The meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou was an historic moment in more ways than one, as Mark Harrison explains.
In Singapore on Saturday November 7, the first ever meeting took place between the president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Xi Jinping 习近平and of the Republic of China (ROC), Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九, representing mainland China and Taiwan.
The meeting was a single event bringing two individuals together. But their handshake, and the words they said and did not say in their speeches, carried with it vast dispositions of meaning. The meeting addressed cross-straits relations and regional security, the election campaign currently underway in Taiwan, the legacies and styles of the two leaders, and the history of modern China itself. The proportions of the meeting looked different from every angle, quotidian and banal in one view, opportunistic and calculating in another, and a moment for history from another still.
During the meeting, both leaders uttered the many keywords of contemporary cross-straits relations: the one China principle 一中原則, the 1992 Consensus 九二共識, peaceful development 和平發展, a common political foundation 共同政治基礎. What they did not say was just as important. Ma did not mention democracy, and left “one China 一中” unqualified by the additional phrase “different interpretations 各表”. The emphases and the tone of the words has created a new terrain for analysis. Ma’s lacunae might have given ground to Xi Jinping and the PRC. But the meeting itself and the honorifics of Mr Ma 馬先生and Mr Xi 习先生, and the phrase “cross-straits leaders 兩岸領導人” accepted by the mainland side, gave an equal weight to Taiwan that China rarely concedes.
The meeting was a dramatic intervention in the presidential and legislative election campaign currently underway in Taiwan. The hopeless campaign run so far by Ma Ying-jeou’s party the KMT has been reframed by a focus on cross-straits relations and the legacy of the Ma government. It has taken attention away from the key campaign issues of Taiwan’s contracting economy, poor wage growth and rising inequality.
The opposition candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文）, who is ahead in polls by 20 points or more from the KMT’s Eric Chu (朱立倫), was for a week sidelined by the meeting. She spoke thoughtfully and sharply in response, but in fairly narrow domestic terms. She questioned the motives of Ma Ying-jeou so close to the end of his term and to the election, and criticised his failure to speak to Xi about the strength and value of Taiwan’s democracy.
The meeting addressed the aspiration of Ma Ying-jeou, ending his presidential term with approval rating figures in the teens, to make a claim on a legacy from his eight years in office.
It captured, too, something of the bold and impulsive style of leadership of Xi Jinping. Instead of belligerence or sullen silence from China’s leadership towards Taiwan’s elections, Xi reached out to shake Ma’s hand. But he also did it far too late to avoid the impression of opportunism, and that the PRC simply wanted to intervene in the election campaign to support the KMT.
The logic of the short-term thinking of China’s leadership will unravel over time in unpredictable ways. The meeting has set a precedence. If Tsai wins the presidency, as seems more than likely, cross-straits relations will be unforgivingly poised. Tsai could meet Xi as president of the ROC, but China will demand concessions on her willingness to recite the language of the Ma Xi meeting, including “One China” and the “1992 Consensus”. For the next four years of a Tsai term, each side will try to position the other as the recalcitrant without conceding too much of their own commitments.
Above all of this, the meeting was made meaningful by its place in China’s modern history. Ma and Xi spoke for the grand and terrible history of war and nationhood that makes the story of modern China. They spoke too for the silencing of other histories.
The history that Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping represented has become familiar in its telling. The Republic of China was founded in 1912 by the Chinese Nationalists (KMT) who fought a terrible civil war against the Chinese Communists (CCP) until their defeat and retreat to Taiwan in 1949. China was divided as the two sides maintained a hostile stand-off, with neither acknowledging the legitimacy of the other. By the 1980s, the People’s Republic of China was recognised as the legitimate government of China by almost all the international community, while the Republic, now an historical footnote, began to democratise. Economic relations grew rapidly and people, culture and capital began to flow across the straits. In the last seven years of the Ma government on Taiwan, relations began to thaw, and with this meeting a bitter legacy of China’s history moved towards a peaceful resolution.
There is another way of telling this history however. Taiwan was ceded to Japan by the Qing empire in 1895, years before the founding of the Republic. Taiwan modernised and militarised under the Japanese empire, and also resisted colonial authority. In the 1910s and 1920s, Taiwanese intellectuals and activists at the centre of flows of modern ideas from the Chinese and Japanese worlds turned the disparate political aspirations of the Taiwanese into a unique syncretic liberalism. In 1945, Taiwan became part of the Republic of China under the KMT. But in 1947 the Taiwanese rose up in an anti-Chinese Nationalist uprising that was crushed by the KMT at the cost of tens of thousands of Taiwanese lives. The violence of 1947 forged colonial liberalism into Taiwanese nationalism. Then, in 1949, the national government of the Republic of China relocated to Taiwan. The long and violent struggle for Taiwanese democracy was realised in the 1990s, marking a step forward in the hopes of a century of political struggle. This history is mobilised by the DPP. The principles and practices of Taiwanese liberalism were renewed by the Sunflower activists in 2014, who made their debt to the generations of activists from the 1910s to the 1990s explicitly clear.
In Singapore, Ma spoke only a little of history and mostly of his legacy and his belief in practical measures for cross-straits stability. However, Xi Jinping, in his comments, excised all of Taiwan’s history from cross-straits relations. He addressed the seven years of the Ma government and the sixty six years since the national government of the ROC relocated to Taipei. All the events that matter, the Japanese colonial period, 1947 uprising, and the struggle for democracy, were silenced.
The international media repeated all of this with much gusto, lauding the meeting as the first since 1949 between the “two sides”, as if there are only two sides, and erasing Taiwan’s history as effectively as Xi and the state apparatus of the PRC party-state.
Over the minutiae of the pursuance of cross-straits relations, the Singapore meeting asserted in the strongest terms a singular, teleological view of China’s modern history that creates the foundations of power in China today.
Yet as Taiwan itself has shown again and again, history is hard to contain. It has an implacable strength that pushes relentlessly at the instruments of states and governments. The only path to resolution across the Taiwan straits is for the PRC to know and hear Taiwan’s history and write it fully into its own. To do so, however, would change China profoundly and forever in ways the current regime could never countenance.