Shanghai and Taipei rebuild city-to-city cross-strait ties after Taiwan’s local elections

  • After two years of tensions, mainland-friendly wins in Taiwan’s cities encourage a new high profile to the annual forum
PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2018, 12:15pm

Mainland China is sending its largest delegation in two years to the self-ruled island of Taiwan for a city-to-city forum which has been rejuvenated after a period of rising cross-strait tensions.

A record 250 local scholars, industry experts, and municipal officials from Taipei will join 135 delegates from Shanghai at the forum, which in past years has achieved around 30 cooperation agreements on a range of issues, including travel, culture, and environmental protection.

The Shanghai delegates will be led by executive vice-mayor Zhou Bo, the highest-ranking official to attend the event in recent years, according to the city government.

The 2018 Taipei-Shanghai Forum, which kicks off in the island’s capital city on December 19 for three days, is hosted in rotation by the two cities and has been a prominent annual cross-strait event since it was first held in 2010.

The forum’s profile has been more low key since the election in 2016 of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen as president and her refusal to accept the one-China principle.

Beijing, which considers Taiwan a wayward province that must revert to Chinese rule by force if necessary, suspended official contact and exchanges with the Tsai administration in a bid to force her to support the 1992 consensus, which says both Taiwan and the mainland belong to one China, but both sides may have their own interpretation of what that China stands for.

Analysts said the resumption of the forum’s high profile was made possible by the crushing defeat suffered by Tsai’s party in last month’s local government elections that saw the mainland-friendly opposition Kuomintang (KMT) take control of 15 cities and counties, including Kaohsiung, a special municipality in southern Taiwan and previously a pro-independence stronghold.

The shock result – not even the authorities in Beijing were expecting the KMT landslide, analysts said – prompted decision-makers on both sides to adjust their cross-strait approach.

“Beijing is expected to increase and even strengthen contacts and exchanges with Taiwanese cities and counties, including central and southern Taiwan, now that 15 of Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties are in KMT’s control following the elections,” said Chang Wu-ueh, a cross-strait research professor and director at the Graduate Institute of China Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei.

Chang said this year’s forum was expected to usher in a new wave of city-to-city exchanges across the strait, as Beijing hoped to use the influence of the KMT-controlled cities and counties to influence Tsai’s cross-strait policy.

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Lai Yueh-chien, an associate professor at Shih Chien University and a member of Taipei city government’s cross-strait committee, said the host city’s mayor would be closely watched.

“This is the first Taipei-Shanghai Forum after the November 24 local elections and heads of various local city and county governments are watching how Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je would deliver it,” he said.

According to Lai, while the local government heads of the KMT-controlled cities and counties more or less recognise the 1992 consensus, Ko has a different concept – treating the two sides of the Taiwan Strait as members of a single cross-strait family.

By not stressing the consensus or the DPP’s pro-independence ideology, Ko’s approach might “serve as a reference for DPP local government heads if they want to have active exchanges with the mainland in the future”, Lai said.

Ko, a former physician and independent politician, succeeded the KMT’s Hau Lung-bin as Taipei mayor in 2014. He was initially rejected by Beijing due to his previous claim that he sided with the pro-independence camp.

However, he managed to win Beijing’s recognition last year by echoing President Xi Jinping’s repeated call for the peaceful development of cross-strait relations as the two sides are one family.

Ko brushed off harsh attacks last year for echoing Xi’s one-family idea and for comparing cross-strait relations to a quarrelsome married couple who would eventually return to peace after their dispute – saying it was the meat and substance that mattered.

“It is more important to be able to achieve the substance than setting sights on sheer political labels,” Ko said on December 9 when an advance team of Shanghai officials arrived in Taipei to prepare for the meeting.

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This year’s forum will focus on the theme of a circular economy and cooperation between the two cities, according to city government spokesman Liu Yi-ting.

Li Zheng-hong, chairman of the Shanghai Association of Taiwan, said that, as a Shanghai-based Taiwanese businessman, he was happy to see more exchanges between Shanghai and other Taiwanese cities in addition to Taipei.

“Shanghai is the largest export harbour in the world and Kaohsiung used to be the world’s No 3, so they should have more common issues to talk about,” Li said.

He was referring to a pledge by KMT Kaohsiung-mayor elect Han Kuo-yu to pursue business exchanges with the mainland when he officially assumes his post on December 25 to help improve the economy and standard of living in his city.

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The prospect of an improved business environment also led Huang Wei-che, the DPP Tainan mayor-elect, to express an interest on December 9 in visiting the mainland to market his city’s tourism if the opportunity arises.

Meanwhile, the Mainland Affairs Council said there would be no restrictions for Shanghai officials to visit Taipei, a move observers said also signalled a policy adjustment by the Tsai administration to reflect the reality that the KMT victory would lead to a rekindling of cross-strait exchanges.

Mainland officials, including those from Shanghai, were barred earlier this year when applying to visit Taiwan.