Taipei Mayor Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安) faced pushback from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) city councilors during a council meeting on Monday after announcing that the annual Shanghai-Taipei Twin-City Forum would be held in China in July or August.
The forum has been held in Taipei and Shanghai on alternate years since 2010, and is always a point of contention, especially when cross-strait relations are tense, as they are now.
In a heated exchange, DPP city councilors Yen Juo-fang (顏若芳) and Ho Meng-hua (何孟樺) asked Chiang why he was still considering holding the forum this year when he had made an campaign promise that he would cancel it if Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft continued to harass Taiwan.
Only Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators such as Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷) have dared argue that the current PLA activity around Taiwan does not constitute harassment, and under questioning, Chiang preferred to obfuscate the election promise issue and fall back on the precedent of holding the annual forum and point out the merits of keeping cross-strait channels of communication open.
The city council budget for last year’s forum was passed with the caveat that it could only be used if the PLA was not operating military vessels near Taiwan. It was, but then-Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) went ahead with the forum anyway: another precedent, another politician’s promise.
Pro-China politicians regard the twin-city forum as a chance to demonstrate the viability of cross-strait cooperation, perhaps with a view to facilitating unification. Pro-independence figures suspect that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) could seek to leverage the annual event to further its “united front” propaganda. In that at least, there is a degree of agreement between the two groups.
Neither the DPP nor President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) are opposed to the idea of exchanges or communication between the two cities, so long as these events are conducted with dignity, and Taiwan and China are treated as equal partners. There is a large degree of distrust over the KMT’s intentions going into the forums.
Not only is Chiang a member of the KMT; he is also purportedly a descendant of former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), which would make his presence in Shanghai particularly problematic due to the symbolism involved. It has yet to be decided whether he plans to attend in person or send a representative of the city government in his stead.
For the past eight years, Taipei was represented at the forum by Ko. When former minister of health and welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), given heightened tensions across the Strait, criticized his decision to hold the forum last year, Ko responded by saying that it is precisely because of such tensions that maintaining communication channels is crucial.
While not a member of the KMT, Ko courted controversy during the forum, such as when he made ill-judged comments in 2015 about both sides of the Taiwan Strait belonging to “one family.” At last year’s forum, he toned down such comments, and even used the event to push back against intimidation by the PLA and Chinese bans on select imports from Taiwan.
Chiang and Ko are correct that maintaining available channels of communication are important, and few would be shocked that a politician had reneged on a promise. Yen and Ho are also correct in recognizing the potential pitfalls of manipulation by the CCP.
The forum is a risk, but still has the potential for representatives of Taiwan to conduct themselves with dignity. People will see how Chiang performs this summer.
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