An astute Tweet that flashed before me yesterday pointed out that the meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou is a not a China-Taiwan affair, but a CCP-KMT one. Unless they have suddenly acquired new capacity for nuance and finesse, the Beijing leaders’ calculation must be pretty simplistic. Give the KMT leader face, thus filling Taiwanese voters’ hearts with admiration for his party’s ability to induce some magnanimity and good vibes out of the mighty PRC government, therefore reducing support for the opposition and independence-minded DPP. So, indirectly, it is the DPP that Beijing is flattering, or respectful/fearful of.
Still, much of the media yearn to see the Chinese leadership as warm and cuddly deep down, so they describe the photo-op as ‘historic’ and (to quote the FT headline) as a ‘gesture’ – implying thoughtfulness, concern for others, kindness and similar sentiments so dear to the Communist psychology.
This matters to us in Hong Kong because, in order to get what it really wants, Beijing has to make some sort of concession toward the Taiwanese masses who don’t want to be run by a cruel and corrupt dictatorship. It has to convince them that some sort of closer cross-straits constitutional arrangement in the future will not threaten their freedom and democracy. Xi cannot do this simply by dangling trade privileges or an infestation of tourists in front of Taiwan’s tycoons; he has to find a way to guarantee continued pluralism in the island under a ‘One China’ formula. If he could manage to do that, it would imply that Beijing could also find a way to accommodate Hong Kong’s own desire for freedom and self-rule.
Obviously, the Communist one-party state can’t/won’t. Dream on.
The China-watchers and tealeaf-readers are having tremendous fun with the symbolism and nomenclature – which are the nearest to any substance the Xi-Ma mister-on-mister chat will produce. China’s media tend to delicately refer to the two as ‘leaders’ of ‘sides’. There is even a hint of a concession by Beijing here, as that wording does not preclude the theoretical possibility of the ‘sides’ being equal or equivalent, though obviously it doesn’t include it either. Perhaps it’s OK because Ma has replaced his forebear Lee Teng-hui’s ‘state-to-state’ description with a ‘special non-state-to-state’ tag (at which point the most hardened semanticist throws up his hands and wails ‘get a life!’).
What will be on the menu as they dine together? Tropical fruit or the multi-regional hybrid stewy things that bubble away in night-markets are presumably out, being too suggestive of a Taiwan that is distant from the Mainland or has developed a distinct and more sophisticated and advanced form of Chinese culture. Similarly, they will have to avoid the spicy lamb and steamed breads of Xi’s home Shaanxi Province, as well as the intestine soups and noodles so reminiscent of One China’s capital city. As they will be in Singapore, maybe they can have a curry.
As the South China Morning Post blurts out, Xi’s palling around with Ma can only be the kiss of death for the KMT in Taiwan’s forthcoming elections. If DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen needs to further remind her people of the stark choice between Beijing’s embrace and maintenance of a free society, she just needs to point to the gradually unraveling fate of present-day Hong Kong.