The enemy of our enemy

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 January, 2010, 12:00am

On December 15, during his first visit to Taiwan, the governor of Henan invited Lien Chan, honorary chairman of the Kuomintang, to his province in 2010 to attend celebrations at the birthplace of the Yellow Emperor, the ancestor of Han Chinese.

He also gave Lien a bust of his head, completed in 18 days by a famous artist in Kaifeng .

The gift and the invitation symbolise how the Communist Party is wooing its former enemy, in its effort to accelerate the unification process. With Hong Kong and Macau back in the family, the return of Taiwan is the ultimate prize for any Chinese leader; it would guarantee him an exalted place in the nation's history books.

As part of this process, the government has over the past 10 years carried out a sweeping revision of history, praising the Kuomintang effort in the war and the role of its former president Chiang Kai-shek in fighting Japan and uniting the nation.

Lien is a key figure in this charm offensive. In April 2005, as chairman of the KMT, he visited Nanjing and Beijing and met Hu Jintao in his capacity as general secretary of the Communist Party. Then as now, such a party-party meeting was possible, but not one involving the leaders of the two governments.

The two said they had reached a five-point consensus 'to promote peace and development across the Taiwan Strait'. Lien loved every minute of his visit. He was greeted by adoring crowds and smiling leaders - a far cry from the hecklers and the hostile, inquisitive media of Taiwan.

This rapprochement is the latest remarkable episode in the history of the two parties who have been fighting to control China for the past 80 years. Allied for a few years in the 1920s and in the war against Japan, the two parties were unable to form a joint government after the surrender and began a civil war that ended in the Communist victory and Chiang's retreat to Taiwan.

For the next 40 years, Beijing described Chiang as an 'enemy of the people', the worst insult in the Communist lexicon, and someone who had made repeated concessions to the Japanese, with the Communist guerillas providing the main resistance.

Since 2000, this history has been rewritten, presenting Chiang as a national hero and Kuomintang soldiers as resisting with pride and courage Japanese troops who were better equipped and trained and enjoyed air superiority. Books, films and articles have recognised this contribution, presenting Kuomintang officers in a human and sympathetic way.

According to Western scholars, Kuomintang armies carried out the brunt of the fighting and accounted for the vast majority of the 3.22 million Chinese soldiers killed. When Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka met Mao Zedong in June 1972 to establish diplomatic relations, he apologised for invading China.

Mao replied: 'You do not have to say sorry, your country has made a great contribution to China. If Imperial Japan did not start the war, how could we Communists become mighty and powerful? How could we overthrow the Kuomintang? No, we are grateful and do not want your war reparations.'

This revision of history has presented Chiang and his family in a more objective and sympathetic light. One example of this revision is Calendar Review, an official historical monthly published in Beijing.

Its November issue had an article on the anti-Japanese war in Changsha , capital of Hunan province. This was the scene of four ferocious battles between the Kuomintang army and the Japanese forces, in 1939, 1941, 1942 and 1944.

The Kuomintang victory in 1939, despite the use of poison gas by the Japanese, marked the first time it had succeeded in saving a major city from the Japanese advance.

'The Kuomintang army organised major assaults that inflicted enormous losses on the Japanese,' commented the Review. 'In terms of fire and destruction, Changsha was one of the four cities most devastated in the second world war, together with Stalingrad, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.'

The main reason for this revision of history was the election in 2000 of Chen Shui-bian, candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party. Suddenly, Beijing faced the possibility that the DPP might lead Taiwan to independence. It needed an ally and, because Taiwan is a democracy, an ally that could win power in an election.

So it wooed the KMT as the party founded on the principle of a united China. The breakthrough came in March 2005, when the party's vice-chairman, Chiang Pin-kung, led a 30-member delegation to the mainland; it was the first such official visit since 1949. This was followed by Lien's visit and his meeting with Hu.

Other high-level visits followed during the next three years of the DPP presidency and have intensified with the KMT victory in the election in March 2008. In June last year, party chairman Wu Po-hsiung, accompanied by three vice-chairmen, went for an eight-day visit, including a meeting with Hu.

In July, Wu stood down as chairman, allowing Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to take over. This opens the possibility of Ma meeting Hu - Hu refuses to meet him as president of the Republic of China but would dearly love to meet him as KMT chairman.

Analysts do not expect such a meeting in 2010 but in the last year of Ma's four-year term and only if he is popular enough to withstand the torrent of anger it would bring from the DPP and its supporters.

Ma is constrained in what he can do by the reality of democratic politics in Taiwan. A public opinion survey published this month by Commonwealth magazine found just 2 per cent want immediate unification, against 11 per cent who want immediate independence. The vast majority, want the status quo.

Of this group, 35 per cent want the status quo to be permanent, 33 per cent want it to lead gradually to independence and 10 per cent want it to lead gradually to unification. That means only 12 per cent of the electorate want unification now or in the future.

That is why, when he took office, Ma announced the 'Three Nos' - no independence, no unification and no war. He also said that, during his first term, he would not talk with Beijing on political issues and concentrate instead on economic ones, where agreement is easy to reach and the benefits evident to the Taiwan public.

So he has established direct air, shipping and postal links and opened the door to mass tourism from the mainland. A full-page advertisement by the Mainland Affairs Council in the China Times on December 18 said that, since the opening of such mass tourism, 589,969 mainlanders had come to the island, spending NT$34 billion (HK$1.05 billion).

Two weeks ago, in Taichung, negotiators from the two sides signed three minor trade deals and discussed a free-trade deal known as the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement. Hundreds protested on the street outside; some burned Chinese flags.

'Taiwan has few positive images of communist China,' said Li Mei-hsiu, a secondary school teacher in Taipei. 'Some Chinese films and television series with no political content are popular, but people prefer Japanese and Korean culture. Many mainland tourists come over as loud, uncouth and arrogant, boasting that Taiwan belongs to China. Sports stars like Yao Ming and Liu Xiang? We prefer our own heroes like Wang Chien-ming.

'The business community is different. They benefit greatly from China's economy and Ma's liberalisation policies. There is a growing gap between them and the common people.'

Wang Ming-hsiung, a Taipei taxi driver, said: 'We have little in common with the mainlanders. Their government has brainwashed them about Taiwan and Japan and it is impossible to talk about these topics. I learnt how to behave from my father who learnt from the Japanese - you talk quietly in public places and queue at bus stops. But the mainlanders shout and smoke everywhere.'

This public hostility to unification and reservations about the mainland limit the manoeuvring space of Ma, whether president or chairman of the party.

The Communist Party and the KMT share a common history and heritage and the aim of a reunited China. Their economic policies have much in common, now that Beijing has abandoned the ideal of building socialism.

But, in the battle for political power, nothing is fixed. As Lord Palmerston said of great powers, they have no eternal friends, only eternal interests.