Written by Russell Hsiao.

The pace and scope of dialogue across the Taiwan Strait have expanded considerably since Ma Ying-jeou became the President of the Republic of China (ROC) in 2008. These dialogues, led by non-governmental organizations, business and cultural associations, and political parties, have served as the main channels through which the two governments on both sides of Strait have engaged in a comprehensive dialogue that is unprecedented in the history of cross-Strait relations. Very senior political leaders and former top level officials, both political and military, are no exception in this rush.

Surrounded by cameras and reporters, the Honorary Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT), Lien Chan met with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary and then-People’s Republic of China (PRC) President-in-waiting Xi Jinping on 25 February at the ceremonial Great Hall of the People. The landmark event between the highest ranking representative of the KMT (besides President Ma Ying-jeou who serves as the Party’s chairman) with the highest ranking party official of the CCP stirred nationalistic emotions in the Mandarin-speaking world as Chinese officials and official media outlets in the PRC waxed lyrical about the coming together of the “Chinese nation” [中華民族].

The visit was Lien’s third “major” pilgrimage to Beijing since 2005 (Lien has made at least 6 visits to China over past eight years and at least four were between 2005 and 2008). Born in Xi’an, Shanxi province, the former premier and vice president of the ROC first sparked controversy in 2005 when he traveled to China while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was still in power in Taiwan. His meeting with then CCP General Secretary Hu Jintao was the highest level exchange since Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong met in Chongqing on August 28, 1945. Lien’s meeting led to a so-called five-point “agreement” reached by the two sides.[1] The 2005 meeting, which was followed by others (his second major visit took place in late 2012), has since been seen as the icebreaker that helped thaw long-stalled cross-Strait relations.

During the meeting between Lien and Xi, the Chinese-media noted the CCP general secretary as saying:

“Nothing can cut the blood bond between Mainland and Taiwan compatriots who all belong to the Chinese nation, and nothing can change the fact that both sides on the Taiwan Strait belong to one China.”

“Moreover, nothing can change or hinder the whole Chinese people’s resolve of making the Chinese nation outstanding in the world,” he added.

The PRC-bureaucracy quickly toed the Party’s line. The Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), which is administratively under the State Council and handles the implementation of the PRC’s Taiwan policy, proclaimed that a “new consensus” between the two sides has been established during Lien’s visit, said TAO spokeswoman Fan Liqing.

During his meeting with CCP General Secretary, Lien reportedly coined a “16-character principle”for the future of cross-Strait relations: One China (一個中國), cross-Strait peace (兩岸和平), mutually beneficial integration (互利融合) and rejuvenation of the Chinese nation (振興中華). This statement tracks with the 16-character phrase PRC President Hu Jintao first used during their initial 2005 meeting: Establish mutual trust (建立互信), shelve disputes (搁置争议), seek common ground while reserving differences (求同存异), and jointly create a win-win situation (共创双赢).

Yet, Chairman Lien’s pilgrimage was met with little-to-no fanfare in Taiwan. According to the chairman of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), Wang Yu-chi, the two governments have systematic communication channels, and even in rare cases where third parties are commissioned to communicate with the other side, they must receive clear authorization from the president or the authorities in charge. Indeed, the ROC presidential office went at length to distance the President from the visit.[2] Lien’s statement there, that he believes cross-Strait political dialogue and negotiations will be inevitable in the future, stood in stark contrast with the Ma government’s current approach of shelving political dialogue until certain preconditions in China are met. During PRC Taiwan Affairs Office Vice Minister Sun Yafu’s opening statement at a forum in Taipei back in December 2012, he emphasized that the status of cross-Strait political relations was undefined and under development, adding that, “the key point consists in avoiding setting preconditions, otherwise it will be very difficult to continue the discussions.” Sun added that he believed all parties should sit down together to discuss cross-Strait issues, including the DPP. To be sure, this statement appears to track with the opposition-DPP’s position that dialogue between the two political parties (i.e., DPP and CCP) not be predicated on preconditions and may suggest an opening in the PRC’s approach toward the DPP.

Lien’s attempt at pushing forward cross-Strait negotiations may have fallen on deaf ears, but it underscores a chasm over different interpretations of the so-called “China Dream” [中国梦]. This is notably evident within the pan-blue coalition, which may have more to do with domestic politics as Party members look to the 2014 local elections, and, for the more ambitious, the 2016 presidential election. KMT Honorary Chairman Lien’s formulation for cross-Strait relations will likely put more pressure on the Ma administration to enter into political talks with Beijing, which could put it further at odds with mainstream public opinion, which prefers the ‘status quo’. The folly of Chairman Lien’s visit is not that it doesn’t reflect a “Chinese Dream,” indeed Chinese culture is a major part of Taiwanese culture, the problem is that it represents Beijing’s Dream and not that of the people of Taiwan.

Russell Hsiao is a Senior Research Fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and former Editor of The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief.

[1] The five-point agreement has been included in the KMT platform, and therefore reflects the party’s overall thinking  about cross-Strait relations. In the first point, both the CCP and the KMT agreed to support the “1992 Consensus” and to support the resumption of peaceful cross-strait negotiations. In the second point, the KMT and CCP agreed on the need to have a peace agreement. In the third point, both the KMT and the CCP agreed to promote cross-strait economic interaction such as direct flights and to strengthen investment and agricultural cooperation. Fourth, both parties agreed to push for negotiations on Taiwanese participation in international organizations and events including Taiwanese membership in the WHO. Finally, both sides agreed to establish a system of party-to-party talks.

[2] Lien was not alone on this trip, besides his wife, Lien brought along his son Sean Lien (連勝文) [b. 1970] to introduce to Xi. Sean Lien is a current member of the KMT Central Standing Committee, and considered a young rising star in the Party who may run in eight years.[9]  The Taiwan delegation also included numerous political and business industry heavyweights, including KMT vice chairmen Lin Fong-cheng and John Chiang, New Party chairman Yok Mu-ming, and Hon Hai (Foxconn) chairman Terry Gou and Ruentex Group chairman Samuel Yin.

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