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China sends minister-level official to Taiwan for first time since split in the 1940s

Supporters and protesters of Zhang Zhijun, minister of Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office, fight on his arrival at airport in Taoyuan county, Taiwan, Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

Chiang Ying-ying/AP

China has sent its first ever ministerial-level official to Taiwan for four days of meetings to rebuild ties with the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own, after mass protests in Taipei set back relations earlier this year.

Zhang Zhijun, minister of Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office, reached the island's main airport just before noon Wednesday to speak privately with his government counterpart. He sidestepped scores of anti-China protesters to enter a nearby hotel for the talks.

China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. China sees the island as part of its territory that eventually must be reunified — by force if necessary — despite a Taiwanese public largely wary of the notion of Chinese rule.

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In 2008, Beijing set aside its military threats to sign agreements binding its economy to that of the investment-hungry island.

Dialogue opened that year as Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou agreed to put off political issues to build trust and improve the island's economy through tie-ups with China's much larger one. The two sides have signed 21 deals, last year lifting two-way trade to $124.4 billion and bringing in about 3 million mainland tourists, who were once all but banned.

But in March, hundreds of student-led protesters forcibly occupied parliament in Taipei to stop ratification of a two-way service trade liberalization pact. The 24-day action dubbed the Sunflower Movement spiraled into the thousands, many of whom demanded an end to Taiwan's engagement with China, which they still see as an enemy.

"Zhang wants to show to the world, Taiwan and the mainland included, that the two sides are moving closer in spite of the Sunflower Movement earlier this year," says Leonard Chu, a China studies professor retired from National Chengchi University in Taipei.

The Chinese official and his Taiwan counterpart Wang Yu-chi are expected to discuss future rounds of import tariff cuts and establishing consular-style offices helpful to investors and tourists. Taiwan says it will make no announcements during the visit, which Beijing describes as a chance for its minister to understand the island better.

As Zhang travels around Taiwan through Saturday, analysts say he will keep a low profile by shunning strong political statements during scheduled chats with students, low-income people and a figure in Taiwan's anti-China chief opposition party.

"Amid all these tensions this particular visit obviously is important in terms of trying to soothe sentiments and trying to stabilize relations," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago. "Any representative from the mainland, going to Taiwan, I think the best they can do is to try to stabilize relations."

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The main opposition party says it will not organize protests against Zhang, though smaller protest groups are vowing to follow him during the visit. Their first wave scuffled with supporters at the airport and clashed with a column of police at the hotel, leaving one activist injured.

A lack of bigger demonstrations does not imply growing support in Taiwan for relations with China, some analysts warn.

"The best one could say is that a muting of protests would reflect a maturing of attitudes in Taiwan, and a greater willingness to listen and to express concerns in a less confrontational way," said Alan Romberg, East Asia Program director at The Stimson Centre, a Washington D.C. think-tank . "But it would not mean that those concerns have disappeared."

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