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China Campaigns to Win Hearts and Minds in Taiwan

Officials from China and Taiwan held historic talks last week in the southern Chinese city of Nanjing. It was their first formal get together since the end of a civil war over six decades ago. Analysts say the meeting highlights China's growing understanding of the island's politics and increased efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese public.

In just a week's time, China held its first formal talks with officials from Taiwan and China's president met the honorary chairman of the island's ruling Nationalist Party, Lien Chan.

During his meeting with Lien, President Xi Jinping said he respects Taiwan's social system. He also said China is willing to hold equal talks with Taiwan to resolve the two sides' chronic political differences.

China is eager to engage Taiwan in political talks and its softer approach in recent years is in sharp contrast to the threats Zhu Rongji hurled at Taiwan's voters in 2000, a race that marked the island's first democratic transition.

Jia Qingguo, a political scientist at Peking University, says currently, China's analysis of the political situation in Taiwan is more accurate. It also has more ideas about how to respond to changes in the overall situation in Taiwan.

China is not only stepping up its interaction with the ruling party, but is reaching out to Taiwan's opposition as well, which analysts say is perhaps an even bigger development.

Just a few weeks before the head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council made his historic visit to China, an entourage from former opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen's research group Thinking Taiwan Foundation visited Beijing and had dinner with officials from China's Taiwan Affairs Office.

Tsai, the former presidential candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party, did not travel with the group. But representatives from her office did. Antonio Chiang, a former deputy-secretary general of Taiwan's National Security Council, traveled with the group to Beijing.

Chiang says Communist China is changing its position and they want to have a more comprehensive dialogue with Taiwan and even with the Democratic Progressive Party. He says that in the past, the opposition wanted to have dialogue with China but could not find opportunities. Now, he says, we have opportunities.

Beijing's effort to reach out began before the 2008 elections, when now Nationalist leader Ma Ying-jeou was running against Frank Hsieh. The efforts have picked up since Ma was narrowly re-elected in 2012.

Lin Chong-Pin, a former high-ranking official at Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council and deputy defense minister, says such under the surface contacts have been going on for some time.

"I have heard from so many sources that his [Frank Hsieh's] lieutenants' went over then and after, either through Hong Kong or through Singapore, and met with officials from China," he said. "And then there was the 2012 event. The competition was very close. And now we're going to see in 2016 presidential election."

Lin says Beijing is prepared for the possibility that the ruling party in Taiwan could change again.

Contacts have expanded rapidly since Ma was elected. But at the same time, says political scientist Jia Qingguo, there has not been an increase in support for one China in Taiwan. In fact, he says, support has decreased. Which is something that is worth thinking about.

Analysts say that for now, however, Chinese leader Xi Jinping's first priority is a robust reform agenda that the Communist Party outlined late last year. Once Xi has made some progress there, his attention is likely to shift more dramatically to Taiwan.

Until then, analysts say, China is preparing for a wide range of possible outcomes. Taiwan holds elections later this year and its next presidential ballot in January of 2016.

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