Saturday, June 28, 2014

, ,

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun's visit to Taiwan

6/28/2014 Taiwan Explorer
Photo of Minister Zhang nearly hit by white paint. Originally appeared in Apple Daily.

The protests against China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun in Greater Kaohsiung yesterday turned bloody, reports Taipei Times. Zhang's 4 day long visit (from 25. to 28. June) made history, because it was the first government level visit from China to Taiwan since 1949, when communists established the PRC. Due to the complicated bilateral relations between these two countries, this visit wasn't without controversy among a lot of people in Taiwan. Here an excerpt from the article describing an incident, one of many these days (I shortened the original paragraph):

A high-school student surnamed Yen said he and a friend were trying to throw drinks at a car carrying Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang when they were dragged away by police. A man named Chuang tried to help them, but tripped and fell. “And when Chuang was on the ground, police rushed toward him, pressed his body down and rammed his head to the ground like a ball, breaking his glasses and injuring his head,” WRP chief executive Chen said. The groups said that the police’s use of force was unnecessary and accused the government of treating the public as its enemies.

Not to condone excessive police force, but throwing drinks at a car is an "unnecessary use of force", too. It's an act of violence that will naturally trigger a response from the police. In this regard I find the last sentence disingenuous, even cynical. What happened to the once great idea of peaceful protests? You can't have your cake and eat it, too.

Minister Zhang with Chen Chu, mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's democracy icon. Photo by Reuters.

There were several other reports of incidents in other parts of Taiwan during Zhang's visit, most notably in Taoyuan, where he arrived, and Wulai, where activists blocked the road (video), and police ruthlessly intervened (and also obstructed the work of accredited reporters). Taiwan Voice, a pro-Taiwan Facebook community, regularly shared unverified photos and reports from the sites of protest (such as here), naturally portraying the clashes with the police in their favor. Taiwan's pro-government media did the same. This was all very predictable, and the main reason why I (mostly) stayed away from the news surrounding Zhang's visit until now. It's rather sad that there was no foreign reporter on site, it could be a good reference in addition to the local reports as to what really happened, and how to put all the pieces of the puzzle together, and see the bigger picture from an international point of view. Unfortunately when it comes to Cross-Strait relations, neutral reporting is a rare occurrence, even (or should I say especially?) among Western journalists and Taiwan experts. To be fair, there's very little middle ground when it comes to Taiwan's status and its relations with China. If you say Taiwan is an island, or a country, or a province, you're inadvertently making a political statement that will put a pro-China or pro-Taiwan label on you. But I digress.

What did Taiwan gain from Zhang's meeting?

Let's ask ourselves an honest question: Does violence really offer any viable solution here? As much as I admire the passion for democracy and independence by those young activists, throwing bottles and paint at a foreign government representative will not change things in your favor. And the excessive police force and disregard for accredited journalists casts another dark shadow on the current government, that barely anyone sees as capable to lead Taiwan. In light of these two factors, I'm rather pessimistic about what Taiwan really got out of this meeting, but one thing is sure - the discourse in Taiwan has not moved beyond the usual blue-green rhetoric. While protests were expected and necessary, the violence was counterproductive. You can't talk with someone who is shouting, or throwing things at you. If one day we have a green government, and a representative is sent to China for talks, how would Taiwanese feel, if Chinese protesters physically threatened that representative?

Just a thought.

Democracy is not a lifestyle

From Xinhua, original caption says: "Zhang Zhijun jointly picks pawpaws with a farmer while visiting fruit farmers in Shanlin District of Kaohsiung, southeast China's Taiwan, June 27, 2014"

The CCP was probably not very surprised to see how difficult it was for Zhang to convey the communist "One-China" mantra to people of Southern Taiwan, despite his friendly face. Xinhua, China's state press agency and propaganda arm, summarized the trip with a positive spin and with photos that show Zhang in those few rare moments where he wasn't surrounded with protesters. Naturally the images of protests were completely omitted, since the whole trip was more or less a PR stunt. One of Zhang's often heard remarks during this trip was also highlighted:

"The mainland welcomes all regions, parties and religions from Taiwan, to take part in the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, and create more benefit for both sides, as more cross-Strait communications will help to close the mentality gap," Zhang told journalists after meeting Chen. He said the mainland and Taiwan share common historical memories, while different perceptions lead to diverse social systems, values and life styles.

"As the mainland knows that Taiwanese people cherish the social system and lifestyle chosen by their own, it respects the way that Taiwanese people chose," Zhang said.

While the first part of his statement sounds pragmatic and reasonable (aside from "the mainland"), the second part falls back to the usual, albeit subtle, One-China propaganda. Lots of countries have historical memories (Austria-Germany, Czech Republic and Slovakia...), and yet they can peacefully coexist side by side as two sovereign and independent countries. This is not reason enough to coerce one country into a federation or submission with another (a good contemporary example is Ukraine standing up against Russia). And what he calls "lifestyle" (meaning democracy, freedom of speech, basic human rights), is actually an achievement of Taiwan's civil society, that resulted in a long and bloody struggle spanning from the late 1940s until late 1990s, and has its origin in the early period of the Japanese occupation (1895-1915). In this regard one must wonder why China doesn't respect the "lifestyle" of Hong Kongers. There can be a hundred visits by Mr. Zhang, but as long as Beijing calls Hong Kong's peaceful struggle for democracy through a referendum an "illegal farce", it will be pretty hard to convince Taiwanese that their "lifestyle" will still be respected, if they one day freely choose to become part of the PRC.

Focus Taiwan reports Mr. Zhang's last day in Taiwan was cut short due to security concerns. And we are back to where we started.

Zhang talks with people from Atayal tribe, photo via Xinhua.