When he leaves office early next year, Ma will do so as one of the most unpopular Taiwanese leaders in memory, stirring a popular revolt last year among Taiwanese citizens who believe his government has been too quick to cozy up to Beijing. The student-led ‘Sunflower movement’ protests so rattled Ma’s government that he abandoned what he hoped would become one of his administration’s most important policy achievements — the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which would have liberalized many service sectors between mainland China and Taiwan, including tourism, finance and communications. Though Ma concluded negotiations with Beijing over the CSSTA, the Taiwanese parliament still hasn’t ratified the agreement.
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Ma’s decision to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平) today is not necessarily a popular decision back home — and its swift announcement earlier this week was a bombshell in the campaign for Taiwanese elections just nine weeks away.
With just months left in office, his ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨), is far behind in the presidential race. For the first time in Taiwan’s history, the Kuomintang and its allies that form the Pan-Blue Coalition could lose control of Taiwan’s parliament. The Kuomintang’s first presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the vice president of the Legislative Yuan (立法院), Taiwan’s unicameral legislature, sunk so low in polls since becoming the KMT presidential nominee in July that the party dumped her last month. Her replacement, Eric Chu (朱立倫), the party chairman and, since 2010, the mayor of New Taipei, is gaining little traction.
Neither Ma nor Xi are expected to announce any new policies or make any joint statements as a result of the meeting taking place today at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel, on ‘neutral’ ground. That’s not necessarily a problem, though, because the fact that the two are meeting on (relatively) equal — Ma as the head of the Kuomintang and Xi as the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中国共产党) — is historic in its own right.
Given that so much of Ma’s unpopularity stems from his pro-China stand, his meeting today in Singapore may well doom the Kuomintang’s chances entirely in January’s general election. Indeed, the party’s low standing in public opinion may have made it eaiser for Ma to engage Xi. The near-certainty of losing power might have liberated Ma toward a historic meeting that will almost certainly have long-term benefits for better cross-straits relations.
In one sense, Ma’s position follows naturally from the force of economic gravity — 27% of Taiwan’s exports now go to China, and another 13% go to Hong Kong. Direct flights between Taipei and Beijing are now commonplace, trade continues to rise and mainland tourists are no longer a rare sight. Though Taiwan has the world’s 19th largest economy and incomes are far higher in Taiwan than on the mainland, China’s growing economic prowess (even as it may be headed into recession) is simply a matter of fact. Among the issues Ma expected to raise with Xi: a direct hotline between Taipei and Beijing, greater cooperation from Beijing in dealing with Taiwan’s murky international status and Xi’s change of heart in inviting Taiwan to join the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank that Xi formed last year as a counterweight to US-dominated global financial institutions.
Xi, a ‘princeling’ whose father was a top Party official, is expected to head the mainland Chinese government through 2022, has more thoroughly dominated the CCP than any leader since perhaps Mao Zedong, waging a widespread campaign against corruption within the Party that has snared so many top officials that critics argue it functions as a purge of Xi’s internal rivals. Fresh off meetings to design China’s next five-year economic program, Xi’s government has been particularly aggressive, if not successful, about ameliorating economic headwinds, including failed efforts to stop a Chinese stock market crash over the summer. Two weeks ago, China formally ended its ‘one-child’ policy, and Xi’s government has worked with the United States to establish goals to reduce Chinese (and global) carbon emissions in the next two decades, plans that will take center stage at the international summit on climate change next month in Paris.
Nevertheless, the Chinese economy faces a difficult patch as its working population ages and it transitions from top-down growth built on internal improvements and an economy based on manufactured exports produced mainly along China’s dense eastern coast. Politically, Xi has gradually cracked down on dissent and tightened internal controls on Internet freedom. Nevertheless, he faces an angry Hong Kong population that has demanded a greater voice in choosing who will be eligible to stand for chief executive in 2017. Relations between Beijing and China’s western ethnic communities, such as the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, are still strained. The last thing Xi wants is a reversal of Beijing’s gains with Taiwan since 2008. It’s been Xi (and not Ma) who has resisted a meeting in the past; Xi’s accession to today’s meeting reflects that growing economic ties alone are not enough to secure those gains.
In local elections last year, the Kuomintang suffered defeats nationwide, including the Taipei mayoral elections, where an independent candidate, Dr. Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a respected surgeon, easily took power with the support of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨). The losses were so severe that Taiwan’s prime minister stepped down. Those losses seem likely to multiply on January 16, when the DPP seems likely to win the presidency for just the second time in Taiwanese history.
