China's old foes seek an end to conflict
05 May 2005
An historic meeting between the two sides in China’s 1926-49 civil war—the mainland’s Communist Party and the Taiwan-based Kuomintang—has ended in a pledge to seek a definitive end to hostilities and pursue economic integration. The Kuomintang leader, Lien Chan, may also have done some good with his call—televised across the mainland—for the Communists to speed up political reforms
SINCE China’s Communist Party chased its main rival for power, the Kuomintang (KMT), to the island of Taiwan at the end of the civil war in 1949, the mainland has gradually stopped lobbing missiles at Taiwan, replacing them with threats of war if the “renegade province” were ever formally to declare independence. Nowadays the KMT does not even rule Taiwan, having lost its last two presidential elections to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which leans towards formalising the island’s de facto independence. Nevertheless, it would be fair to describe as historic the meeting, on Friday April 29th, between the KMT’s chairman, Lien Chan, and China’s president and Communist Party general secretary, Hu Jintao.
In the first meeting between the two parties’ leaders since the war, they pledged to work towards a definitive end to hostilities. They also agreed to talk about setting up a common market between the island and the mainland. This could considerably boost their already growing economic ties, by removing the mainland’s import duties on Taiwanese goods. At the end of Mr Lien's visit, China announced plans to remove import barriers on some Taiwanese farm produce and lifted a ban on mainland tourists visiting the island. Mr Lien and Mr Hu have also agreed to discuss lifting the mainland’s ban on direct air and shipping links across the Taiwan Strait.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the two party chiefs’ warm words will translate into serious moves towards reconciliation. China cannot bet on the KMT ever regaining power in Taiwan (the next presidential elections are not due until 2008). Nor can it rely on Mr Lien himself remaining an influential force within the party. At 68, and having lost two successive bids for the presidency, Mr Lien’s political career is probably nearing its end. A younger generation of KMT politicians, their outlook less shaped by nostalgia for the Chinese mainland, will soon take over.
Nevertheless, even if Mr Lien's meeting with Mr Hu proves fruitless, the KMT leader may at least have done some good by his comments to a group of Peking University students, broadcast live across the mainland, in effect urging the Communist Party to embrace democratic reforms. “The entire speed and scale of political reform on the mainland still have considerable room for improvement,” Mr Lien said. Though the Communist Party has in recent years allowed some limited elections at local level, all potential challenges to its authority have been ruthlessly put down since the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy student campaigners in 1989.
Bill Clinton made similar comments on his trip to China in 1998, calling on its authorities to “ride the wave of change”. But Mr Lien’s call for political reform, coming from a Chinese-born political leader who advocates reunification between the mainland and Taiwan, may have more resonance among ordinary Chinese.
So far, at least, the Communist leadership seems to feel constrained not to rubbish Mr Lien's calls for it to reform. By showing goodwill to a man who served as Taiwan’s prime minister and later as vice-president between 1993 and 2000, China could be trying to send a message to the Taiwanese public that supporting Mr Lien or a like-minded successor would help ease tensions between the two sides. China refuses to negotiate with Taiwan’s current government, not least because of the DPP’s talk of permanent separation.
But it is just as plausible that China wants to use Mr Lien’s visit to send conciliatory messages to Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian, who has promised not to push for formal independence. Mr Chen at first denounced Mr Lien’s plans for the trip, arguing that it was too soon after China’s adoption in March of an anti-secession law, which authorises the use of force against Taiwan should it assert its independence. In the end he gave his blessing, despite protests by pro-independence activists. Seeking to seize back the diplomatic initiative, on Tuesday Mr Chen called for the Chinese leadership to join him in peace negotiations and invited Mr Hu to visit Taiwan.
Not even Mr Lien, for all his family roots in China (his trip included a visit to his hometown of Xian), has shown any interest in discussing reunification any time soon. He reiterated on his visit that he wants to maintain the status quo between the two sides. He supports the idea of an interim agreement lasting 30-50 years whereby Taiwan would agree not to declare formal independence in exchange for a pledge by China not to attack. Neither China nor Mr Chen has explicitly rejected this, so far at least.
China will have a chance to probe the Taiwanese president’s thinking this week when James Soong, the leader of the People First Party (PFP), which broke from the KMT in 2000, also pays his first visit to the mainland since 1949. The PFP and KMT share many common views. In February, however, Mr Soong signed an accord with Mr Chen in which the two set out a consensus on cross-strait issues. One of Mr Chen’s apparent aims was to show China that there was not really such a big gap between his views and those of the opposition.
If China can refrain from using the opposition leaders’ visits to snipe at Mr Chen, they could help to reduce some of the antagonism generated by the anti-secession law. China is worried about the negative reaction to the law not only in Taiwan and America (where it was predictable) but in Europe (which is debating lifting its arms embargo on China). The Chinese authorities may well be in a mood for showing a bit of goodwill. The shame is that they still cannot bring themselves to do so directly to Mr Chen.