Given how little the two men gave us to run with, all we’re left with is what wasn’t said, or things half-said, which may give us a glimpse of the unconscious elements that fuel the narrative. If we’re lucky, those may yield opportunities for conflict resolution.
Anyone who expected substance from last Friday’s meeting in Beijing between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and former Kuomintang (KMT) chairman Lien Chan was probably asking for the impossible. As expected, the two men mostly regurgitated the same old platitudes about “one China” and the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
The fact that Xi can only meet someone like Lien, whose relevance in Taiwanese affairs has markedly dimmed over the years, speaks volumes about Beijing’s inability to entertain contact with people who can actually influence the shape and direction of Taiwanese politics. In fact, Xi has largely limited himself to meetings with people, like the 81-year-old Lien, the unelectable Hung Hsiu-chu (dumped by her own party ahead of the 2016 elections), and Yok Mu-ming, chairman of the marginal pro-unification New Party, who are unlikely to challenge him and whose views, I must add, are completely out of sync with the large majority of Taiwanese — in both the “green” and “blue” camps.
This was the fourth such meeting between Xi and Lien since March 2013, when Xi assumed the presidency.
Xi has been reluctant to meet President Tsai Ing-wen because he knows that the Taiwanese side would insist that such contact occur among equals, which is unpalatable to a regime that has a very clear idea of the hierarchy between the center and what Beijing regards a its “peripheries.” (He and Ma Ying-jeou met as party chairmen at a much bruited Singapore summit in November 2015, but by then Ma was largely discredited and had six months left in office with no possibility of a third term.)
Like Hu and others before him, Xi singles out pro-independence forces as if they were only a small minority of troublemakers and appeals to the Taiwanese public as if their minds were aligned with Beijing.
The all-power Chinese leader, therefore, wants comfort. Delegates come to him, on his turf in Beijing, reinforcing the notion of the Chinese capital as the center of gravity and ensuring that everything goes according to script. It is merely symbolic, and surely he knows that the likelihood that such meetings — and whatever “points” emerge from those — will exert pressure on the Tsai administration is very slim indeed.
Like his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi’s talking points are not even original and are equally off the mark when it comes to reflecting on the views of the Taiwanese on the matter of unification (“historical trends,” “inevitability,” the “shared desire of all Chinese,” et cetera). Like Hu and others before him, Xi singles out pro-independence forces as if they were only a small minority of troublemakers and appeals to the Taiwanese public as if their minds were aligned with Beijing. That, of course, is poppycock, and we can surmise that Xi, who is not a stupid man, is keenly aware of that.
So much for all this. Can anything be salvaged from last Friday’s meeting, anything that warrants analysis? There were a few nuggets.
The first one is Xi’s odd plea for reciprocity, in which he momentarily departed from the usual position that China is big and powerful and therefore “regions” ought to be dazzled by the bright light of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Instead, Xi stated that China “fully understands the special mentality of Taiwan compatriots and fully respects the existing social system and way of life of Taiwan compatriots,” but — and here’s the unusual part — “Taiwan compatriots” should also show respect for the decision by “mainland compatriots” to “embark on the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics” thanks to which they “made great achievements” (「大陸完全理解台灣同胞的特殊心態，充分尊重台灣同胞現有的社會制度和生活方式，但同樣，大陸同胞走上了中國特色社會主義道路，取得了巨大成就，也值得台灣同胞尊重」). It’s almost as if Xi were begging the Taiwanese for acceptance. It might not be much. Or it might mean something. What he should know is that, occasional condescension aside, Taiwanese are fine with whatever political system the Chines have chosen for themselves; what they want is for Beijing to also respect their choices. If indeed this constitutes an appeal by Xi — who I am convinced is still trying to ward off more hawkish elements within the Chinese Communist Parry (CCP) that want a harder line on Taiwan — then I believe this is one that should be considered by Taipei, which could certainly do more to emphasize its respect for Chinese accomplishments.
Taiwanese are fine with whatever political system the Chines have chosen for themselves; what they want is for Beijing to also respect their choices.
The other interesting bit came from Lien when he and Xi were discussing (early) signs of reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula. In a press release issued after Friday’s meeting, Lien is said to have observed that “It is very strange that cross-Strait ties have sunk into a stalemate at a time when the silver light of peace is emerging on the Korean Peninsula, which has been on the verge of conflict on many occasions.”
The former KMT chairman is here lamenting the fact that Koreans have (seemingly) made greater progress than the “Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” That statement is a direct, though probably inadvertent, contradiction of Xi’s views on “historical trends” and “inevitability,” and implies that Xi’s handling of the Taiwan portfolio since 2013 has been a failure (it’s either that or an admission that the Koreans are somehow wiser than the “Chinese,” which to both Chinese chauvinists would be a difficult one to make).
What Lien didn’t — couldn’t say — is that negotiations between North and South Korea are made possible by the fact that the two sides are members of the U.N. and recognized, as equals, as sovereign independent states, by the international community (I am indebted to Fan Shih-ping for making this point in an op-ed yesterday). Both leaders have had summits with the U.S. president and other heads of state, and there is no question, when they met across the DMZ, that they were meeting as equals.
Hints? It’s too soon to tell. But given how little the two men gave us to run with, all we’re left with is what wasn’t said, or things half-said, which may give us a glimpse of the unconscious elements that fuel the narrative. If we’re lucky, those may yield opportunities for conflict resolution.