The Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) China Affairs Committee finally held its inaugural meeting on Thursday last week.
Setting up the committee was one of DDP Chairman Su Tseng-chang’s (蘇貞昌) pledges when he was campaigning for his post last year.
However, after getting elected, he had to deal with a host of issues, such as defining the role of the committee and selecting people to serve as members and convener.
These issues delayed the establishment of the committee, leading to disappointment inside and outside the party.
Su is scheduled to visit the US, and he needs to show the Americans that he is capable of handling China issues.
This pressure prompted him to move faster to set up a committee that includes senior figures from various factions in the party, after which the committee moved with lightning speed to hold its first meeting.
Although the speed of this process has left everyone feeling a little dizzy, people who care about the issue are breathing a sigh of relief now that Su has managed to convene a committee meeting.
Following the DPP’s defeat in the 2008 presidential elections, there were calls within the party for reflection and reconsideration of its China policy.
Last year, in spite of President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) declining popularity, the DPP lost again, with many citing the party’s China policy as the reason for the defeat.
That is why setting up a China Affairs Committee and making major adjustments to the party’s China policy came to be one of Su’s pledges when he was campaigning for chairman.
The question is how should the party’s China policy be adjusted, given the various personalities and factions that are pulling the party in different directions.
Some think the party’s China policy only needs fine-tuning, while others think it should call for a referendum on amending the Constitution, or learn from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
These different voices have generated different ideas about how the committee’s role should be defined, and how its role is defined is bound to influence the willingness of people and factions to take part in the committee.
To begin with, Su said the committee’s role would be that of a platform for interaction between the DPP and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
This idea was undoubtedly was based on the KMT-CCP forums established by former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰), and is therefore typical of the “learn from the KMT” faction within the DPP.
Although Lien’s initiative has caused Ma a lot of trouble and the KMT-CCP forums have been sidelined, former premier and DPP Central Standing Committee member Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) is still very keen on the idea.
After Su had defined the role of the committee, Hsieh assumed that he would be the obvious choice for convener.
However, Su, under attack from the “fine-tuning” faction and the party’s fundamentalists, changed the stated purpose of the China Affairs Committee from that of a platform for interaction between the DPP and the CCP to that of a platform for communication on China policy within the DPP.
He also announced that he would serve as convener.
This change was so disappointing for Hsieh that he decided not to take part in the committee.
Hsieh expected his proposal that China and Taiwan could agree to have “constitutions with different interpretations” to get plenty of support from Beijing and Washington, so he did not care much whether he would be a member of the committee.
Instead, he set off under his own steam for an ice-breaking visit to China.
He also made an effort to sell the idea to the US, thinking that his best strategy would be to market his proposal abroad before promoting it in Taiwan.
As to the DPP’s fundamentalists and former premier Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃), they also declined Su’s invitation to take part in the committee, because they were worried about the direction that Su has been taking.
Former DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who seemed uncertain about Su’s policy orientation, was also not very interested in taking part.
These people’s reluctance meant that the committee could not play the role of a platform for communication on China policy within the party.
Worse, it gave outsiders the distinct impression that the DPP was split because of its inability to decide on a China policy.
After a lot of cajoling, Tsai and Yu agreed to join the committee.
Hsieh also changed his mind and agreed to take part, after strong urging from a group of DPP mayors and county commissioners headed by Greater Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊) and Greater Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德).
No doubt Hsieh’s decision to join the committee is a good thing, considering his failure to mobilize support for his initiative within the DPP, and the lack of support for his effort to sell his “constitutions with different interpretations” idea overseas, still less market it in Taiwan.
Thanks to these recent developments, the DPP at last seems to be moving toward a convergence with regard to its China policy.
However, getting people together is merely a precondition for convergence.
A more fundamental condition for consolidation would be a degree of common understanding with regard to new cross-strait policies.
Policy convergence is a fundamental requirement. If the people involved just sit down together, but cannot find a common ground on policy questions, then society at large will not perceive the party as having any fresh direction or a new climate.
When cross-strait questions crop up, the public may once again see different people and factions grabbing their trumpets and playing their own discordant tunes, exposing the division within the party.
Over the last five years, the KMT has also faced tricky problems and disputes over adjustments to its cross-strait policies.
The fierce exchange that took place not long ago between supporters of Ma, who also serves as KMT chairman, and Lien laid bare this reality.
Nevertheless, while Ma has been preoccupied with domestic issues, he maintains a firm guiding role on the KMT’s policies regarding the US, Japan and cross-strait ties, and has adjusted them as he sees fit.
In comparison, the DPP has so far only managed to get senior figures from various factions to sit down together in its China Affairs Committee, while the tougher job of getting their policy orientations to converge has not even started.
The only way forward for the DPP is to boldly face up to tough questions, not to keep evading them as it has in the past.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Julian Clegg