Beijing's top Taiwan man Zhang Zhijun visits island for first time
Beijing's top official for Taiwan affairs is making first cross-strait visit, to try and get relations back on track after protests over a trade pact
China's head of Taiwanese affairs is set to arrive in Taiwan today, the first time the mainland's most senior official in charge of cross-strait relations will set foot on the island, which has had a fraught relationship with Beijing.
The arrival of Zhang Zhijun , director of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, was considered an important step to address the nation's policy concerning Taiwan, local observers said.
Relations between the two former rivals, once bitter after the end of the civil war in 1949, have sharply improved since 2008. But Zhang's arrival comes just months after student protests in March over a trade pact threatened to derail efforts by the two governments to come to some agreement.
Zhang is coming, in a sense, to do some research.
"Beijing wants to know what exactly has gone wrong and why there is such strong opposition to the trade services pact supposed to benefit Taiwanese people," said George Tsai, a political science professor at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei.
Zhang's four-day trip will skip the island's capital of Taipei, taking him instead to nearby New Taipei City, the southern city of Kaohsiung and the central cities of Taichung and Changhua.
Professor Chang Wu-ueh, director of the Graduate Institute of China Studies at Tamkang University, said Zhang chose to skip the capital because of political tensions.
"With limited cross-strait mutual trust, this could spare him from becoming embroiled in controversial or sensitive political issues," Chang said.
It's not clear if that tactic will work. The hardcore, pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union has vowed to mobilise supporters to protest Zhang's presence throughout his trip.
In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou of the mainland-friendly KMT became Taiwan's president and pursued efforts to engage with Beijing.
Warming relations prompted both sides to sign 21 economic cooperation agreements in the last six years.
But the March protest, dubbed the Sunflower Movement, derailed the momentum. Thousands of students filled the streets, with more than 200 occupying the legislature, to decry a trade services pact with the mainland.
Protesters said they feared that the agreement, which has not been ratified, would cause job losses and undermine Taiwan's hard-fought democracy.
Lin Fei-fan, a student leader in March's protests against the trade services pact, asked Zhang to debate with them instead of a selected group of students from I-Shou University in southern Taiwan.
"Zhang must explain to us why the future of Taiwan should be decided by all Chinese people," Lin said.
Political analysts said that while there would be no change in the overall direction of the current cross-strait understanding spelled out by President Xi Jinping - including development of cross-strait ties and treating the mainland and Taiwan as one - Beijing was expected to adjust its approach in dealing with Taiwan.
Beijing was likely to increase contact with the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party now that the Kuomintang, had lost some popularity in Taiwan, they said.
"Instead of meeting KMT bigwigs or business leaders, Zhang has chosen to focus his visit in central and southern Taiwan, deepen interactions with grass-roots people and conduct dialogue with young people," said Lin Chong-bin, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taipei.
Most of the mainland's economic cooperation agreements with Taiwan are considered beneficial to big business instead of regular citizens. That has fed dissatisfaction among people from the middle and lower classes of Taiwanese society.
Wu Mei-hung, deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, said Zhang would hold talks with his Taiwanese counterpart, Wang Yu-chi, over continued cooperation and communication between their offices as soon as he arrived in Taiwan.
"But they will not sign any agreements," she said last Thursday.
Wu noted that Zhang would meet with New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu Li-luan, Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu and Taichung Mayor Jason Hu Chih-chiang.
According to Wu, Zhang will spend most of his time meeting local people, including talking to students from I-Shou University in Kaohsung - no doubt reflecting a need to address student concerns after the protests.
Zhang originally planned to visit Taiwan in mid-April to reciprocate Wang's trip to the mainland in February, but the journey was postponed after the student protest.
Local media said that when Zhang asked to visit the island this month, the Ma administration told him the timing was not right, as the legislature was in a special session to discuss the trade services pact, and a draft bill to increase scrutiny of future cross-strait agreements. But Zhang insisted on coming today.