The meeting between Xi Jinping and Hung Hsiu-chu, the respective leaders of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of mainland China and Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT), will be held on November 1, 2016, the day before both parties’ 11th annual forum. This will be a good opportunity for observing the interactions between the three major political forces involved in cross-strait relations: the blue (e.g. KMT) and the green (e.g. Democratic Progressive Party or DPP) camps in Taiwan, and the red camp (i.e. CCP) in mainland China. In particular, what impact the Xi-Hung meeting will have on the current cross-strait stalemate is a huge concern to many observers.
To better understand the Xi-Hung meeting, we first need to understand the evolution of the CCP-KMT annual forum, whose role has changed significantly within Taiwan and between Taiwan and mainland China in the past decade. The CCP-KMT annual forum, officially and previously called the Cross-Strait Economic, Trade and Culture Forum, was first jointly organized by the two parties in 2006 according to their agreement announced in 2005 during KMT chairman Lien Chan’s historic icebreaking “peace trip” to mainland China. The trip was the KMT top leader’s first ever visit to mainland China since the party’s defeat in the Chinese Civil War and subsequent escape to Taiwan in 1949; and the trip will occur amidst the increasing conflict and tension both within Taiwan and between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.
In 2004, Taiwan’s president Chen Shui-bian won re-election by a slight margin that had been boosted by a highly controversial and failed assassination attempt right before the polling day. Immediately, the opposition pan-blue camp organized a series of legal actions and street protests against Chen’s re-election that lasted until the end of the year. Taiwan was therefore troubled by constant internal political conflict in 2004. Externally, in 2005, the Anti-Secession Law was passed in mainland China which legalized the Chinese government’s adoption of a military approach towards unifying Taiwan with mainland China under certain conditions. The DPP immediately organized about one million Taiwanese to protest against the Law, and consequently, cross-strait tensions escalated. One month after Taiwan’s protest, Lien Chan started his “peace trip” to mainland China and achieved five common views with the CCP, including the joint organization of the annual forum. Although his trip did not reduce Taiwan’s internal political conflict, it did mitigate cross-strait tensions through improving non-governmental exchanges across the Strait.
Between 2005-07, Chen Shui-bian resorted to radical pro-independence strategies to escape from serious corruption scandals involving his close officials, his family members, and himself, which escalated Taiwan’s conflict with not only mainland China but also the US. In the midst of growing cross-strait conflict, the CCP-KMT forum played a constructive role in stabilizing cross-strait relations and it also contributed to the KMT’s landslide victory in the 2008 presidential election.
During the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou administration between 2008-15, official government-to-government relations across the Taiwan Strait were greatly improved. As a result, the significance of the non-official party-to-party annual forum began to decline. As Taiwanese nationalism continued to grow and people increasingly viewed the Ma administration as being too pro-China, the CCP-KMT forum gradually lost its positive image and began to be seen as the platform for the KMT officials and their business partners to obtain benefits from the Chinese government. Due to this negative image, the post-2016 election reform report compiled by the KMT Secretary-General proposed the cancellation of the forum. Obviously, there is strong opposition against the forum and its role has become divisive even within the KMT.
The coming Xi-Hung meeting has further exposed divisions within the KMT to the public. Hung is the leader of the deep/mainlander blue faction whose China policy of “one China, common interpretation” is even more pro-China than Ma’s “one China, with different interpretations,” and is therefore the closest to the Chinese government’s position. However, the deep blue camp is the minority in the KMT and even more distant from the general public’s mainstream position which is pro-status quo on the surface but anti-China in essence. This is also the reason why her presidential candidacy was extremely controversial in the KMT and was finally replaced by then-KMT chairman Eric Chu in the election.
As an unpopular leader within the KMT, Hung enjoys even less support in the general public due to her pro-China stance of “one China, common interpretation.”
Shortly after the announcement of the Xi-Hung meeting and the annual forum, the light/local blue faction and Hung’s potential competitors for the next year’s party chair election all started to criticize her for her pro-China position. They believe that Hung’s “one China, common interpretation” is very controversial in the KMT and they urged her to mention “one China, with different interpretations” instead during her meeting with Xi, otherwise, the KMT’s low popularity in Taiwan will decline even further. This is indeed a necessary warning, but it has also weakened Hung’s authority and reduced her chances for re-election next year.
Hung is the first top KMT leader who has been challenged seriously and publicly by the party’s major factions before meeting the top CCP leader. Her low popularity within and outside the party will definitely constrain any positive outcomes of her meeting with Xi. Nevertheless, she and the KMT need this meeting desperately. About eight months after their disgraceful defeat in the presidential election in January 2016, the KMT’s bank accounts were frozen by the DPP-controlled Ill-Gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee, disrupting the KMT’s ability to pay their workers’ salaries. Now that the party has been impacted by open internal conflict, an unpopular leader, and a lack of financial sources, its members now suffer extremely low morale. The KMT wishes that the Xi-Hung meeting and the forum will help it kick-start its revival process, just as it did in 2005.
Stabilizing and improving cross-strait relations was the KMT’s largest achievement in the past eight years and this will continue to be its most important advantage over the DPP administration. Ironically, if cross-strait government-to-government relations were already good under the Tsai administration, the KMT’s future contributions to it as an opposition party would not be apparent to the Taiwanese public. Therefore, a pre-condition for boosting and showcasing the KMT’s importance in stabilizing cross-strait relations is to destabilize government-to-government relations first. Since Tsai Ing-wen took office in May, cross-strait tensions have indeed been increasing, and the two sides of the Strait have blamed each other for destabilizing relations. The current cross-strait tensions are somewhat similar to that in 2005 before Lien Chan met with Hu Jintao and jointly launched the two parties’ annual forum. It is indeed a good opportunity for Hung and the KMT.
Before the Xi-Hung meeting and the forum, the two parties changed the forum’s name from “Economic, Trade and Culture Forum” to “Peace and Development Forum,” in order to convey a message favorable to the KMT. The name change implies that due to the increasing tension between Taiwan and mainland China, peace instead of economic and cultural exchange will be the top priority of cross-strait relations. In other words, without peace, development is out of question at the government level. Therefore, if the Tsai administration continues to reject the “1992 consensus” and the one-China principle, the government-to-government relations will not be peaceful anymore. On the other hand, because the KMT accepts the “1992 consensus” and the one-China principle, it will be able to promote non-governmental peaceful relations and development across the Strait.
However, a significantly heightened Taiwanese nationalism, which already contributed to the KMT’s electoral defeat in January, will constrain collaboration between the CCP and the KMT. It is without doubt that voters in Taiwan want peaceful cross-strait relations, but they are also wary about the various negative impacts of improved cross-strait relations on Taiwan’s democracy, employment, income equality, and so on. As an unpopular leader within the KMT, Hung enjoys even less support in the general public mainly due to her pro-China stance of “one China, common interpretation.” It seems she really needs to downplay her pro-China stance during her meeting with Xi to avoid a backlash.
During the Chen administration of 2005-07, while the Lien-Hu meeting and the two parties’ annual forums were able to promote non-governmental relations between Taiwan and mainland China, official government-to-government relations became conflict-ridden. Similarly, the upcoming Xi-Hung meeting and the forum may raise the KMT’s morale, demonstrate the two parties’ anti-independence determination, and further improve non-governmental cross-strait relations, but they will not help improve cross-strait government-to-government relations.