Is there or isn’t there a “1992 consensus?” The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have fought over this question for a decade and the dispute continues to this day. When the Presidential Office demands that the DPP state explicitly whether or not the party recognizes it, DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) says one cannot recognize something that doesn’t exist. Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) says the concept is a fabrication and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) says Tsai is unrealistic in not recognizing it, while China is trying to help the KMT by saying that the “1992 consensus” is the foundation of cross-strait relations. What we have here is a situation that can be best described as “one ‘1992 consensus,’ with all sides having their own interpretations.”
The question of whether the “1992 consensus” really does exist is a matter for the historical record. From the establishment of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) in February 1991 until the cross-strait talks in Hong Kong in October 1992, Beijing insisted that cross-strait affairs be handled based on the “one China” principle. In August 1992, the National Unification Council (NUC) chaired by Lee, then the president of the Republic of China, issued a resolution saying that both sides of the Taiwan Strait insist on the principle that there is only one China, but that each side has a different interpretation of what this “one China” is.
Although the two sides proposed five different interpretations each during the Hong Kong talks, they disagreed on all of them. In the end, the SEF suggested three verbal alternatives, one of which was almost identical to the NUC resolution, saying that both sides insist on the “one China” principle, but that their understandings of this “one China” differ. Although the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) representative said Beijing could consider accepting this, it was still requested that the SEF representative confirm that it was an official suggestion.
After the Hong Kong meeting concluded, the SEF confirmed in a letter to ARATS that it accepted that the different interpretations should be stated verbally. ARATS vice president Sun Yafu (孫亞夫) sent a telegram to SEF deputy secretary-general Chen Rong-jye (陳榮傑) stating that ARATS, after having studied the SEF suggestion that both sides state their respective interpretations of the “one China” principle verbally, respected and accepted the suggestion. The two organizations then confirmed in letters to each other that they agreed to use their own verbal interpretations to state their insistence on the “one China” principle, and that they should not touch on the political significance of the “one China” principle in routine cross-strait commercial talks.
Although the two organizations had reached a tacit agreement at the conclusion of the Hong Kong talks, the expression “1992 consensus” was minted much later, in 2000, by Su Chi (蘇起), when he was chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), and that is what Lee referred to when he called it a fabrication.
The “1992 consensus” has now become a ubiquitous term, occurring in the communiques issued after the meetings between Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰), in talks by Chinese Communist Party leaders and in hearings with US State Department officials. It is odd to see how a fabricated phrase can turn into an international symbol used to describe cross-strait relations.
Cross-strait relations are reminiscent of the fragile courtship between a man and a woman where exchanges are built on looks and innuendo, but where none of the beautiful wedding promises mean anything until the legal documents have been signed. Cross-strait relations are not built on a signed, legally binding agreement. Instead, these relations are dependent on a non-existent “1992 consensus” and they could be destroyed just as fast as a castle of sand.
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