Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou ignited a media firestorm upon his surreptitious announcement that a meeting between himself and Chinese president Xi Jin-ping will occur in Singapore today Saturday November 7, effectively ending over 66 years of non-communication between the highest offices of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait and marking a victory for the Ma administration, which has unsuccessfully sought to arrange such a meeting several times in the past: most recently at the APEC summit, where they found themselves unceremoniously sidelined by the Chinese. Not surprisingly, the announcement has sent the various political factions on the island spanning a wide spectrum of ideologies scrambling to respond to the breaking of the seemingly impermeable impasse that has held place ever since the end of the Chinese Civil War, and to negotiate their own places within the now uncertain future of how the mechanisms of cross-strait relations will proceed from this point forward. At the street level, not all express satisfaction at this abrupt turnabout in events, and activists and protesters within Taiwanese civil society gathered outside of the Legislative Yuan at 3 this morning to monitor events as they unfolded and prepared to voice their concerns if necessary.
Though coming as a vindication of sorts after his embarrassing twin failures in not passing last year’s Trade Services Agreement and his rejected bid to have Taiwan join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, this meeting between Ma and Xi comes at the end of Ma’s tenure and at a time when power will most certainly shift to the opposition DPP after the results of the presidential election next January. In the midst of a lame-duck presidency and with the KMT soon to fall from power, it stands to reason that much of this meeting’s purpose comes as only a symbolic platitude in the developing relationship between Taiwan and China; one finds it highly unlikely that any sort of concrete result will come forth from this event. The KMT, however, did partially signal their intentions with regards to this meeting in the statement that they seek to convey to the Chinese their desire to continue to build a closer relationship with the People’s Republic of China regardless of which party takes power in the upcoming elections, a statement which almost certainly signifies their realization that they will lose the presidency to the DPP.
Indeed, the KMT has become increasingly brash about its willingness to openly declare its intention to move Taiwan more intimately within China’s sphere of influence in hopes of an eventual unification. A party which originated within China itself and vehemently insists on Taiwan continuing to carry itself under the moniker of “Republic of China”, the KMT has time and time again proven the weight it places upon the notion of continuing a “Chinese” heritage embedded in the Taiwanese social conscious, a battlefront it has increasingly pushed to the fore despite the backlash from the Taiwanese citizenry. Its initial choice of candidate for the presidency Hung Hsiu-chu, though retroactively silenced through her eventual replacement, carried this pro-Chinese banner throughout the course of her campaign, despite driving the party further into ridicule and unpopularity. Though somewhat softened his approach in an attempt to serve as a mediating, less-polarizing figure for the party, Eric Chu’s recently rolling out of his “One China” platform seems intent upon carrying on this ideology in his new role as KMT presidential candidate. These kinds of views, seemingly from the 1992 Consensus recognized almost exclusively in Taiwan by the KMT, seem to find credence amongst a certain minority portion of the population seeing the benefits of unification with China and fearful of what they view as the danger of openly declaring separation (much less independence).
These sorts of divisions in ideology regarding the appropriate demarcation of national and ethnic identity reared their head recently in the ongoing conflicts between Ma and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, himself an ethnic Taiwanese (benshengren) and unaligned with the powerful Ma camp of mainlanders (waishengren) which currently holds preeminence over the internal leadership of the KMT, over the latter’s desire to seek the presidential office. This sort of ethnocentrism as the foundation of nationalism remains nothing new within the KMT. Though they seem at least self-aware enough to realize that their dominance of the public discourse will not hold out much longer into the future, the KMT has in the past few months made several attempts to enshrine their pro-China views deep within the social consciousness (most notably in their recent revisions of history textbooks to reflect a strong Chinese heritage within Taiwanese civil society, a move which sparked yet another round of protests this summer), and to ensure that their message continues to propagate within the national debate despite the growing wave of Taiwanese nationalism and its progeny: the various Third Force political parties, many of which openly push for radical independence under the name “Taiwan”.
Like the meeting between Eric Chu and Xi earlier this year, the desired results of this high-level meeting seem not to bring forth any concrete resolution on the current status of cross-strait politics, but to signal to the leadership in Beijing that the KMT remains firmly in its camp as the preferred Taiwanese political party with which China should seek to cooperate, and that the KMT holds strong in its resolve to continue to push Taiwan further in the direction of unification despite an almost assured defeat in the upcoming elections. Tsai Ing-wen, who held a press conference immediately following the announcement of the talks, signaled her skepticism that this meeting would amount to anything more than another attempt at “black box politics” for which the KMT has found itself repeated criticized over the last few years of the Ma administration.
A party teetering on the verge of collapse as a result of bitter infighting between its various factions and a unwavering commitment to an anachronistic ideology that finds little hold amongst those it currently governs, the KMT appears more than willing to cling to underhanded tactics in the event that the democracy to which it pays lip service fails to uplift it once again to a position of authority. Despite a growing malaise in its relationship with the Taiwanese public-at-large, the KMT retains its firm alliance with the Taiwanese business community (themselves deeply involved with the Chinese) and its access to the preponderance of wealth it inherited from decades of one-party rule. Indeed, upon the announcement of the Ma-Xi meeting, the Taiwanese stock market jumped by 50 points to a new high. Even if it has irreparably lost the positive image it managed to put forth following the scandal-plagued years of the Chen administration and the reign of the DPP, the KMT remains determined to steer the direction of cross-strait relations through shadow diplomacy and the building of party-to-party ties with the Communist Party of China.
What then does this signal for the DPP as they ascend to power, as well as to the mass of Taiwanese who oppose a growing reliance on China economically and politically? Tsai and her administration will need to prepare for the inevitability that any attempt made during their leadership to undo the progress of the Ma administration toward eventual unification with China will find itself met with strong opposition from the KMT, who will most certainly still wield a large influence over Taiwanese politics despite their loss of governing office merely by dint of their influence in Beijing and the backing of Taiwanese business interests. If Tsai and her party want to effectively govern, and if their intention truly lies in swinging the pendulum back towards the side of Taiwanese self-determination, a coalition between the DPP and their supporters amongst minority political parties, a reliance on international allies currently opposed to the aggressive dealings of China in the international sphere, and a willingness to show pragmatism when necessary in dealing with China all need to form pillars of a strong government sure to find itself repeatedly assaulted by an increasingly desperate KMT.