Changing China

Giant on the move

China, Taiwan hold talks — hello?

April 29, 2009

Police should have brought sandwiches and sodas to the park outside a Taipei hotel where Taiwan negotiators and counterparts from old foe China held talks. Hardly anyone demonstrated against the mid-April meeting.

What’s more, over the weekend, as the two sides met more formally in China to sign agreements on trade and finance, Taiwan TV viewers watched news about swine flu in Mexico and the United States or celebrity scandal reruns. Monday morning newspapers’ editorials barely raised the usual spectre of Taiwan sacrificing its democratic self-rule to Communist China in exchange for lucrative trade deals.

What a change. Last year as the administration of China-friendly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou began meeting with Beijing after a decade of frozen relations marked by occasional war threats, Taiwan’s China-hostile opposition thundered against what they saw as a sell-out to Beijing and led massive demonstrations during the second round of talks, in Taipei.

Does anyone care anymore? The short answer is “yes”, but many people have accepted the idea that China, which has threatened to use force to end Taiwan’s self-rule, can talk with Taiwan on non-political issues such as trade without rattling the political status quo.

“The third round of talks is just part of a process,” said Wu Chia-jung, 23, a law student at National Taipei University. “I approve of this method of dialogue. Taiwan is in a weak position. No one wants to fight.”

The latest, muted reaction also shows that Ma’s government has learned basic public relations skills, including recent newspaper and TV ads spelling out the economic benefits of closer relations with China.

“They’ve certainly done a better job of communicating with the public,” said Taipei-based political risk analyst Raymond Wu. “It’s a start. It’s something they didn’t do last time.”

Support in Taiwan for talks with China, even if passive, bodes well for the riskiest venture so far between the two sides: a broad pact that will knock down a rack of existing trade barriers. The deal needs public consensus in Taiwan to pass the next round of negotiations without immediate risk to the ruling party.

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