Though the DPP and its allies, known as the Pan-Green Coalition, are pro-independence, DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has stressed that her government will not unilaterally declare independence if (more likely when) the DPP takes power next year, an abrupt declaration could rapidly escalate tensions between Beijing and Taipei, perhaps to the point of military conflict. That has reassured the United States and other allies sympathetic to Taiwan. Tsai, who was born and grew up in Pingtung in southern Taiwan, served as the head of the Mainland Affairs Council in the first presidential term of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) between 2000 and 2004. Tsai was elected to lead the DPP at the beginning of the Ma administration in 2008, and she worked to distance the party from the corruption scandals that ultimately resulted in Chen’s conviction and a life prison sentence (though his supporters claim the prosecution was politically motivated, and Chen was released earlier this year).
Though Ma narrowly defeated Tsai to win reelection in 2012, Tsai returned to the DPP leadership in 2014 amid the Sunflower student movement protests, and she announced her second presidential bid in February.
It’s easy enough now for Tsai, with a lead of up to 20 to 25 points in most presidential polls, to make reassuring declarations. But her practical position is at odds with her party’s official stand on Beijing. Like her predecessor Chen, who also rode to power with immense popularity, Tsai will struggle to balance pragmatic governance concerns and the demands of hardliners within the DPP. If the Kuomintang does manage to retain control of the Legislative Yuan, it will oppose Tsai’s administration the with same single-minded determination that it blocked Chen’s agenda. One way to view today’s meeting is an encouragement (and a warning) from to Tsai, Taiwan’s president-in-waiting, from both Xi and Ma not to upset the carefully calibrated arrangement between the two governments.
Ultimately, Beijing’s goal is to to reunite the two Chinese governments, as Xi gingerly indicated at today’s meeting:
No force can pull apart the two sides across the Strait which are “one family,” said Xi in opening remarks before a closed-door meeting with Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore. The 66-year history of the development of cross-Strait relations shows that no matter how much ordeal the two sides have undergone and how long the two sides have been isolated from each other, they cannot be pulled apart, Xi said. Calling both sides “brothers who are still connected by our flesh even if our bones are broken,” Xi told Ma that “at present, we are at the crossroads for choosing the direction and path for future development in cross-Strait relations.”
The most immediate example for a future rapprochement is the ‘one China, two systems’ system under which Hong Kong and Macau are currently governed. But the growing tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing over the level of democracy promised for the 2017 chief executive elections, two decades after Hong Kong’s handover from the United Kingdom back to the Chinese government, are serious enough to give doubt that the CCP would respect the flourishing democracy that Taiwan has now become.
Despite the enmity between the CCP and the Kuomintang (the party of Chinese nationalists that fled mainland China in 1949 when the Chinese communists took power), the Kuomintang today ironically is the more pro-China party in Taiwanese politics, encouraging closer economic and cultural ties, though Ma has never embraced the kind of union with mainland China that Xi and past Communist leaders desire.
It was in 1949, in fact, when the heads of the two parties last met face-to-face.
In brief, the first president of China’s democratic republic, Sun Yat-sen, founded the Kuomintang in mainland China in 1911. After the tumult of World War II, however, the Kuomintang lost a brutal civil war to the Chinese Communist Party, retreating to Taiwan, where it established the Republic of China (ROC), which until 1971 held China’s seat on the UN Security Council. Since then, however, as the mainland’s government, the Communist-controlled People’s Republic of China (PRC), emerged from isolation and became an increasingly muscular regional and economic global power, it has used its growing influence to isolate the ROC, which now floats in a grey area of sovereignty:
Today, less than two dozen states — an eclectic mix of mostly Central American, African and Pacific island countries — still maintain formal diplomatic relations with the ROC, a testament to the growing economic and political clout of mainland China in the 1970s and 1980. While the United States continues to treat Taiwan as a de facto state and further, one of its leading east Asian allies, engaging in high-level cooperation on military, economic and geopolitical matters alike, it’s hard to believe that the US resolve still exists to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty at any cost, even though it was a bedrock principle of US foreign policy as recently as the George W. Bush administration.
Unlike mainland China, however, Taiwan transitioned from a one-party system dominated by the Kuomintang into a multi-party democracy in the 1990s. In 1992, the PRC and ROC governments reached a consensus on the ‘One China’ principle — the classic ‘agree to disagree’ settlement whereby both government will continue to agree that there’s just ‘one’ China, though they have fairly obvious differences about what that ‘one China’ constitutes. Protocols for dealing with the two governments in multinational contexts are detailed and sometimes awkward. The International Olympic Committee, for example, reached an agreement whereby Taiwan would be referred to during the Olympic Games as ‘Chinese Taipei.’ Though the DPP conceptually disagrees with the 1992 ‘One China’ consensus, just as it conceptually desires Taiwanese independence, it’s not clear that Tsai will backtrack on decades of ginger negotiations to improve relations between Beijing and Taipei.