Beijing must appease Taiwan's public to keep cross-strait ties on track
Mainland courting of KMT has hurt the party in the eyes of ordinary people who want their say on cross-strait relations
The simmering tensions across the Taiwan Strait over the past year meant the meeting between Xi Jinping, chief of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and Eric Chu Li-luan, chairman of Taiwan's ruling Kuomintang (KMT), on Monday was keenly watched.
But the highest level contact between two ruling parties in seven years produced nothing more than a reiteration of their long cherished "1992 consensus", in which both sides recognise the "one China" principle.
The meeting came as Taipei and Beijing marked the 22nd anniversary of ice-breaking talks between Taiwanese tycoon Koo Chen-fu and his mainland counterpart Wang Daohan in Singapore in 1993. It also came as they celebrated the tenth anniversary of the historic meeting between former KMT chairman Lien Chan and CPC general secretary Hu Jintao in 2005.
They expected that by building closer economic ties they would strengthen support for the Taiwanese ruling party. Mainland state media used the meeting to chant the praises of the pro-unification KMT and admonish the pro-independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as the island gears up for the presidential election in January.
The Beijing News said the meeting would foster political mutual trust between the two parties in order to "further lift the quality of cross-strait cooperative development".
The Global Times warned that cross-strait ties would continue to face deep uncertainty so long as the DPP refused to accept the "1992 consensus".
China Daily echoed the sentiment, saying any attempt to challenge the one-China consensus "would not only sow the seeds of discord, it would also undermine the political foundation for cross-strait relations".
The mainland's reconciliation policy of the past decade has been put to the test as the Taiwanese public rebelled against Beijing's influence in the island's politics. Recent experience shows that being closely associated with Beijing has hurt Taiwan's ruling party.
Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, who led the KMT until last year, has pushed for closer trade ties with Beijing since coming to power in 2008. But that effort has set off protests on the island and contributed to a sharp defeat for his party in local elections in November, in which it won only one of six mayoral seats.
In March, thousands rallied in what was dubbed the "sunflower" movement that formed in opposition to a trade pact the KMT had signed with the mainland. Regular people, not just the government, wanted a say in what kind of relationship Taiwan developed with the mainland.
Beijing's policy of being soft in economics and tough in politics not only fuelled fears about Beijing and dissatisfaction with the KMT, but also helped the DPP. Its presidential candidate, Dr Tsai Ing-wen, now stands a better chance of winning in January.
Beijing's rejection of Taiwan's application to join its nascent Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank damaged the KMT's argument that closer ties are yielding results, while the recent rejection of full universal suffrage for Hong Kong is seen as a warning to the island about what happens to territories under communist control.
It is apparent that Beijing wanted to use the Xi-Chu meeting to show the Taiwanese electorate that voting for the KMT is a vote for stable relations with the mainland. But it's no longer a business of dealing with one political party over another, but about the approval of many civic groups and citizens.
Beijing must now proceed along two tracks - shoring up the KMT while preparing for a DPP administration. Beijing's best hope at keeping momentum of the hard-won improved ties on course will require leaders to reach out to Taiwan's populace, and in particular its young generation.