Near and yet so far

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 December, 2009, 12:00am

A delegation headed by a senior adviser to President Hu Jintao and including former ambassadors, retired generals and senior scholars visited Taipei recently for the first such seminar to discuss cross-strait political relations. This reflects the improved relationship between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The adviser, Zheng Bijian , was vice-president of the Central Party School when Hu was its president. It was Zheng who coined the term China's 'peaceful rise', to counter widespread fears of a China threat - a term subsequently embraced by top officials. The topic of the seminar was '60 Years Across the Taiwan Strait', since it was 60 years ago that the Communist Party won the civil war and established the People's Republic, while the defeated Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan, the only part of the country still under the control of the Republic of China.

Such a seminar would have been unimaginable only two years ago. Even now, Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, insists that Taipei will only discuss economic matters with the mainland and not political issues, such as possible reunification.

Inevitably, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was sharply critical of the event. In particular, it focused on Zheng's speech, in which he pronounced Taiwan independence 'doomed to wane because most people in Taiwan expect continuous development in cross-strait relations'.

'We sternly oppose Taiwan independence,' Zheng said, adopting the lecturing tone customarily used by mainland officials, 'but the Taiwanese people's ideology of loving their hometown and their land and seeking to be their own masters is absolutely not equal to being pro-independence.'

Not surprisingly, he was accused of ignorance and arrogance. After all, opinion polls show most residents of Taiwan support the maintenance of the status quo, with only a tiny minority being in favour of eventual reunification. Moreover, most people on the island now identify themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese. But acknowledgement of this political reality is probably not something the mainland can accept, at least not yet. But changing the Taiwanese mindset is something Beijing must work on if it is sincere about a policy of peaceful reunification, even in the long run.

A member of the Zheng delegation, retired lieutenant general Li Jijun , said Chinese missiles targeting the island were a good thing because they served to rein in Taiwanese independence activists. To defend itself, it was better for Taiwan to accept the 'one-China' principle than to have half a million troops, he said. Another retired general, Pan Zhenqiang, now with the Institute of Strategic Studies at the National Defence University, said Taipei 'should not be hijacked by so-called public opinion but [should] direct it'.

Such remarks illustrate the gulf between Taiwan's democratic government and the autocratic one on the mainland. Beijing would do better trying to understand how a democracy works than pressuring the Ma government to reach a political agreement.

The mainland also needs to understand that it will be decades at least before the two sides are close enough in terms of political values for there to be any serious talk of one China.

Zhang Haipeng , director of the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, gave a talk at the Chinese University of Hong Kong on his way back to the mainland. He said he was taken aback that he was treated like a foreigner in Taiwan and asked to show his passport when checking in to a hotel. Zhang, who first visited Taiwan in 1992, felt it had changed a great deal. Basically, he wants history rolled back, to see 'Taiwan province', abolished a decade ago, reinstated. He also suggested the reconvening of a special conference, like one held in 1990 that formulated Taiwan's mainland policy.

But history cannot be rolled back. Taiwan is what it is today, for better or for worse. The mainland must accept reality and, if necessary, adjust its policy for dealing with the island rather than expect Taiwan to revert to what it was in earlier decades.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator