China and Taiwan Draw Closer, Amid Protests

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Sam Yeh / AFP / Getty Images

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, right, shakes hands with Chinese negotiator Chen Yunlin at the Taipei Guest House in Taiwan on Nov. 6

The highest-ranking Chinese envoy to visit Taiwan in 60 years landed in Taipei this week, ringing in a new era of cross-strait relations with unprecedented trade and transport agreements. It is the first time that a top Chinese official has come to Taiwan, the island off mainland China that claims autonomy, and China claims as its own. Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou, who met with the high-ranking Beijing diplomat, has advocated closer economic ties with China and a more pragmatic approach to its sovereignty dispute.

Chen Yunlin, the chairman of the Chinese organization in charge of Taiwan affairs, met with Ma at the Taipei Guest House on Thursday, where they exchanged gifts. Chen unfurled an elaborate scroll painting of a horse — the meaning of "Ma" in Chinese — and Ma gave Chen a ceramic vase with painted Taiwanese orchids. In the coming months, they'll also exchange furry ambassadors: two Chinese pandas for a Formosan serow and sika deer.

Ma and Chen avoided controversy in the quick meeting by not using titles — China refers to Ma as "Taiwan's leader" and Taiwan says he's president. They affirmed the Nov. 4 trade pacts will take effect in 40 days, including an expansion of direct cross-strait flights, direct shipping and postal links, and increased cooperation on food safety in the wake of the recent melamine contaminations. Roughly five million Taiwanese travel to China each year, and the agreements are expected to reduce travel time and costs. Ma and Chen also agreed to meet once every six months and find ways for their financial markets to cooperate.

Meanwhile, outside thousands of protesters had hit the streets near the meeting, shouting "Step down, Ma Ying-jeou!", throwing plastic bottles and rocks, and wearing yellow head and neck bands that read "Taiwan is My Country." The opposition Democratic Progressive Party, wary of any moves to draw closer to China, has staged protests throughout Chen's visit. Some 7000 police have been deployed to maintain order, and a couple of protestors have been injured in the chaos. On Wednesday, hundreds surrounded the hotel where Chen was dining and refused to disperse until 2AM, when Chen could finally leave. "The protests were to be expected," says political scientist Yang Tai-shuenn at Taiwan's Chinese Culture University. "The Democratic Progressive Party has always had a deep mistrust of the Kuomintang [Ma's party], and the opposition uses mass movements to mobilize the party."

Amid the ongoing protests, Ma has assured the public that Taiwan remains a sovereign country and that the pacts were made on equal footing. Chinese envoy Chen also acknowledged the dissent, saying that "has heard and seen [the opposition voices]," but believed "the pacts are for the convenience and benefit of the people on both sides." Chen's demeanor has been gracious throughout the trip, despite the hostility, and for good reason, say analysts. "Any overreaction from Beijing would result in Taiwan drifting away," says Professor Lin Chong-pin of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University. Lin believes China has learned that animosity from Beijing only fuels Taiwan's opposition movement. "The leaders in Beijing believe that time is on their side, so they don't need to rush unification."

The new era of diplomacy will be put to the test soon enough, as Taiwan continues to push for participation in international organizations, such as at the next World Health Organization meeting next May. Taiwan has sought participation in WHO and the United Nations in the past, but has routinely been blocked by Beijing. If China wants this chumminess to go its way, it would be wise, says Lin, to reconsider that stance, too. With a growing opposition movement in Taiwan, he says, "If Beijing does not make any flexible adjustment, it's bad news for Ma, and for cross-strait relations."