TAIPEI – As Taiwan’s sole noteworthy opposition party has ceased greeting envoys from mainland China with furious demonstrations, a colorful mix of civic action groups has taken matters into its own hands, throwing eggs and petals as an allusion to the ongoing Jasmine revolutions in the Arab world.
On February 24, Beijing’s top negotiator for cross-strait affairs, the chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), Chen Yunlin, traveled to where he had not dared go before: deep into Taiwan’s south, territory administered by the
traditionally anti-China Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
There, Chen and a delegation of more than 50 Chinese businessmen and government officials forced the DPP to make a tough decision: if the local party leadership had called for protests against Chen, people would believe the island’s south was missing out on the business opportunities the visitors claimed to bring along; but if the party rolled out the red carpet instead, it would have risked nothing less than its raison d’etre.
Wining and dining with someone like Chen would amount to acknowledging that cozying up with Beijing is the right thing to do. Therefore, the DPP refrained from either of those two unpleasant choices. Unlike Chen’s earliest visits to Taiwan, when the DPP organized mass protests with tens of thousands of people, on this visit there were no DPP-led demonstrations, nor were there official meetings between him and DPP mayors or magistrates. Instead, myriad civic groups that each have their own reason to oppose the controversial visitor have taken on the task of organizing protests.
“The DPP asked their supporters not to stage protests, but no one will be punished because of protesting,” said Chou Ying-lung, a lecturer at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University’s Department of Political Science, the makeshift tactic already employed by the DPP at Chen’s last visit to Taipei in December. “It is a tricky issue for the DPP indeed. I don’t know how they are going to handle this in the future.”
The list of associations that hold grudges against Chen Yunlin is long and heterogeneous. In the run-up to his arrival, some opponents wanted him barred from entering Taiwan in the first place. There was the Victims of Investment in China Association (VICA), which accuses Chen of failing to protect 30,000 mainland-based Taiwanese who were cheated of their investments in the 14 years when Chen held his previous job as the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office.
“In the best case, those people lost everything; in the worst case, they were thrown in jail or murdered,” the non-governmental organization’s president, William Kao, said.
Together with civic groups that have backgrounds strikingly different to his own organization – such as the Taiwan Friends of Tibet and the Falungong Human Rights Lawyers Working Group – Kao placed Chen’s name on a list of more than 11,000 Chinese Communist Party officials who should not be allowed to set foot on Taiwanese soil.
A Cross-Strait Agreement Watch Alliance and a Judicial Reform Foundation, consisting of lawyers, professors and social activists who are “against corruption, interference and incompetence”, didn’t want Chen to come as long as Beijing does not ensure fair trials for 14 Taiwanese fraudsters who were recently deported by the Philippines to China.
A former envoy to Washington demanded that Taipei should bar Chen “until China acts in a more friendly fashion toward Taiwan”, and the members of the southern Taiwan Society, the One Side One Country Alliance, the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan, as well as the 224 Anti-Chen Yunlin Action Union – 224 stands for February 24, the day of Chen’s arrival to the south – all declared their firm intention to prevent Chen from “conquering” DPP-controlled lands.
Nonetheless, when the Chinese delegation stepped out of the high-speed train that carried it from the island’s Kuomintang party-administered north to the DPP’s south, they were greeted by dozens rather than hundreds. Eggs and chrysanthemums were thrown, and a few bus loads of pro-independence supporters continued to tail Chen.
When asked by Taiwanese media why of all things chrysanthemums were pelting the Chinese motorcade, protesters referred to the ongoing Jasmine revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, implying that the days of Chen Yunlin and his likes in Beijing were numbered. “Chrysanthemums served as a substitute, it is not the season for jasmine,” the protesters said, but not apologetically.
Ostensibly, Chen Yunlin chose the southern municipalities and counties of Kaohsiung, Chiayi and Yunlin as travel destinations to forge ahead with Chinese investment in Taiwan, bilateral cooperation in the development of emerging industries, the export of local agricultural and fishing products to mainland China and to promote greater collaboration between small and medium-size businesses.
Taiwan’s government-leaning press has furthermore speculated that Chen carried economic goodies to the south in connection with China’s 12th five-year plan, under which Beijing intends to spend more than US$608 billion on several key industries and underdeveloped mainland inland regions.
However, according to a Taiwanese scholar Asia Times Online talked to, the actual economic benefits Chen’s visit could bring to the south may be overestimated.
Li Chi-Keung, professor at Taipei’s Tamkang University Graduate Institute of China Studies, doesn’t think Chen Yunlin’s delegation would have brought any real or big offers for that region. This is because economic deals between Taipei and Beijing are no longer done through delegations such as the one led by Chen Yunlin. “China’s and Taiwan’s economic relationship has become more official and institutional,” Li says. “Any further important agreement must be discussed under this formal system.” Li said that while Chen had announced that China wanted to purchase more fruit from the south, it would not have much of a positive impact on the economic situation.
Whatever the real purpose of Chen’s trip, it clearly split the DPP from grassroots civic groups. The party once functioned as an umbrella organization for all those Taiwanese who did not want to hear about cross-strait cooperation, let alone unification. But the protests showed that those days are gone as deep rifts have emerged between civic groups on the one side and DPP officials who hold public office on the other.
The DPP politician who is believed to have played a role in arranging Chen’s visit to DPP-lands is Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu. In 2009, she visited Beijing and Shanghai to promote the Kaohsiung World Games, and since then she has been regarded as China’s “window to the DPP”. However, the mayor reportedly canceled her plans to attend a luncheon with Chen Yunlin after protesters warned that “every DPP politician willing to meet Chen Yunlin should be ready to be washed in eggs”.
In an interview with Asia Times Online, Chen Mao-Hsiung, a retired professor from Taiwan’s National Sun Yat-sen University, said first and foremost the egg and chrysanthemum-throwing protesters are the crux of the DPP’s cross-strait policy problem, implying that it is their fault that the DPP can’t come up with a clear party stance in terms of relations to Beijing.
During former president Chen Shui-bian’s tenure, pro-DPP civic groups were treated very respectfully by the party; this led to the emergence of countless such groups that were now close to spoiling the broth, Chen said.
“It’s a peculiarity of those DPP-leaning groups that they like to dictate the local DPP administration’s policy,” Chen said. “Outsiders want command over insiders; the politically inexperienced over the experienced; the uneducated over the educated.”
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist