When Mr. Xi Meets Mr. Ma

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. Photo Andrej Mrevlje

Back in the summer of 1998, I started my four-year job as a foreign correspondent in Beijing. China had become a country I knew well long before then, so in many ways, coming to Beijing for work felt like coming home. My then-wife and I were actually able to move into an apartment where we had stayed for a few days when were students in China. It was (and still is) situated in one of the early diplomatic compounds, along the Avenue of Eternal Peace, not far from Tiananmen Square. Those were the times when foreign journalist had to lodge in preset apartments in the eastern part of the city. The apartments had a built-in surveillance system, including listening devices.

Since I was working from home, I needed a new phone line and got a second number, which in the past must belonged to some Yugoslav diplomat. As I was Slovenian, the Chinese obviously kept us under the same surveillance team, because we spoke similar languages. It was probably a mistake, because of all the languages I spoke then, I very rarely used Slovenian. Nonetheless, thanks to my new number, during my first few months in China, I was receiving phone calls from Belgrade, the former capital of Yugoslavia, which no longer existed by 1998.

Ideologically speaking, China was still pretty much a hardline place back then, with many social taboos that no longer exist today.

So when I was completely settled in, we organized a party for our international journalistic and diplomatic gang in the city, and I got a present that I still keep today. As you can see from the photo above, it’s a small sculpture of Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. The little clay statue was obviously created in imitation of statues with revolutionary motifs that were popular during the Cultural Revolution, which usually embodied model workers, soldiers and peasants. Seeing Chiang and Mao together, immortalized not as antagonists but as actors of the same revolution, was blasphemy, to say the least. And yet, if I remember correctly, when I asked my friend where she got the gift, she told me that she bought it at the Panjiayuan flea market in Beijing, where Chinese vendors were selling anything and everything: fake, real, modern and ancient. Was the person who created this sculpture of mine being sarcastic, or was he a political visionary? I can’t tell.

Seventeen years later, it actually happened. On Saturday, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou met for the first time in the 66 years since the Nationalist Party  (Kuomintang, KMT) was defeated in the Civil War and fled to Taiwan. They met in Singapore, a neutral territory (though for many reasons, Singapore can still be considered a chinese territory). Xi Jinping from Beijing and Ma Ying-jeou from Taipei met like two private citizens – they appeared onstage, bare of any state symbols. In fact, in China, where the cult of personality of Xi Jinping is increasing with every passing day, Xinhua, the official, hard-boiled news agency, had some problems before publishing the photo with the news from Singapore. In the article, Xi and Ma are both mentioned as leaders, without naming their proper countries and their specific functions. Because if Xinhua mentioned that Ma Ying-jeou is the president of the Republic of China (the official name of Taiwan), it would mean that Beijing recognizes Taiwan’s independence. In that single instant, Beijing would deny its own long and hard struggle to internationally isolate Taiwan in an attempt to create conditions in which the “rebels” could not survive and would have to bend down and join the motherland.

In reality, things have been getting pretty good for both sides over the last two decades. The last time that Beijing seriously militarily threatened Taiwan was in 1996, when Chinese leadership tried to prevent the re-election of Lee Teng-hui, then-president of Taiwan, who was visiting his alma mater in the U.S. As revenge against the Americans and Taiwanese, Beijing deployed hundreds of  missiles in Strait of Taiwan. That was the biggest crisis between Beijing and Taipei after 1949. It even involved the U.S. due to a defense agreement between Washington and Taipei. Ever since, Beijing hasn’t once come to arms again.

From early on in China’s Open Door policy, Taiwanese entrepreneurs have been investing in the Chinese economy, strengthening ties with mainland China. With passing years, it has become clear that hostility between the two countries (no matter what Beijing says, Taiwan is juridically an independent state) has smoothened and simply become part of rhetoric in service of the needs of everyday politics. Especially in the last seven years, when Taiwan was run by President Ma, the process of economic and social convergence between the two separate lands was continuous. With some exceptions of course, because neither Beijing nor Taipei wants to lose the leverage that the unresolved problems have in domestic and international politics.

“Mr. Ma has pushed for closer ties with China during his seven and a half years in office, during which the two sides signed more than 20 agreements. Bilateral trade, direct flights and visitors to Taiwan from China all increased significantly. He had long wanted a meeting with Mr. Xi, and he said that the encounter, which was announced late Tuesday, was the product of two years of negotiations,” Austin Ramzy of the New York Times reports from Singapore.

Isaac Stone Fish sees the things a bit differently in his piece for Foreign Policy:

In 2005, Beijing promulgated an anti-secession law stating that Beijing reserves the right to use “non-peaceful means” to force Taiwan’s reunification. Switching to a gentler approach in 2008, after the election of the more pro-China Ma, the two sides resumed high-level talks. Tighter trade links followed soon after: Ma prioritized cross-straits business ties, and China is now Taiwan’s largest trading partner by far. Dozens of direct flights now connect the two countries, up from zero in 2008. Confabs between representatives of the two sides have steadily increased in importance, culminating in Nov. 7’s first-ever meeting of the two heads of state in Singapore.

As Stone Fish correctly noted, “In this increasingly close relationship, China is the dominant partner: It is far larger in size, population, economy, and global sway. Although militarily the United States is required to arm Taiwan, and maybe even defend it from a Chinese attack, Beijing still has an estimated 1,200 missiles directed at the island. And yet, power and influence doesn’t only flow one way. Taiwan has long influenced the mainland — culturally, religiously, and politically — and to some liberals in China’s party establishment, the mere existence of Taiwan represents the best hope for Chinese democracy.”

All in all, if the two countries’ economic ties are progressing and converging; and if the missiles are staying where they are and democracy in Taiwan is still being exercised; if there is a general status quo – then what is this game in the Strait of Taiwan all about?

“I think Xi Jinping’s goal may be to sort of weaken the faction in Taiwanese public opinion that says, ‘Let’s poke a needle in the eye of Beijing,’” said Andrew J. Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University who focuses on China.

If you ask me, the interest of the Chinese president must be broader than public opinion in Taiwan. In my mind, Xi Jinping could not care less about public opinion in his or any other country. Chinese leaders do not speak to the media, nor to an electoral body. They launch signals that only they understand. In this sense, China is a very ancient country, where the emperor’s decree dictates when peasants can start the new farming season.

Xi Jinping’s meeting with Ma was simply a way to mark territory. Much the same reasoning behind China building artificial islands in the South China Sea. An operation as important as the U.S planting a flag on the moon?

The meeting between Xi and Ma can go either way – or no way at all, simply remembered as a weird and unique political gesture in the midst of an Indian summer. We do not know and we cannot tell whether the meeting will be used as proof that Taiwan belongs to China, or if it will prove to be the first step to do something more serious. I personally do not think that resolving the Taiwan issue is in Beijing’s interest. Besides, there is nothing much to be resolved. Will Beijing care if next year Taiwan elects a government that is more hostile to China? I really do not thinks so. The memory of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, a pro-independence president (2000-2008), is still fresh.  

It’s more likely that the meeting was meant to charm and reassure countries in the region of the peaceful intentions of the rising Chinese dragon. This is possible but not certain, since one who knows China  should understand that Taiwan’s issue is a family matter and not some geopolitical chess game.

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