Disclosure: The author is an employee of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank launched by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated.
Following weeks of anticipation, the chairman of Taiwan Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) met the secretary-general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing on May 4—and despite all the hype, there was very little of substance to write home about.
Part of the excitement about the meeting between KMT Chairman Eric Chu, who took over the party in January 2015, and CCP Secretary-General Xi Jinping stemmed from misconception and short-term memory. Unlike what has been reported, the meeting was neither “historic,” nor was it “only the second time since 1949 [that] the leaders of the KMT and Communist Party will meet each other in Beijing.” In fact, it was the fourth since 2005.
For one thing, the real historic meeting occurred in April 2005, when then-KMT chairman Lien Chan met Hu Jintao in Beijing, at a time when Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was in power and under the cloud of strained relations (one month prior, the Third Session of the Tenth National People’s Congress had adopted the so-called “Anti-Secession Law”). Following that icebreaker, KMT chairman Wu Poh-hsiung twice met with CCP secretary-general Hu in Beijing—in May 2008 and again in May 2009. After President Ma Ying-jeou became KMT chairman in October 2009, all meetings between the CCP secretary general involved honorary KMT chairmen. Under that honorary title, Wu led a delegation to Beijing in 2012, where he again met with Hu, and in 2013, where he met with Xi, who by then was heading the CCP (Lien also met Xi in his capacity as honorary KMT chairman in February 2013 and again in February 2014).
As the above makes amply clear, there is a long history of high-level contact between the KMT and CCP, and Chu’s journey to Beijing is simply the continuation of such exchanges, and the nearly six-year hiatus can be accounted for. Despite his high hopes of meeting CCP Secretary-General Xi, KMT Chairman Ma was unable to do so because of the other seat he has occupied since 2008—the presidency of Taiwan (or the Republic of China, as it is officially known). The reason why no active KMT chairman has met the CCP chief since 2009 is simply the result of Beijing’s refusal to appear to legitimize the ROC by Hu or Xi meeting with the ROC president. The resumption of such meetings—Chu and Xi’s—was made possible because Chu is not president of the ROC and not, as some observers have argued, as the culmination of the rapprochement that has occurred between Taiwan and China (or more precisely, the KMT and the CCP) under President Ma.
As such, far from being “a major historic moment,” today’s meeting was merely the resumption of a process that began in 2005.
As to the one-hour meeting itself, held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, whoever was expecting a bombshell will be hugely disappointed: more pablum hopes for continued cross-strait exchanges, reaffirmations of the confabulatory-yet-useful “1992 consensus” as the basis for such exchanges, economic cooperation and other issues. State-run Central News Agency may have headlined one of its articles on the meeting “Important talks between ruling parties of Taiwan, China underway,” but the reality is, we’ve heard it all before, and the script would look oddly familiar to anyone who was in the room when Hu and Xi met with Chu’s predecessors.
Chu’s summit with Xi is more symbolism than substance. Back in January, Chu inherited a party that had just suffered one of its most scathing electoral defeats ever, deservingly trounced in the Nov. 29 “nine-in-one” local elections. Nearly four months on, his party remains stuck in a rut, riven by factionalism and seemingly unable to select a viable candidate to run against the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen in the January 16, 2016, presidential election (Chu, who is also mayor of New Taipei City, maintains that he will not run, and faces the prospect of very damaging leaks to the press by his enemies within the party should he change his mind). What’s more, the current sentiment against the KMT is such that Chu could very well see his party lose control of the legislature on the same day, as the elections will be held concurrently.
Like any other political figure in such a predicament, Chu had to do something to bolster his legitimacy. A journey to China and a meeting with the CCP secretary general, all amplified by friendly media, served that purpose. Unable to come up with anything else at the moment, this was the one thing that the KMT could accomplish that is currently denied to the DPP. Pro-independence movements back in Taiwan wasted a lot of energy prior to Chu’s departure; they missed the point of his visit. Not only was it purely symbolic, the political sentiment in Taiwan being what it is at the moment, Chu could not possibly have said or committed to anything controversial (and potentially damaging to Taiwan) without further hurting his party’s chances in the 2016 elections (hence the platitudes). And Chu, a competent politician who may be more risk averse and is certainly more attuned to domestic sentiment than Ma, knows that very well. Despite using typically safe language emphasizing the KMT’s opposition to Taiwan independence and remaining silent when Xi issued the standard warnings against “semantic erosions,” Chu is conscious that anything which departs from the middle ground and “status quo” espoused by Ms. Tsai—the continued existence of Taiwan as a de facto sovereign state characterized by a liberal and democratic way of life—is a non-starter with the majority of Taiwanese—including most KMT voters—however much Beijing would like to move the goalposts.
The Chu-Xi meeting was much ado about nothing. The real “historic moment” will occur when the Chinese president agrees to meet a Taiwanese/ROC president, or extends an invitation to the DPP chairperson without the preconditions that thus far have made such a meeting impossible.