You and Me, Ma and Xi

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, shake hands at the Shangri-la Hotel on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Singapore. The two leaders shook hands at the start of a historic meeting marking the first top level contact between the formerly bitter Cold War goes since they split amid civil war 66 years ago. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, shake hands at the Shangri-la Hotel on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Singapore. The two leaders shook hands at the start of a historic meeting marking the first top level contact between the formerly bitter Cold War goes since they split amid civil war 66 years ago. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The ANGLE is in the detail.

Initial response to the historic hand-shake between the two “misters” from across the Taiwan Strait is full of obsession with minute details, sometimes bordered on being excessive: digging up the pronunciation of dish names at the 1993 ice-breaking meeting between the two special envoys from both sides, which set thirty years of bumpy interactions in motion. But symbolism is always a big part of Chinese politics, especially when it comes to language. Up until this moment, reports about the meeting in mainland China are still flecked with quotation marks, which are meticulously put on every reference to political institutions in Taiwan, from the “presidency” to its “legislative yuan”, in lieu of putting “so-called” before each one of them.

“If titles are incorrect, words are not smooth.” The old Chinese saying applies perfectly to the decades of struggle between the Communists and Kuomintang, mainland China and Taiwan. Much of that can be traced through the names they called each other. An excellent piece by Beijing News’s book review section looks back at the 70 years since Chiang Kai-shek invited Mao to the fateful 1945 negotiation that determined China’s destiny right after the end of World War II. They referred to each other as “misters”, and toasted each other with even more amicable terms: “Wansui” (long live). The friendship lasted only for weeks, if not days. Neither side accepted the other’s conditions for peace, and references to each other quickly deteriorated into “gansters” or even “turtle monster”(an innuendo to Chiang’s bald head). Those derogative references lasted until both Mao and Chiang were dead, when new leaderships in Beijing and Taipei decided to set aside their bitter enmity by starting to adopt neutral titles.

It seems that the two parties, after 70 years, returned to their starting point. But for some, using “mister” actually represents a bigger concession from the mainland side, as it shows that the communist leader is willing to park the insistence that the Taiwan leader is but a provincial governor, therefore not an equal counterpart. He is also open enough to the idea of being presented as just “the leader of mainland China”, which in a way “condones the Taiwan authority’s governance of the island.” People are reminded of last year, when Ma proposed to attend the Beijing APEC summit as “leader of an economy”, which was rejected at that time. Small names, big meaning.

Beyond the minutiae, observers on this side of the strait did sense the grand strategic significance of the meeting. “Once the meeting between the two leaders were conceived to be an unreachable ceiling. Now it has become the floor.” Many believe that the precedent creates a new framework for bilateral interaction: a leader-to-leader platform is now possible. To be clear, regular party-to-party communication between the Communist and the KMT has long been re-established. In mainland China, party leader is usually also head of state. So it might give the impression that a top-level Mainland-Taiwan communication channel is already there. But in reality the Chinese head-of-state has never met with a sitting Taiwan president in person. And previous meetings were carefully arranged as strictly “party to party”, a compromise to bypass the tricky status issue. Yet as a Caijing Magazine commentary points out, such an arrangement has the limitation of restricting the mainland’s interlocutor to only the KMT, as Taiwan’s other major party, the Democratic Progressive Party, still has independence written in its charter, an insurmountable obstacle for the mainland to set up friendly party-to-party dialogue. A leader-to-leader platform, argues the article, could overcome Taiwan’s fierce and divisive partisan politics. When they meet, both would represent the political entity (mainland and Taiwan) as a whole, not party interests, which would create the favorable condition for a DPP president of Taiwan to appear at such occasions. With the DPP looking almost set to win the coming election, many people here are seriously predicting eight years of DPP presidency in Taiwan. Creating a precedent for such a summit when it is still possible, therefore, “gives peace a chance” in the following years when cross-strait relationship is going to be tested by unforeseeable events.

The meeting was widely praised across the spectrum in the Chinese cyberspace, a rare situation in today’s highly polarized opinion market. Moreover, many people felt strongly irritated by the CCTV’s clumsy and unnecessary handling of Ma Ying-jeou’s speech (cutting it abruptly after Xi’s).

Much of the overwhelmingly positive sentiment on Chinese social network sites can be attributed to a sense of healing wounds. The tragic and massively violent clash between the communists and Kuomintang costed millions of Chinese their lives, their family and their future. Popular accounts of those years of war and separation, such as Taiwanese writer Long Yingtai’s “Big River, Big Sea: Untold Stories of 1949”, resonate strongly with a public that is beginning to see the deadly partisan struggle as unfortunate, not a vindication of more progressive ideals. The strong public sympathy toward the Kuomintang veterans expressed during the run-up to China’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and a call for their formal recognition by the mainland authority, is a continuation of this sentiment. “Having gone through all the difficulties, the brotherhood remains; When we meet each other, a smile dissolves all our enmity.” (渡尽劫波兄弟在,相逢一笑泯恩仇) The expression appeared in countless articles, posts and commentaries about the Xi-Ma Summit. Or as film director Jia Zhangke puts it on his Weibo account, “The two (leaders) are also old acquaintances separated by mountains,” a theme of his most recent movie that explores separation and reunion.

It should be noted, however, that this sentiment of healing is very much predicated on the coherence of CHINESE history. The struggle between the two parties, and their subsequent split of the nation into two, is seen as a disruption of an otherwise uninterrupted line of historical advancement. In this regard, the hand-shake rejoins a grand national history. But for a part of the Taiwan society that rejects being part of this particular history, and has come to terms with an identity that is natively originated from the Pacific island, the whole affair could feel alienating or, at best, irrelevant.

One thought on “You and Me, Ma and Xi

  1. I sometimes joke that if Taiwan really didn’t want to be a part of that history they’d return all those historical artifacts.


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