Hearts and minds

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 July, 2009, 12:00am

Ever since Ma Ying-jeou's inauguration as Taiwan's president last year, he has advocated a 'diplomatic truce' with the mainland, under which neither side would seek to undermine the other. So far, Beijing has not sought to win over any of the 23 countries that still have diplomatic relations with Taipei.

Now, it appears, this tacit understanding will also extend to relations with overseas Chinese communities.

Since 1949, when the People's Republic was established in Beijing and its rival, the Republic of China government, was ensconced in Taipei, the two have competed for the loyalty and support of Chinese the world over. In fact, both governments have constitutional provisions guaranteeing the rights of overseas Chinese. Both also have cabinet-level commissions to look after the welfare of ethnic Chinese overseas.

Mr Ma has proposed that the 'diplomatic truce' should extend to overseas Chinese communities. And, according to Wang Yi , director of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, President Hu Jintao has agreed.

The importance Beijing attaches to overseas Chinese was reflected during Mr Wang's visit to the US in June. His first item of business in San Francisco was to meet leaders of the Chinese community. He did the same thing in Los Angeles and Washington.

According to Mr Wang, Mr Hu has said that there should not be friction with Taiwan where external affairs are concerned, including in overseas Chinese affairs. This was welcomed by a Taiwanese official, Chang Jung-kung, deputy secretary general of the Kuomintang, who said the statement marked 'the latest expression of China's attitude toward expatriate affairs'.

In fact, a 'truce' in overseas Chinese affairs is easier said than done. These organisations are often divided along political lines. While in the past they either identified with the mainland or Taiwan, now pro-Taiwan groups are themselves split, with some favouring independence, and others eventual reunification.

In December, for example, a symposium was held in New York to mark the 30th anniversary of Sino-US relations. It was jointly sponsored by the mainland's China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification and the Council of Chinese-American Associations in New York. But, of course, the establishment of Sino-American relations in 1979 meant severance of US-Taiwan diplomatic relations, followed by the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act, which guarantees that Washington would sell defensive weapons to Taipei.

Not surprisingly, in April, a group of Taiwanese in the US celebrated the 30th anniversary of the passage of the act. And, on July 18, a world conference of overseas Chinese is scheduled to be held in Los Angeles to promote China's peaceful unification.

In spite of this so-called truce, Mr Wang met overseas Chinese representatives from both the mainland and Taiwan, including supporters of Taiwan independence.

When Taiwan was governed by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, even the name of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission was changed to get rid of the word 'Chinese'. It became the Overseas Compatriots Affairs Commission. The government at the time sought to discourage identification with the mainland. The commission narrowed its focus to serve only people with Taiwanese passports, or who used to reside in Taiwan. Even the term 'overseas Chinese' is seldom used in Taiwan and has been replaced by the word 'expatriates'.

Taiwan long ago lost the race with Beijing for diplomatic recognition. Today, Beijing has formal ties with more than 180 countries. Overseas Chinese communities that used to identify with Taiwan, especially during the Cultural Revolution, now tend to align with the mainland. Most importantly, Beijing has revived Confucian teachings and has become the standard bearer for Chinese culture around the world. Taiwan cannot compete.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator