Zhang Zhijun, the first ministerial-level visitor to visit Taiwan from Beijing since 1949, is on the island through Saturday. Analysts see the visit as a chance to steady relations after the occupation of Taiwan’s parliament by students in March triggered 24 days of anti-China street protests.
Mr. Zhang has avoided discussing sensitive political issues publicly on his visit, which Beijing describes as a chance for him to listen and learn. Taipei says the two sides will make no announcements during the trip. Mr. Zhang is scheduled to meet students, low-income families, and a fishing community.
But Taiwanese officials haven't been shy to pipe up about their determination that the island's political future should be decided at home, not by the mainland.
“Taiwan’s future should under the constitution be decided by Taiwan’s 23 million people,” the office of Wang Yu-Chi, Taiwan's China policy architect said Wednesday after his meeting with Zhang. “This is also the consensus of Taiwanese people. We hope mainland China can give us that respect.”
On Thursday Eric Chu, mayor of Taiwan’s largest city and a heavyweight in the ruling Nationalist Party, gave the visitor the same message.
Those comments are in direct contradiction to Beijing Taiwan Affairs Office spokeswoman Fan Liqing's statement, made before Zhang left for his trip, that the island’s relation to China “should be decided by all Chinese” rather than just Taiwan's residents.
Analysts say Zhang will be careful not to rock the boat during his visit. “Zhang will of course be cautious in his remarks,” says Leonard Chu, a retired China studies professor from National Chengchi University in Taipei. “At most he can be vague, but he will not go beyond the Communist Party’s official bottom line position.”
There have been minor protests during Zhang's visit, but nothing on the scale of this past spring or previous anti-China protests in 2008 and 2010.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s, when Mao Zedong’s Communists routed Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. The Nationalists fled to Taiwan and set up a rival government.
Since Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, thought of as conciliatory, took office in 2008, the two sides have set aside once- icy relations to sign 21 agreements giving a lift to the island’s economy and a better image of China among island residents.
China hopes those deals on trade, transit, and investment will soon lead to political dialogue, which Taiwan has resisted.
Protesters in March and April feared that Mr. Ma had gotten too close to China, which has not dropped military threats to force unification.
Those protests erupted after the same two officials, Zhang and Wang, met for the first time near Shanghai in February, followed by an effort in Taiwan’s ruling party-dominated parliament to fast-track ratification of a service trade deal with China.
The Beijing spokeswoman’s comment, though not a new stance, further riled Taiwan.
“The urgency of the issue was reinforced by Fan Liqing's recent reiteration of the PRC principle that Taiwan's destiny must be decided by all Chinese, meaning the top Chinese Communist Party leadership, rather than by the people of Taiwan,” says Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center, a US research institute in Hawaii.