Amid grumbles at home, Taiwan's ruling-party chief meets Xi Jinping

Eric Chu is the chairman of the Nationalist Party, a historic adversary of China's Communist Party that is now united by a desire to boost economic cooperation. That has stirred opposition in self-ruled Taiwan. 

Eric Chu, center, chairman of Taiwan's ruling party Kuomintang waves as he leaves Fudan University in Shanghai, China, Saturday, May 2, 2015. Chu is leading a delegation to the cross-strait economic, trade and culture forum and will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on May 4.

Taiwan’s beleaguered ruling party is trying to steady its reputation at home and renew dialog with rival China, which is also eager to charm the Taiwanese after a year of setbacks.

Eric Chu, chairman of Taiwan’s Nationalist Party and a potential presidential candidate, is meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in his role as general secretary of China’s Communist party. Monday's meeting in Beijing, at China’s invitation, will discuss “people’s welfare” and the future of two-way relations, the Nationalists said in a statement.

The meeting in Beijing gives Mr. Chu’s party a major chance to show skeptical Taiwanese that its seven years of engagement with Beijing can still help Taiwan’s economy following anti-China protests last year. For China, which has long claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, the meeting gives it a way to impress anti-Beijing youth and blue-collar workers in Taiwan.

University students in Taipei led tens of thousands to protest in March and April 2014, saying it was dangerous to sign deals with China, given its ambitions towards the self-ruled island. The Nationalist government of President Ma Ying-jeou has signed 21 pacts with China since 2008.

Beijing worries that voters in next January’s elections could swing towards Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates more caution toward China and lacks a working relationship with the Communists – barriers to Beijing’s unification goal.

“Beijing is actually a little anxious to get a handle on the situation as Ma Ying-jeou fades out of the picture,” says Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan.

Keen to wow its skeptics, China might invite Taiwanese companies to join projects under the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or participate in a proposed Asian trading bloc, says Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.

“Since the Chinese Communist Party is eager to see the (Nationalists) remain in power, there may be an opportunity for Eric Chu to obtain some benefits for Taiwan,” she says.

But the two party leaders are also expected to discuss long-term party-to-party relations that would continue even if the Nationalists lose the presidency. Early polls favor DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen, though the Nationalists have not nominated a candidate.

Presidential ambitions

Chu is one potential candidate, though he may wait until 2020 to make his run for Taiwan’s presidency. If he wins, he would become the first Taiwanese president to meet China’s head of state. By waiting until 2020, he could focus on rebuilding any momentum in economic ties with China lost during a DPP presidency.

“I think the visit is a way to reserve a place for himself in the future,” says Shane Lee, an international relations professor at Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. “A meeting with the top leader in China gives him some kind of status, because few people can do that.”

Agreements signed under Mr. Ma pushed bilateral trade to a record $130 billion last year, and annual visits by mainland Chinese tourists rose from 290,000 to 2.8 million from 2008 to 2014 as direct scheduled flights replaced charter flights.

But many ordinary Taiwanese, beset by low wages and high housing prices, say the agreements with China have helped only large businesses. Protests last year have reduced the government’s mandate to sign any further deals with Beijing, leaving a service trade liberalization bill without legislative ratification. Mr. Ma must step down next year due to term limits.

“To work with Chu, Beijing could undo the error of just handing goodies to the elite in Taiwan,” Mr. Lin says.

Red hat, blue hat

If the Nationalists lose the 2016 election and a new government is at odds with Beijing, Chinese leaders may hold off any future agreements in order to incentivize Taiwanese to vote the Nationalists back in, according to some analysts here.

But Chu must spin Monday’s meeting carefully to ensure that people in Taiwan don’t accuse him of getting too close to the Communists.

Chu’s party points to a local television network TVBS poll showing that half of Taiwanese people support his meeting the Chinese president. “Some say he’s wearing a red hat,” Nationalist Party spokeswoman Lin Yi-hua says, a reference to the symbolic color of communism. “But peace and stability of cross-Strait relations is extremely important too.”

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