Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., and is a former counsellor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.
Saturday's meeting in Singapore between Ma Ying-jeou, President of the Republic of China, and Xi Jinping, President of the People's Republic of China, was touted as highly historic. The last time leaders of the Chinese Nationalist KMT and the Communist Party of China met was August, 1945, when Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong discussed trying to establish a democratic coalition and avoiding civil war, following the victory over Japan.
The 1945 summit ended badly; 70 years later, its successor may fare likewise.
The remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists were forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan after Mao, against the advice of even Stalin, pursued the civil war south of the Yangtze. For decades after, Chiang's regime maintained the fiction that his Republic of China on Taiwan Formosa was the legitimate government of all of China, despite the fact that Taiwan's current population of 23 million is 1/60th of the almost 1.5-billion residents of the People's Republic.
Mao planned to "liberate" Taiwan by the early 1950s, but with U.S. military support, Taiwan became an impregnable fortress, and the status quo of two rival China regimes has been sustained to this day.
Likewise, Taiwan hoped to stage a counter-revolution in China to "remove the Communist bandits" after 1949, but KMT sympathizers in the mainland were effectively neutralized by a Chinese Communist security apparatus coached by the Soviet Union. Taiwan subsequently hoped the terrible "Great Leap Forward" man-made famine of 1958 to 1962, and the disastrous "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution" that followed a few years later, would sufficiently weaken the Chinese people's support for Communist rule that Chiang Kai-shek could make a triumphant return as the Nationalists "gloriously recovered the mainland."
After Chiang died in 1975, Taiwan moved to multiparty electoral democracy with freedom of the press and independent rule of law. Similarly, after Chairman Mao's death the following year, China re-evaluated Mao's radical rule and de facto abandoned Chinese Marxism in favour of Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic policies of "openness and reform." The result was that China's economy soared, although China's per capita GDP at $12,900 (U.S., according to the CIA Handbook) is but a fraction of Taiwan's astonishing $45,900.
Against these changes, in the 1980s and 90s there was optimism that Beijing's openness and economic reforms would ultimately lead to a democracy similar to that in Taiwan, but, to the contrary, China used a carrot-and-stick approach to try to manipulate Taiwan into reverting to Beijing's rule on Communist terms. China based hundreds of missiles on the Fujian coast facing Taiwan, moved aggressively to prevent Taiwan from gaining global legitimacy by blocking membership in the United Nations and other agencies, and refused diplomatic relations with countries that did not expel their "Republic of China" diplomats. (Consequently, Taiwan today has official relations with only 21 minor nations.) But China also strategically encouraged massive Taiwan investment in the mainland, so Taiwan's economy is now heavily dependent on the Chinese state.
Last weekend's summit did not go well. Mr. Ma was rebuffed when he asked China to ease restrictions on Taiwan's participation in global organizations and bodies. When he asked that China reduce its military presence on the coast across from Taiwan, Mr. Xi simply responded absurdly that the massive arsenal is not targeted at Taiwan. Mr. Xi did offer to reconsider the decision to deny Taiwan's participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, but basically Mr. Ma left humiliated, and one wonders what Mr. Xi intended by this meeting.
The mainland policy on Taiwan has actually led to more wariness, not less, among Taiwan people over China's intentions. It is widely expected that Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will sweep January's presidential election. The DPP espouses a political stance of strong support for human rights and a Taiwanese national identity distinct from China. Of course, Beijing smells a nefarious plot in all this. After all, the likely incoming president, Tsai Ing-wen, has an MA in law from Cornell and a doctorate from the London School of Economics.
It seems lost on Beijing that the DPP's popularity grew considerably after China reneged on its promise of free elections in Hong Kong by 2017, and at a time when human-rights abuses soared under Xi Jinping's presidency.
The bottom line is that most people in Taiwan now prefer to redefine themselves as Taiwanese instead of Chinese, and want to see their "Republic of China" nomenclature replaced by "Republic of Taiwan" so Taiwan can become, as the DPP puts it, "a normal nation" with its own flag, its own language (Taiwan's Min Nan dialect, not Mandarin), embassies and consulates around the world and a seat at the UN.
China rejects all of this. Moreover, the very existence of Taiwan's democracy serves as a powerful rebuke to the Chinese Communist Party's claim that only authoritarian dictatorship is compatible with Chinese culture.
China's defiant sovereignty claims over islands in the South China Sea have led to condemnation by its neighbours and the international community at large, but China's newly aggressive nationalistic military actions in the region make one wonder whether Mr. Xi's puzzling meeting with Mr. Ma on Saturday is a harbinger of much more assertive moves by the Communists to bring Taiwan under PRC control once and for all.