Vice president-elect Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) had not even returned from his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) over the weekend in Hainan before it was hailed as a watershed event and a clear sign of rapprochement between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Playing the limelight game to perfection, Hu said he had been moved to think “deep” thoughts about Taiwan and in the same stroke managed, yet again, to portray President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) as the one responsible for the diplomatic freeze of the past eight years.
But as the camera flashes dim down, emotions must settle and cooler heads must now weigh the meaning of the Hu-Siew meeting. First, we must remember that Siew participated at the Boao Forum as a representative of a non-governmental organization (NGO) rather than an official-elect of a democratic and autonomous system. In other words, the media’s characterization of the meeting as involving the highest-ranking officials since this whole sad affair began 59 years ago needs qualification, as Hu’s meeting with People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) and then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) chairman Lien Chan (連戰) in 2005 could also be painted in the same light.
Symbolically, as Chen rightly pointed out, Siew was seated next to the chief executives of Macau and Hong Kong, which certainly wasn’t the result of accidental name-plate assignment.
What will truly reveal Hu’s intent or the depth of his “deep” thought will be how he treats Siew and other elected Taiwanese officials, including president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), once they assume office and can no longer pretend to meet officials from other countries as heads of NGOs. Only then will we be able to see if the KMT win in the presidential election truly brought about a departure in Sino-Taiwanese relations and in Hu’s stance on Taiwan.
Before then — and the table arrangement seems to indicate that this was the case — it was just too easy for Hu to pretend that he was simply meeting a business official, one of the many beggars who kowtow before the emperor’s throne.
In fact, the significance of the brief meeting was so slight that Chen’s contention that Hu orchestrated the talks to divert attention from events in Tibet was unhelpful cynicism. Ironically, with his comment Chen may have echoed the media and given the meeting more weight than it deserved.
As an official who has yet to begin office, Siew still has more freedom of action than he will have a little more than a month from now. After he and Ma replace the Democratic Progressive Party administration on May 20, they will know again that in a democracy, power comes with responsibilities and that the public will hold them to account — and significantly more than heads of NGOs and non-elected officials.
As a result, their actions and rhetoric will increasingly reflect the aspirations of the public, and what they are bound to say is unlikely to resonate with Beijing.
Conversely, if they fail to do that and fail to fine-tune their behavior to reflect the expectations of those who elected them, their stay in office could be a short one indeed.
Let’s wait and see, then, how welcoming Hu will be if Ma and Siew become the leaders of and for Taiwanese that they promised. Will Hu still have “deep” thoughts then, or will it be “deep” anger?
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