Sunday 18 February 2018

A Shanghai cadre's visit takes centre stage in China-Taiwan ties

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: AP
Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: AP

Debra Mao

A senior Shanghai official's visit to Taipei next week for a forum on cooperation between the cities has come under the spotlight amid strained ties between China and Taiwan.

Sha Hailin, a member of Shanghai's Communist Party standing committee, will lead a delegation to the seventh Taipei-Shanghai forum, an annual event hosted alternately by the cities since 2010. On the agenda are agreements on film festivals and marathon races, along with panel discussions on smart cities, healthcare and transportation.

What's put the two-day forum on centre stage is that it's actually taking place. Tensions rose after Tsai Ing-wen, inaugurated Taiwan's president in May, refused to endorse a doctrine that'd been the basis for warming ties and China responded by suspending communications. Consequently, Sha's visit, set against the backdrop of China's hard line, has prompted debate in Taiwan on whether it's a sign ties are better or worse off.

On one side are those like Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je who said in this environment, Sha's visit should be seen as a breakthrough. On the other side, the Taiwan Solidarity Union, a political party that advocates independence, called for cancellation of the forum, as Shanghai has always sent its mayor or deputy mayor in the past. Also Sha heads the local United Front Work Department, which it sees as a propaganda arm of the Communist Party.

"I'm sure the officials can't wait to be done with the whole thing," said Taipei city councillor William Hsu, a member of the opposition Kuomintang Party, which advocates for closer ties with China. "I think it's important to look for substantive results beyond any symbolism."

At the centre of tensions is the 1992 Consensus, a bit of word-play where both sides agree there is only one China while allowing each its own interpretation of what that means. Tsai's predecessor Ma Ying-jeou endorsed that doctrine, paving the way for talks on many subjects, while Tsai has refused, angering China. Though governed separately since 1949 as a result of civil war, China claims Taiwan as a province that it will retake by force if it declares independence.

A June report by the official Xinhua News Agency cited An Fengshan, spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, as saying communications mechanisms between the two sides had been suspended after Tsai's administration failed to endorse the 1992 Consensus. Another report a few days later cited An as saying the Taiwan side should take full responsibility.

Mayor Ko, an independent, said he told Chinese officials that "there is no need to change cross-strait exchanges due to transitions of political power" in Taiwan, the Taipei Times reported this week. Ko said he had explained that Taiwan had had changes in government in the past and would have more in the future. "They thought that it made sense and agreed to carry on with the forum," the paper cited him as saying.

Prior to Sha's trip, there was one other visit by an official Chinese delegation to Taiwan after Tsai came to power.

A group from Liaoning province visited in July after a bus carrying tourists from the region caught fire, killing 24 Chinese tourists, according to the Taipei-based Central News Agency.


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