After years of rapprochement, agreements and high-level talks, one could hardly blame the Chinese public for thinking that the efforts initiated by President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and then-Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) would eventually lead to a final, political resolution to the conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
On the Chinese side, there were hopes during the early days of Ma’s first term in office that once the relatively easy negotiations on trade issues were done with, the two sides would quickly initiate political dialogue on Taiwan’s status and perhaps sign a peace accord of some sort. The more optimistic even hoped that the first steps could be taken while Hu was still chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and failing that, still in the office of the president.
That time came and went, and Hu went home empty-handed. Ma was re-elected last year on a platform that promised more of the same — and more of the same is exactly what the Chinese got. Negotiations continued, but remained focused on economics, investment, trade, tourism and education.
Now Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) is in office and chairman of the CCP, and it would be reasonable to expect that he hopes to surpass the achievements of his predecessor on the Taiwan “question.” In fact, the rising nationalist sentiment in China will make it difficult for Xi to ignore issues such as “reunification” and the restoration of China’s “honor.”
However, Xi is in for a bit of trouble. As former American Institute in Taiwan chairman Richard Bush said in Taipei yesterday, there are serious “conceptual differences” between Taiwanese and Chinese on the issue of political talks. Among other things, those “conceptual differences” include a democratic system, freedom of expression, a vibrant civil society and an irrepressible desire to maintain one’s way of life — not to mention rising Taiwanese identification and support for de jure independence.
There is more bad news for Xi. Unlike the CCP, Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) must compete in elections if it wants to remain in power. And with the next presidential election less than three years hence, Ma will be unable to dramatically alter the course of his engagement with China. Even though the Constitution bars Ma from running for a third consecutive term, his successor — and perhaps even his replacement as KMT chairman, should his low popularity and a string of corruption scandals result in his ouster — would undoubtedly apply tremendous pressure on Ma not to sabotage their chances of being elected in 2016 by acting against the wishes of the majority.
What this means is that even if Ma intended to “sell out” Taiwan, his own party would rebel against him, knowing full well that such a betrayal of public trust would be political suicide for the party.
Under the tyranny of those “conceptual differences,” engaging in political talks with Beijing would be the ultimate example of acting against the wishes of the majority. Unless it decides to send tanks into the streets and uproot Taiwan’s hard-won democratic system, the KMT will not be able to go much beyond what public preferences dictate and will instead be compelled to reflect the safest common denominator within the Taiwanese polity. And that is the so-called “status quo.”
In the name of the nation’s 23 million people, we therefore apologize to Xi, who will have to look elsewhere if he wants to outdo the successes of his predecessor.