Reunification just a matter of time for many on mainland

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2009, 12:00am

There is a joke doing the rounds in Shanghai poking fun at Taiwan's economic fall from grace, but which also illustrates the way mainland attitudes to the island are changing.

A Taiwanese businessman arrives on his first visit to the city in the early 1990s. Getting in a taxi at the airport, the driver asks: 'Are you here to make an investment? I can show you around lots of factories.'

Arriving a second time a decade ago, he is greeted with the question: 'Are you here on holiday? I can show you around all the sights.'

This year, the driver asks: 'Have you come to look for a job?'

Over the past 12 months, there has been a sea change in relations between Taipei and Beijing, brought about chiefly by the Kuomintang's return to presidential power one year ago, but underscored by the change in the two economies.

Beijing has moved from issuing threatening rhetoric to deter then-president Chen Shui-bian from pushing ahead with a referendum on independence, to a kindly big brother role offering economic assistance and co-operation to his successor, Ma Ying-jeou.

The softening of Beijing's stance became obvious in the run-up to the island's presidential election in March last year, and the leadership moved quickly to make an offer to restart peace negotiations once the result was in.

In previous elections, the mainland has held military manoeuvres near the strait as a reminder that it has still not rejected the use of force to take back the island if necessary.

In March this year, Premier Wen Jiabao even said he would be willing to 'crawl' to visit the island. 'Although I am 67 years old, I would still like to go to Taiwan. If I can no longer walk, I wouldn't mind crawling,' he said.

Three rounds of cross-strait talks since last May have brought dramatic agreements on direct air, sea and postal links, the opening up of financial markets and collaboration between law enforcement agencies.

Demonstrating these blossoming ties, Fujian province is this week holding what has been billed as the largest mass exchange visit from Taiwan. The eight-day Straits Forum, which started on Saturday, is aimed at developing personal links between community groups. Mainland organisers claim that more than 8,000 Taiwanese people are taking part in the series of cultural, educational and business-related events in Xiamen, Quanzhou , Fuzhou and Putian .

Addressing the forum's main meeting on Sunday, Long Yongtu , secretary general of the Boao Forum for Asia and a former foreign trade minister, stressed the importance of direct contact in breaking down political barriers. He said his own first encounter with people from across the strait had forced him to confront his own misconceptions.

'I was amazed I could understand what they were saying,' he said. 'But contact with the Taiwanese makes us realise that we are the same. We are all Chinese.'

Some Taiwanese attending the forum said they felt their officials were not being given the level of respect they deserved. 'They treat Taiwanese representatives like they are on the same level as local government,' one said. 'And because of the economy, our politicians don't dare complain.'

The average mainlander, though, seems oblivious to such resentment. 'I am very optimistic about the prospects of reunification,' said Chen Li, from Xiamen.

'After the progress made in the past year, I am sure it will come within a decade. This is what everyone in Fujian is hoping for after all this time.'

There are strong emotions on the subject in the province, the closest part of the mainland to the island. The Taiwan-governed Kinmen islands sit just a few kilometres outside Xiamen harbour, easily visible from the coastline. The two sides used to blast competing propaganda at one another from giant speakers, but now the islands are a popular day-trip destination.

People in Fujian also feel they have a blood link with the island's population. Taiwan was once part of the province, and this is the ancestral homeland of most of the island's indigenous Chinese.

Ye Shouping, a retiree from Fuding , in the north of the province, said the two sides of the strait had a shared destiny and could not remain apart forever. 'We have a saying in China, 'Everything that parts must be reunited in the end'. Reunification is an absolute certainty,' he said. 'It must happen someday ... All this talk of Taiwanese independence is meaningless. It can never happen.'

Jian Junbo, a researcher at Peking University's Institute of International Relations, said the impact of the financial crisis in Taiwan had given Beijing the upper hand when negotiations resumed last year.

'You can never completely remove economic factors from talk about cross-strait relations,' he said. 'It seems Taiwan really needs access to the mainland market.'

However, he doubted whether there would be progress on reunification in the near future, saying Mr Ma was being an opportunist by sitting on the fence on the issue. While Mr Ma's approach had allowed him to regain Beijing's trust, he would eventually need to state his position.

'As far as the mainland is concerned, the final aim of any negotiation is for reunification,' Mr Jian said. 'Sooner or later this is going to become a problem.'

But not everyone on the mainland swallows the hard line on reunification. One Shanghai taxi driver - who asked not to be named - said he believed in the right to self-determination. 'In an ideal world, it should be up to the Taiwanese to decide for themselves,' he said.

'If they want to become fully independent, that's fine by me. I would respect the outcome of a referendum ... But I don't see the central government agreeing with me any time soon.'