Trickle-down effects of a cross-strait thaw

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 April, 2008, 12:00am

With one month to go before Taiwanese president-elect Ma Ying-jeou is sworn in, change is in the air across the Taiwan Strait. Never mind the dearth of substance at the meeting between President Hu Jintao and Taiwanese vice-president-elect Vincent Siew Wan-chang on the margins of the Boao Forum in Hainan recently; it helped create an air of cordiality, conducive to closer cross-strait relations.

At a post-Boao press conference in Taipei on Monday, Mr Ma said: 'Of the big icy mountain, only a small piece of ice is melted.' Both sides needed to work hard to improve ties 'step-by-step', he added.

He was also confident of improving relations between Taiwan and Hong Kong. Mr Ma, who was born in Hong Kong, is considering waiving the visa requirement for Hong Kong residents and reacted positively to the idea of setting up a Hong Kong office in Taiwan.

In an interview with the Sunday Morning Post, he urged Hongkongers not to worry about the 'negative impact' of the opening of direct links between Taiwan and the mainland. He said there would be an impact, but 'not as serious as most have thought'. Mr Ma's comments might sound diplomatic. But there is a grain of truth in his plain, down-to-Earth assessment of future relations between Taiwan and Hong Kong, in light of the profound changes across the Taiwan Strait.

In view of the constitutional status of Hong Kong, the city's relations with Taiwan have been constrained by the mainland-Taiwan conundrum. Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong-Taiwan relations were strained by the 'two-state' notion propagated by former Taiwanese president Lee Teng-hui and the ascendancy of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party in 2000.

Speaking before the presidential election last month, Paul Yip Kwok-wah, who acted as an adviser on Taiwan affairs to former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa in his first term, could not hide his frustration with the gulf between the two cities.

Mr Yip succeeded in arranging a meeting between Mr Tung and Mr Ma, who visited Hong Kong in 2001 in his capacity as Taipei mayor. However, a government decision to bar him from entry, to attend an academic conference in Hong Kong - after he reportedly criticised the passage of an anti-secession law in Beijing in March 2005 - highlighted the volatility of relations.

The historic meeting between Mr Hu and Mr Siew in Hainan ushers in the beginning of a new phase of cross-strait interaction and co-operation on economic, social and cultural matters, while putting political issues aside for the time being.

The growing desire of Beijing and the government-in-waiting in Taiwan for mutually beneficial ties, while shelving disputes, should bring about drastic changes in Hong Kong-Taiwan-mainland relations. These changes will not be limited to trade, air and shipping links, and tourism, either: a change of the overall atmosphere will prove to be even more profound and far reaching.

In view of the long-standing feud between Beijing and Taipei, ties between Hong Kong and Taiwan have been far from normal. The lack of exchange and dialogue have bred misunderstanding and bias.

Many Hongkongers' views of Taiwan's democracy have been tainted by the entrenched view of ballot irregularities and claims about 'money politics', without doing justice to the first democracy in Chinese society. Then, take post-1997 Hong Kong. To many Taiwanese, the city, under 'one country, two systems', is a total failure; a counterexample of unification.

With interaction between the mainland Taiwan and Hong Kong set to grow, and changes in their relations on the horizon, it is imperative for the authorities to abandon old thinking and devise a new strategy for the benefit of Greater China.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large.