In normal diplomatic relations, an exchange of visits between two countries — even between warring states — be it state visits or private visits by officials at lower levels, is intended to relax tensions and promote beneficial dialogue and exchange.
The difference between normal and abnormal relations lies in whether the diplomatic communication complies with international norms and practices. If one of the parties were to break protocol, this would be seen as an indication of ill intent rather than a sign of peace that both sides hope to convey.
There have been reports that Mainland Affairs Council Minister Wang Yu-chi (王郁琦) and China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) are to meet in Nanjing, China, in February. One question is whether preparations for the upcoming meeting are in line with international norms.
To answer that question, it is essential to examine two issues.
First, when Zhang was asked whether he would address Wang by his official title, Zhang said: “We shouldn’t pay too much attention to titles.” The more important and unasked question was how Zhang and Wang could enhance the development of cross-strait relations.
Second, a forum on cross-strait media was held recently in Beijing, with representatives of several Taiwanese media organizations brought over to praise the Chinese-controlled forum agenda.
Diplomatic norms for dealing with official rank were established in 1815 at the Vienna Congress.
Although Wang is not stationed in China, he represents Taiwan as a visitor to China.
This is not something that can be taken as lightly as Zhang did when he said: “Taiwan has always placed a lot of importance on this issue.”
Moreover, according to China’s model for diplomatic discussion — which is to first lay down a set of preconditions — the issue of official title is not only a question of status, but also has a practical significance as it forces the other party to accept an underlying political framework. This is not a trivial matter.
Zhang said: “We manage cross-strait relations and cross-strait affairs, and this will be a visit between the two people in charge of these two agencies, which is clearly a good thing for the development of cross-strait relations.”
This summary of the Wang-Zhang meeting is incorrect. Although the meeting is a working visit intended to deal with a specific issue, the practice of diplomacy still requires the use of unambiguous titles and protocols, and is undermined by one party describing the interaction as “the two people in charge.”
This inability to accept diplomatic subtlety and instead perpetuate a Cold War mentality is not a good thing for the normalization of cross-strait relations.
Directing the agenda, China used its old strategy of cooptation and infiltration, which it has used in past interactions with Taiwanese politicians, academics and opposition parties.
This time, the target is Taiwanese media organizations. Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee Chairman Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲) has said that “cross-strait media are playing an even more important role in promoting the development of cross-strait peace,” that the foundation for cross-strait exchanges is based on an acknowledgement that “both sides of the Taiwan Strait identify themselves as being ethnically Chinese” and that the realization of this would result in “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait exchanging permanent media liaison offices.”
This is the gift China wants Wang to bring with him to Nanjing. When it comes to the establishment of permanent media liaison offices, Beijing seeks to create divisions between Taiwanese officials and the public.
Beijing is believed to actually want to initiate talks focused on a cultural cooperation agreement and the normalization and formalization of cross-strait media exchanges.
This is a clear attempt to use issues related to Taiwanese society to force the government’s hand. China is also trying to create divisions between employees and employers at certain Taiwanese media outlets, whose representatives travel to Beijing to discuss advantages of personnel rearrangements, resource controls and other measures aimed at lowering operational costs, while at the same time effectively blocking reporters from operating effectively.
There are three prerequisites for establishing permanent media liaison offices.
First, there must be freedom to decide what to report on. China has reportedly refused to extend the visas of reporters from the New York Times, Bloomberg and other international media outlets, and that raises concerns about how Taiwanese reporters would avoid the threat of government interference once their stories are published.
Second, press circulation must be free. Taiwanese media Web sites are blocked in China, and it is still unclear whether this ban will ever be lifted.
Will Taiwanese reporters in China have the same access to domestic and international news that Chinese reporters based in Taiwan will have?
Three, there must be freedom of access to people for interviews and meetings. Will Taiwanese reporters be able to visit ministries and other government agencies freely as Chinese reporters in Taiwan will be able to do, without being first required to file an application and wait for approval?
If none of these conditions are possible, many Taiwanese reporters would have to face exaggerated justifications that printing and broadcasting Chinese advertising in Taiwan could create profits of about NT$160 billion (US$5.3 billion).
Taiwanese reporters might also have to face the prospect of joint Taiwanese and Chinese TV stations based on the precondition that programming is vetted before being broadcast.
If this does not spell the demise of free media, then what does?
Over the past five years, Taiwanese politicians and businesspeople have visited China in search of economic benefits.
This has trickled down to affect the media.
The industry, which served social responsibility, has become a commercial institution that is ready to sell out press freedom, undermining Taiwanese democratization.
If the Mainland Affairs Council is incapable of seeing that these values are being undermined, and if it cannot find ways to avoid putting national sovereignty at risk, then what good would a meeting between Wang and Zhang be?
Translated by Perry Svensson
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