back in Beijing, Zhang told state media about the “enthusiastic welcome from all circles and peoples in Taiwan” that his visit received. For Zhang, the implications of the visit were easy to see: “Despite differing voices, the popular will is extremely clear. . . . Everyone universally believes that peaceful development of cross-strait relations is the correct path and brings real benefits to people on both sides. Everyone believes we should continue down this path.” State media claimed that “Zhang’s interactions with grassroots people have won him some locals’ hearts.” It stuck to Beijing’s familiar script, quoting unnamed experts predicting that the trip was “bound to usher in a new era for cross-strait relations.”
Presumably, the assessment of the visit in Beijing is more nuanced and circumspect behind closed doors. Still, the Chinese leadership genuinely appears to believe that it doesn’t need to compromise on its formula for unification, no matter how unpalatable it is to the vast majority of people across the political spectrum in Taiwan, and regardless of the growing discontent in Hong Kong toward the “one country, two systems” approach. Instead, Beijing appears determined to stay the course; its only concession to Taiwanese public opinion is to slow things down a bit.
But it is extremely doubtful that Zhang’s visit has won Taiwanese hearts and minds. Most people in Taiwan already support the “peaceful development of cross-strait relations”—if that means benefiting from cross-strait cooperation and avoiding the costs of angering China. This tells us very little, however, about what Taiwanese will do if Beijing forces them to choose between “peaceful development” and national sovereignty. The public support for the student-led Sunflower Movement that sprung up to protest a services trade pact with China, as well as the growing distrust of the Ma administration’s handling of cross-strait relations, suggests it will take more than a four-day visit to convince Taiwanese of Beijing’s goodwill.
Dr. Joel Atkinson is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Poverty Alleviation and International Development at Yonsei University, South Korea. The views expressed here are the writer’s own, and do not represent the views of his employer.