Former premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) has just concluded his trip to China, having accepted an invitation to attend, in a personal capacity, an international bartending competition in Beijing. It was no secret that his interests lay not so much in the bartending as in the politics. While in China, Hsieh attended several engagements of a distinctly political nature, stopping by his ancestral shrine, meeting with think tanks, and having several high-level meetings with officials in Beijing. However, relations between Beijing and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) remain frosty, although this trip could be seen as a nascent thaw. Now that the stone has been cast into the pond, there are differing opinions about this trip in both Taiwan and China.
Hsieh has been careful to clarify he was not representing the DPP on this trip, but since he is a former party chairman, any claim that it was not political was always going to be a hard sell. Much thought and preparation has obviously gone into this trip: By visiting his ancestral shrine he was reminding China of what it has in common with Taiwan; in his meetings with members of Xiamen University’s think tank on Taiwan affairs and the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Taiwan Studies he was able to discuss the DPP’s standpoint; and in meeting with Taiwan Affairs Office Director Wang Yi (王毅), Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林) and Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo (戴秉國) he was able to extend an olive branch to Beijing on behalf of the DPP.
During his meeting with Wang, Hsieh said he did not accept the existence of the so-called “1992 consensus,” and that he felt it better to use the “one Constitution, two interpretations” (憲法各表) formulation instead. Thus, the DPP was able to express its own viewpoint — which differs from that held by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — directly to Chinese Communist Party leadership cadres, which can only be helpful in furthering comprehension between differing opinions in Taiwan over cross-strait issues.
The repercussions of Hsieh’s trip will continue to be felt long after his return.
He has long been a central figure in the DPP leadership and his influence has been considerable. By indicating his willingness to address the differences that exist between China and Taiwan, he is sending a message that could see Beijing revise its rigid perception of the DPP as a party of separatists and secessionists. Beijing may now become more flexible in its approach to the DPP.
In addition, the DPP has previously refused to have any dealings with Beijing because any attempt to do so has led to internal conflict in the party fueled by accusations of fraternizing with the enemy. Now that a former DPP chairman and presidential candidate has made formal contact with China the door has been opened. There is no longer any excuse for the DPP to close itself off from China. The party has only just begun to acquaint itself with China and more people will consequently gain first-hand knowledge of the country through dealings with it. This will serve as a basis for the party’s policy formulation, and so the DPP’s China policy will become more flexible.
Hsieh announced that he would be retiring from politics following his defeat in the 2008 presidential election, but he still has mileage as a political figure. Now that he has made the initial foray into China, all eyes will be on how the DPP will take its dealings with China forward. Whatever Hsieh talked about in China, he was speaking in a personal capacity — the “one Constitution, two interpretations” idea, for example, differs from the new constitution, rectification of names and sovereignty issues championed by the DPP. His return is sure to spark major debate within the DPP on its China policy, but it may be some time before it is possible to make an objective appraisal of how successful Hsieh’s trip was.