Taiwan is holding historic talks with China. Why are the Taiwanese indifferent?

Taiwan's president Ma Ying-jeou sees direct talks with China as his legacy after a string of agreements on trade and investment, but Taiwanese are skeptical.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
Wang Yu-chi, head of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council (l.) shakes hands with Zhang Zhijun, director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office, before their meeting in Nanjing, in eastern China's Jiangsu Province, Tuesday. Taiwan and China are holding their highest-level talks since splitting amid a civil war 65 years ago, but many Taiwanese are not particularly interested.

Taiwanese officials have framed this week's ministerial-level meetings with China - the first of their kind since 1949 – as a "new chapter for cross-straits relations." The talks are being held in Nanjing, the former capital of Nationalist China, whose leaders retreated to Taiwan at the close of China's civil war. 

And while the talks have stirred scant interest at home, they may offer a chance for Taiwan's lame-duck president to earn a name for improving ties across a Cold War frontier that remains among Asia's perennial territorial flashpoints. But any payoff is likely to be far into the future, after he leaves office. 

After Tuesday’s historic meeting, officials indicated that no substantive topics were covered or agreements reached. That result, though it avoids a political backlash at home, has turned off much of Taiwan’s public.

“As a normal Taiwan citizen, there is nothing I want or need from this Taiwan-China talk,” says Wu Hsiao-jing, a local government worker in northern Taiwan. “It’s just a political show without a majority of Taiwan people’s consent.  Most Taiwan citizens have no expectations or fear from this meeting.”

That level of apathy present a dilemma for President Ma Ying-jeou, who appears to see a chance to go down in history as the leader that patched up relations with China, where the official view is that Taiwan is a breakaway republic that must be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary. Elected twice, he must step down in 2016 due to term limits. In the past year, his approval ratings have dipped below 20 percent; voters blame for him for rising inflation, low salaries, and threats to Taiwan’s export competitiveness.

Analysts say the fruits of this week's talks will take longer to materialize, potentially giving Mr. Ma a better reputation after his term. Those fruits may include discussion of how Taiwan might join international organizations that require statehood – China doesn’t see it as a country – and a possible peace accord to tamp down tensions over the 160-km (100-mile) wide Taiwan Strait that divides the island from the mainland. 

“What people in Taiwan expect is as the same as our country does, which is no more suppression diplomatically and economically in any international context,” says Eddie Ho, an employee in a high-tech company in Taipei. 

Trade agreements

The two sides seldom spoke until 2008, when Ma gained points at home and worldwide for easing tension, primarily by using semi-governmental organizations to hash out agreements on trade and investment.

However, Ma is wary of a backlash from anti-China voters at local polls due later this year. For this reason, his government is reluctant to talk politics with Beijing, despite increased pressure from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who took power last year. 

“Why local Taiwanese people don’t feel much enthusiasm for [talks this week] is that Ma’s public support is very low, with no mandate from the general public,” says Liu Yi-jiun, public affairs professor at Fo Guang University. “People don’t see that any kind of arrangement can be reached or that anything could happen in the next two years.”

China's pitch for future unification is grounded in its economic muscle. Since 2008 it has signed 19 business-related deals with Taiwan. For its part, Taiwan says it wants the meetings this week to open a high-level channel for future exchanges, possibly on political issues.

The talks also may pave the way for negotiations on consular offices. Both governments want the offices to help smooth rising traffic in tourists and investors following the string of business-related accords. About 2.2 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan last year and about 1 million Taiwanese investors live in China. Yet both must navigate a complex set of rules that govern consular relations. 

“Ma may want to create a legacy to remember, but cross-Strait issues are very complicated,” says Alexander Huang, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.

“The biggest contribution he can have is to establish the representative offices on each side and let them run for a year before his term is up, making sure that even with a change in government, the mechanism will continue,” he says.

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