Written by Gwenyth Wang.

On May 20th Taiwan will inaugurate its first female President, Dr Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Some Western observers like Richard Bush and media such as The Economist have expressed worries about the potential hurdles in cross-Strait relations. While the possibility of increasing tensions between China and Taiwan should not be ruled out, the debate on cross-Strait relations needs to be re-framed more carefully and correctly. With the tremendous transition facing Taiwan politically and economically, it is equally important for the West and Beijing to understand Taiwan’s past to understand what Taiwan might become in the future.

Re-balancing cross-Strait relations

The world is waiting expectantly for Tsai’s inauguration speech, which is expected to provide an outline of her cross-Strait policy and the blueprint for her future governance. Since her party won the presidency and control of the Legislature in January, Beijing has repeatedly called on Tsai to accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” and the notion that “the two sides belong to one China”.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping once said that without the “1992 Consensus”, which he called a “magic compass that calms the sea”, “the ship of peaceful development will meet with great waves and even suffer total loss”. Ever since the 2016 general elections, Beijing and Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) have been launching a series of tactics, demanding Taiwan’s incoming president to accept the “1992 Consensus” in her inauguration speech. Beijing wants to constrain Tsai in this China-centric historical framework as a means to ensure that Taiwan would not claim independence during Tsai’s term. The KMT, on the other hand, is worried that they will lose their key role as a mediator between China and Taiwan. The gloomy state of Taiwan’s economy under the eight year KMT rule has left the party only one card to play; cross-Strait relations. Just a week before Tsai’s inauguration, KMT Chair Hung Hsiu-chu openly said that if cross-Strait relations deteriorate because of the incoming government, the KMT would not avoid the responsibility to help mediate”. In other words, the KMT will invite itself to meddle in cross-Strait relations if their development does proceed in the way they would like.

The magical phrase, “1992 Consensus”, is a term former KMT MAC Minister Su Chi admitted he made up in 2000, and has been defined by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Office (MAC) as “one China, with two respective interpretations”. Despite how President Ma Ying-Jeou and his party have rigorously advocated the importance of the phrase to cross-Strait stability, it is Ma, the most disliked politician in Taiwan according to the latest TISR survey, who buried the magical phrase in the storybook during his meeting with Xi last November. Following this “historical Ma-Xi meeting” many local media expressed concern that Ma did not mention the “Republic of China” and the “respective interpretations” during his opening remarks. To pacify public concern, MAC in an official statement clarified that Ma did mention the “1992 Consensus of one China, two respective interpretations” at the closed-door meeting with Xi. Regardless, actions speak louder than words. This inconsistency cancelled out the historical meaning Ma could have achieved by meeting his Chinese counterpart.

Whilst Beijing has not ceased pressuring Tsai to accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” in her inauguration speech, the latest poll by the Taiwan Indicator Survey Research (TISR) found 51.7 per cent of Taiwanese people said that Tsai should not recognise the “1992 Consensus”, or the idea that “two sides belong to one China”. Should Chinese leader Xi Jinping continue to seriously look to “winning the hearts and minds” of Taiwanese people, perhaps he should adopt democratic rhetoric instead of imposing his “magic compass that calms the sea” on people living on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Greater public political participation, greater public scrutiny

Like any other relationship, it takes two to tango. In the course of cross-Strait development, Beijing will have to be aware of the fact that Taiwanese people have made it clear that they will not be “forced” to accept the “1992 consensus”, a term discussed by Beijing and a KMT government which was not even democratically elected by the Taiwanese people at the time.

Since Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996, today’s Taiwanese voters are still seeking greater political participation, as direct elections can only be counted as a beginning for democracy to take root in Taiwan. In the past decade, whether Taiwan’s authorities liked it or not, an emerging voice has risen and demanded the government to truly fulfil the rights stipulated in Article 17 of the Constitution, “the People should have the right of election, recall, initiative, and referendum”. Many student-led social movements have mushroomed since 2008. In 2013, a writer and a film director co-founded a recall movement, which later became a nation-wide civic initiative “Appendectomy Project” aiming to recall several “incompetent” legislators.

The momentum of Taiwanese public political participation reached fever pitch two years ago with the “Sunflower Movement”, when activists occupied the Parliament building for 24 days. They expressed their suspicion and opposition against opening up service industries to China. The movement resulted in a significant promise of public scrutiny when then Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-Pyng agreed to halt the review on the trade pact until a scrutiny bill for cross-Strait agreements was introduced. With a DPP-dominated Parliament being sworn in this year, the draft cross-Strait scrutiny bill will likely pass the Legislature and inject greater public scrutiny into the parliamentary reviewing process of any formal interaction between Taipei and Beijing.

The implication behind these social movements, greater public political participation and scrutiny will inevitably become a major stakeholder which Beijing has to take into account. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Taiwan’s dynamic and strong civil society has taken root in democratic soil. Given the complexity of cross-Strait relations, simply holding onto the “1992 Consensus” will not suffice to improve fragile ties. As now the Taiwanese society demands greater public scrutiny over the formation of any cross-Strait agreements, Beijing needs to engage with Taiwanese public, not coerce their leader.

Time to update the cross-Strait narrative

It is nearly a quarter of a century since 1992. Neither China nor Taiwan is the same as they were 25 years ago. China’s rising economic power has repositioned it on the centre of world stage, whereas Taiwan’s economy is in dire need of reform. Under such critical economic conditions, if closer cross-Strait economic ties under outgoing President Ma’s eight years governance could not bring unification any closer, nor will suspending economic and other cross-Strait interactions. It is time for Beijing and Taipei to find a new common ground for sustainable cross-Strait stability. The international community should also re-think the narrative of cross-Strait relations, instead of ignoring China’s provocations while pressing Taiwan to make concessions in the name of “stability”.

In her speech at CSIS last year, Tsai stressed that “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should treasure and secure the accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges. These accumulated outcomes will serve as the firm basis of my efforts to further the peaceful and stable development of cross-Strait relations”. Here, “the accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges” clearly included the cross-Strait negotiation held in Hong Kong in 1992 and a supposed understanding reached during the meeting later on that became the “1992 Consensus” coined by the KMT.

While she advocated constructive exchange and dialogue with China, Tsai also promised that she would ensure the process is democratic and transparent, and that the economic benefits are equitably shared. Whilst the ratio of Taiwanese identity stood at record high through the past 20 years at 73 per cent, a majority of 86.7 per cent of Taiwan people also said that they supported maintaining the status quo between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Furthermore, 68.2 per cent of Taiwanese citizens supported the incoming DPP government to negotiate with Beijing and come up with new grounds to replace the “1992 Consensus”. The collective will represented by Tsai Ing-wen is a voice for self-determination, stability and dialogue.

After inauguration, the ball will be in Beijing’s court. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once stated, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice”. Perhaps it is time for Xi to consider recalibrating his approach in dealing with the Taiwan issue. It doesn’t matter whether it is “1992 Consensus” or “1992 Meeting”, as long as it can contribute to cross-Strait stability. It is now time for Beijing and Taipei to re-engage on a new common ground and seek a new consensus.

Gwenyth Wang is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. Her research focus includes political communication, democratisation and youth’s political engagement in Taiwan. She is a longtime political observer and frequently shares her analysis on radio shows at Taiwan’s biggest English radio station, ICRT. Follow her on Twitter: @GwenythWR

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