The ice has been broken for meetings between leaders from both sides, but it may be a while yet before such a feat is repeated, as the next president of Taiwan will have to do so by being fully accountable to the public that put him or her in office and aware that failing to do so would come at a heavy price in terms of future elections as well as social stability. Ma, whose popularity hovers around 20 percent and reached 9 percent at its nadir last year, could afford the journey because he’s on his way out. This was therefore a summit between an authoritarian leader and a man who for all intents and purposes is a “has-been.” It was a continuation of the kind of party-to-party meetings that have characterized much of the seven years of détente in the Taiwan Strait, leaving out the most important variable: the people.
But the underlying fundamentals—the identity issues and incompatible political systems—remain unchanged.
Far more resilient and aware than they are given credit for, the Taiwanese looked on, certainly bemused but not excessively apprehensive because they know that they, not a handful of officials, will have the power to determine their fate in January. This explains why the protests against the Ma-Xi summit didn’t escalate as they did during the breakthrough visit to Taiwan by China’s top negotiator, Chen Yunlin, in the early months of President Ma’s first term in 2008, or in March 2014, when the student-led Sunflower Movement occupied Taiwan’s parliament for three weeks in response to the government’s attempt to impose a controversial services trade agreement with China. The largest protest, held on Saturday, didn’t attract more than 2,000 participants. To be sure, Mr. Ma’s reference to “one China” sparked discontent across Taiwan, but everybody knows that Ma is out of time, that the winds have changed. They know that no candidate could insert similar language in his or her policy platform and survive future elections, as the KMT’s previous presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, soon discovered before being replaced by her own party.
There were nevertheless some positive, albeit probably unintentional, outcomes to the meeting, which deserve mention. For one thing, it allowed a Taiwanese president to give an international press conference outside Taipei, something that hadn’t occurred in years and which placed Taiwan squarely at the center of international politics. This is certainly a success for President Ma, who agreed to meet the press after the meeting; President Xi chose not to do so. And it generated tremendous interest in Taiwan (even if only momentarily) among international media, and thus a chance for everybody to learn a few things about a fascinating and extraordinarily complex nation that sadly is often ignored, and therefore deeply misunderstood, by journalists and academics alike.
J. Michael Cole, a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, is editor in chief of www.thinking-taiwan.com, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.
Image: Flickr/Jason Ma