When asked the other day whether Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), chairman of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS, 海協會), would meet with “the Taiwan region’s top leaders” during his visit next week, Yang Yi (楊毅), spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國台辦), replied that ARATS would go along with the arrangements made by Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF, 海基會). Yang’s remark showed that Beijing was not very concerned about whether Chen would meet President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九).
Beijing has never pushed for such a meeting. In June, when SEF Chairman Chiang Pin-kung (江丙坤) came back to Taiwan from talks in Beijing, it was Ma who said he would meet Chen, adding: “I will call him Mr. Chen and he can call me Mr. Ma. I think that is the best way.”
Since June, however, the Chinese have only confirmed that Chen would visit Taiwan for ARATS-SEF talks before the end of the year, but gave no indication as to whether or not Ma and Chen would meet, saying only that ARATS and the SEF would arrange the details.
The reasons for Beijing’s lack of enthusiasm are not hard to fathom. Having overseas guests meet “top leaders” is an old Chinese communist tactic. Arranging for guests to be received by people of higher rank can boost their self-esteem and make them feel well cared for. Treating guests with such propriety can help keep them in line and, while making them feel a little inferior and instilling a feeling of gratitude.
It worked with former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who wrote in his memoirs how, when meeting former Chinese president Mao Zedong (毛澤東), he was deeply impressed by the leader despite his constant bluffing. When receiving Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Wu Poh-hsiung (吳伯雄) and Chiang earlier this year, Chinaese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) followed precisely this formula. Wu and Chiang laid aside Taiwan’s national dignity while announcing that they were received with the highest honors.
Might the Chinese not worry that Ma could play the same game with Chen? Such worries would explain why, on his visit to Taiwan in 1995, then ARATS vice chairman and TAO deputy director Tang Shubei (唐樹備) declined to meet with Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister Huang Kun-huei(黃昆輝).
Secondly, Ma has been trying hard to set Chen’s mind at ease by not insisting on receiving him in his capacity as president, and even giving more than was asked for by calling Taiwan a “region.” However, Ma has little space for making friendly gestures following the scandal over toxic Chinese milk powder and the Democratic Progressive Party’s demonstration on Oct. 25. In fact, a meeting with Chen would give Ma a good chance to show some strength for a change. From Beijing’s point of view, Ma has already given them everything they wanted, so why hand him a chance to act tough?
What Yang really meant by “going along with arrangements made by the SEF” was: “We don’t care whether Ma and Chen meet. If you really want a meeting, what can you give us in return?”
For his part, Ma is still feebly and naively trying to placate the other side by insisting that the term “Taiwan region” has been in use for decades and was written into the 1992 Statute Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area (兩岸人民關係條例).
None of the topics slated for discussion during Chen’s visit to Taiwan is political. Since this round of consultations is a matter of routine, it should be treated as such. There is no need for Ma to meet Chen. If Ma needs a stage to put on an act, there will be plenty of other opportunities.
Liang Wen-chieh is deputy director of New Society for Taiwan.
TRANSLATED BY JULIAN CLEGG
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