For Asia Times Online www.atimes.com
By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI – Acting as an icebreaker to the traditionally very testy relations between Beijing and Taiwan’s anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party, former Taiwanese premier and DPP heavyweight Frank Hsieh Chang-ting on Monday wrapped up a high-profile – though labeled by himself as “apolitical” – five-day trip to mainland China, making him the highest-ranking DPP figure ever to cross the Taiwan Strait.
That Hsieh has been wined and dined by top mainland officials was hardly surprising, as his move is certain to be to the profound benefit of two political figures. While Chinese President Hu Jintao is steeled against domestic criticism before his retirement, Hsieh has made himself a nearly indispensable Taiwanese opposition leader.
But it is much less clear how whatever the DPP might gain from Taiwan’s moderate voters who appreciate closer ties with Beijing will eventually compare with what the party loses by turning away from its hardcore independence supporters.
The two sides of the Taiwan Strait were pretty much constantly on the brink of war from 2000 to 2008 when the DPP was in power on the island. But in recent years DPP officials, just like their domestic rivals in the Kuomintang (KMT), have been visiting the mainland in droves. While on the island, DPP city councilors, mayors and petty chiefs of districts and boroughs might argue vociferously against cross-strait rapprochement, when on the mainland, they are said to look after their families’ lucrative businesses, invest in the stock markets and establish a firm foothold in the booming property market. But none of these “fact-finding” trips, as they are often justified, has produced nearly as much media hype as Frank Hsieh’s recent visit to the mainland.
On the five-day trip that took him to Xiamen in Fujian province and to Beijing, Hsieh and his entourage paid tribute to his ancestors’ graves and met with elite think-tanks, as well as top bureaucrats and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. On the illustrious list of Hsieh’s hosts were State Councilor Dai Bingguo, Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Straits, and Wang Yi, director of the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, among others.
“That Brother Chang-ting came today is an important step to solve cross-strait differences,” said Yu Keli, head of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Taiwan Studies. “And we also welcome all other DPP members to come to the mainland in their private capacities for exchanges.”
That the mainland side rolled out the red carpet particularly enthusiastically for Hsieh had to do with his political stance, which is extraordinarily Beijing-friendly for a DPP official. Because straying from the DPP’s official line, which sees the Republic of China (ROC) as a foreign regime imposed on Taiwan by the retreating KMT troops after the Chinese Civil War, he calls on the party to recognize the ROC’s legitimacy formally, thereby through the back door acknowledging that Taiwan is indeed part of China.
In the run-up to Taiwan’s last presidential and legislative elections in January, opinion polls stubbornly presented the incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT and his main challenger, the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, as being tied in a head-to-head race. It wasn’t until Ma’s campaign strategy abruptly shifted, telling the Taiwanese that a DPP win would harm cross-strait relations and in turn the economy, that Ma overtook Tsai, beating her handsomely. The DPP’s long post-election soul-searching process delivered a nearly uniform verdict: Tsai had failed to show the electorate that meaningful DPP-CCP communication channels had been established. Hsieh’s trip aimed at correcting just that.
Observers agree that such a trick is necessary if the DPP ever wants to regain power. But its two most prominent members, who both are ambitious to run as the party’s contender in the 2016 presidential elections, party chairman Su Tseng-chang and his predecessor Tsai, look on Hsieh’s advance with a good portion of suspicion.
“Su and Tsai aren’t pleased but cannot stop him. They also want to reconcile with the CCP but don’t know how and when,” Chen In-chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, told Asia Times Online. “While Hsieh has already been an important figure within the DPP, he becomes even more important through this trip.”
Chen added that it was not yet clear whether Hsieh wanted to position himself to become the party’s presidential contender or if he was satisfied with the role of kingmaker. But if he were to opt for the latter, it would most likely come to the benefit of Tsai, “as she can offer him more goodies”, according to Chen.
Cushions for Hu’s departure
Hu Jintao is scheduled to retire from his presidential post at the CCP’s 18th National Congress, to be held in early November. However, if he, as widely expected, is to stay on for at least another two years as the chairman of the very important Central Military Commission (CMC), he and his faction will still have to conduct many attritional negotiations with the people around his presidential successor Xi Jinping. That the outcome of Beijing’s power struggles can easily be a matter of life and death was recently once again impressively illustrated by the high-profile downfall of CCP shooting star Bo Xilai.
In Hu’s case, the outgoing president has reasons to be concerned with how his political legacy will be reviewed by future party leaders and people. In the past decade under his leadership, China’s economy has made remarkable progress, but many serious problems have become even more acute, such as official corruption, social injustice, a widening wealth gap and an irrational economic structure. Even before his retirement, his failure to address such problems is being discussed and criticized, openly or privately, inside China.
Many may see Hu’s hallmark “soft-handed” approach toward Taiwan, which with an unprecedented outreach to all elements of Taiwanese society has produced the spectacularly improving cross-strait ties of late, as his one major achievement. But to some in the CCP, and in particular the powerful faction of Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin, the way Hu has been handling the Taiwan issue is too slow in producing results, as the prospect of eventual unification is still nowhere to be seen on the horizon.
“Hu can say his policy is much better than Jiang’s [who in the 1990s mainly placed his bets on military intimidation] if the DPP-CCP relations improve,” Professor Chen said. “For the closer these ties, the more leverage Beijing gains to influence Taiwan’s domestic politics.”
Also, when taking into account that President Ma’s somewhat clumsy governing style could well cost the KMT the next elections, hedging tools are clearly needed from Beijing’s perspective. Ma, whose approval ratings stand at around a dismal 17%, blunders frequently, the last time in late September when his newly hand-picked top official in charge of cross-strait relations, Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi, was caught by DPP lawmakers only being able to identify the photographs of two of the nine members of the CCP’s all-important Politburo Standing Committee.
On his landmark trip, Hsieh had in his luggage a small present for the CCP and affiliated academia in form of the catchphrase “constitutional consensus”. The major hindrance to cross-strait exchanges has always been that the two sides do not formally recognize each other’s existence, let alone legitimacy, but as Beijing made it clear that it was not going to move in the slightest in this regard, it was up to Taiwan’s political caste to churn out ever newer concepts that in Beijing’s eyes could pave the way for unification but to the generally very unification-wary Taiwanese majority actually signify quite the opposite.
Examples of slogans so cryptic that not even the very politically versed among the Taiwanese could easily grasp what they actually mean are abundant. There is the “1992 consensus”, the “agreeing to disagree”, “one country, two areas” as well as the “one country, two cities”, “constitutional one China”, “one constitution, two interpretations” and “constitutional consensus”, the latter four of which apparently being Hsieh’s brainchildren. Behind all this stands the idea that Taiwan is indeed a part of China that nonetheless is not of the People’s Republic of China, a notion a significant part of the Taiwanese population, as well as the DPP, has so far rejected.
As Hsieh visited the mainland in his private capacity, he did not speak for the DPP, but if the party as a result of his trip agrees on taking his direction, those Taiwanese who do not want to see unification at any time or under any circumstances will likely turn their backs on the DPP. And who the beneficiary will be under such a scenario is clear.
“If the DPP gives up on independence, it’s good for the Taiwan Solidarity Union [TSU], as the population’s political attitudes are unlikely to change easily in their essence,” Chen said. He added that this phenomenon became very apparent in the last elections when the staunchly anti-Beijing fringe party unexpectedly managed to become a credible third player in Taiwanese government.
“Many pro-independence voters did not trust Tsai, and that’s why the TSU pocketed an astonishing 9% in the legislative elections,” Chen said.
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.
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