When Lien Chan, then chairman of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party, visited China in 2005, he received a red-carpet treatment. Huge crowds greeted him, his every step followed closely by mainland media. It was a historic moment: the first visit by a Nationalist Party leader since the end of China’s civil war in 1949, when the defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan. He left with an offer to bring two pandas back to Taiwan and more importantly, an experience that told voters that his party, which was then in opposition, could manage relations with Taiwan’s huge and sometimes belligerent neighbor, China.
On Thursday another prominent politician from Taiwan arrived in China, but this time the reception was markedly low-key. Frank Hsieh, a heavyweight in Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), traveled on Thursday to his ancestral village in Fujian, the Chinese province bordering the Taiwan Strait. “It truly feels like a brother’s home,” he said on Thursday after hearing the similarity in the local dialect. He said he wanted to help build a foundation of tolerance and trust between the two sides, and looked forward to the day China would become a “socialist democracy.” Later he will travel to Beijing, where he will view a bartending competition, the Bird’s Nest national stadium and attend an academic conference.
One might think Hsieh has the far better itinerary than Lien — a trip to the old homestead followed by cocktails must certainly be more enjoyable than Lien’s 2005 program of highly choreographed banquets and photo ops. But in the protocol-obsessed world of Chinese politics Hsieh is getting a decidedly lukewarm welcome. While Lien’s 2005 trip was splashed on the front pages of China’s major Web portals and national dailies, Hsieh’s arrival was covered on inside pages of the Xiamen Daily, the official newspaper in his first mainland destination, on Thursday and Friday. The coverage focused on Hsieh’s ties to the region. (His ancestors migrated from Fujian’s Dongshan Island to Taiwan in 1815.)
While Lien’s Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), has had a complicated relationship with China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP), which it battled for much of the first half of the 20th century, the two parties have been able to cooperate in recent years because they share a common if not identical idea of “one China.” Hsieh’s DPP has leaned toward independence for Taiwan. In the mid-’90s China tried to intimidate Taiwan voters from supporting such a position by firing missiles near the island. But after such sword rattling only drove Taiwan’s voters toward proindependence candidates, China moderated its approach. The election of the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou as President in 2008 led to an improvement in ties, with increased trade and investment between the two sides and increased air travel between Taiwan and major Chinese cities. Support for the KMT’s handling of the cross-strait relationship was a key reason for Ma’s narrow re-election in January over DPP challenger Tsai Ing-wen, according to voter opinion surveys. If the DPP hopes to recapture the presidency in 2016, it must show that it has a strategy for managing relations with China. Some other DPP officials have made visits to the mainland in recent years, including Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu, who visited in 2009.
Hsieh first visited China 18 years ago and had hoped to make a return in 2000, but was blocked by his party. Now Hsieh, who served as Premier from 2005 to 2006, is the highest-profile DPP official to make the trip, a key step in bettering the party’s image on China issues. “It’s very important for the DPP to figure out how to maintain good relations with China,” says Tung Chen-yuan, an expert on cross-strait relations at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. “Although they need to defend Taiwan sovereignty, on the other hand they need some kind of resolution for getting along with China. This is important for the DPP to get elected in 2016.” This summer DPP chairman Su Tseng-chang reopened the party’s China Affairs Department, which he called a sign that the party wants to take a more active approach to cross-strait relations. China’s Communist Party knows that it has to deal with the opposition party. While it would prefer to see a KMT government in Taiwan, the possibility of a DPP return to power in 2016 can’t be ignored. “If the Chinese government would like to resolve the issues between Taiwan and China then the Chinese government needs to construct a consensus with the DPP,” Tung says. “The KMT cannot represent all Taiwanese. Even if the KMT remains the ruling party in 2016, in the long run the CCP still needs to build confidence and trust and consensus with the DPP.”
That doesn’t mean the Communist Party will welcome them with open arms. “The Communist Party would like to have relations with the DPP and all political parties in Taiwan, but the Communist Party has its own position,” says Zhu Songling, director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University. “It wants those parties that support Taiwan independence to give up support for this idea.” That position led to a deep freeze on official relations under DPP President Chen Shui-bian, who led Taiwan from 2000 to 2008. “In the immediate future, relations between the Communist Party and the Democratic Progressive Party won’t be possible,” says Zhu. “But from an individual perspective, having this sort of DPP elder come to the mainland is very significant for the cross-strait, two-party communication and continued peaceful development.”