Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 13

On the surface, cross-Strait relations at the beginning of 2005 appeared to be at their most hopeful in recent years. The two sides agreed to make charter flights for the Chinese New Year a reality. Beijing also dispatched two senior officials to Taipei to attend the funeral of Koo Chen-fu, senior advisor to the president and Chairman of Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF). Amid these positive signs Beijing enacted the Anti-Secession Law (ASL). By doing so, the Mainland effectively accepted all the political inroads that Taiwan has been able to make as a fait accompli. However, President Chen’s position has since been weakened by two subsequent developments.

The first occurred on the day of the March 26th rally. Hsu Wen-long, a business guru in Taiwan with extensive investments on the Mainland, a staunch believer of Taiwan independence, a political donor to Presidents Lee and Chen, and a senior advisor to the President, publicly renounced his political beliefs. In a written statement that appeared in Taiwan’s print media and that many believed was prepared by Mainland officials, Hsu praised President Hu Jintao, while lauding the enactment of the ASL and supporting Beijing’s “One-China” policy. The statement had the immediate effect of undercutting the message that the mass rally intended to deliver. It also served as an indication to many that Beijing was determined to use its enormous economic pull in Taiwan to actively encourage business leaders to distance themselves from Chen’s Greens.

The letter’s effect was further strengthened by the Kuomindang’s (KMT) decision to send a delegation to the Mainland soon after the March 26th rally. During the visit, the KMT’s team signed a “ten point consensus” with Beijing which primarily focused on practical issues relating to agricultural and business. Beijing extended red-carpet treatment to the delegation, actively encouraging extensive media coverage of the group throughout the trip. This warm reception turned what was essentially an attempt by the KMT to maintain its relevance after President Chen and Chairman James Soong of the People First Party (PFP) successfully forged a cooperative agreement, into a demonstration in which Beijing could freely choose their interlocutors in Taiwan. Moreover, most of the issues China has been discussing are of practical concern to many in Taiwan.

Chen must have felt that his only choices were to succumb to the KMT-Beijing talks by cooperating on practical measures that benefit many in Taiwan, or to fight this double-sided attack. President Chen chose the latter, using an operational strategy that reflected both his personality and the limits of the resources at his disposal. Unable to take the issue directly to the Chinese leadership, Chen chose to direct his administration’s firepower at the KMT. First, Chen’s administration declared that the so-called “ten point consensus” reached by the KMT delegation on the Mainland generated sufficient probable cause for prosecutors to launch a criminal investigation, since the KMT may have violated a clause in Taiwan’s penal code which prohibiting unauthorized “treaty signing” with “foreign government[s]”. The print media in Taiwan by and large gave this a lukewarm response, and the KMT chose to ignore the charge which they claimed was nothing more than a political witch-hunt. Apparently unconcerned, the KMT proceeded with preparations for Chairman Lien Chan’s upcoming trip to the Mainland as a guest of President Hu.

Unable to gain political traction by threatening to launch a criminal investigation, President Chen then publicly called on Chairman Lien to meet with him prior to the latter’s departure to the Mainland in May, ostensibly for the purpose of reaching a consensus for the good of Taiwan. But Chen’s tone was considered by many to be overbearing and condescending (not inconsistent with Chen’s character under similar circumstances), making it difficult for the KMT to respond positively. Adding to the fact that Lien’s trip was a logical extension of the KMT’s survival strategy in a post Chen-Soong alliance environment, it was unlikely that Chen’s gesture would be well received by the intended audience. Indeed, what Lien chose to do before his departure for the Mainland was to give “Mr.” (not “President”) Chen a call, “informing” (not “reporting to”) him about the upcoming trip.

With the U.S. State Department viewing Lien’s trip as a “positive development,” Chen had little choice but to declare his support for the visit. Many others in the Green camp, however, took a different position. Hundreds of Green supporters, at the urging of several Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators and a TV talk-show host, flooded the lobby of CKS Airport before Lien’s planned departure. Lien and his delegation were able to board the plane undisturbed by steering the motorcade away from the demonstrators. But in the lobby, Green and Blue supporters, the latter converged at the airport to “counter” the Green presence, engaged in a number of skirmishes; some were bloody, but no fatalities were reported.

Judging from the high profile Lien enjoyed throughout the duration of his trip (the saturated and positive coverage by the Chinese media, the special “no delay” live TV transmission of his speech at Peking University, the meeting with Hu, and the arguably balanced content of the CCP-KMT Press Communiqué), it is clear that the Beijing leadership was determined to make Lien’s trip a success. Although Chen maintained an ambivalently positive tone toward this development, the Executive Yuan and DPP were directly critical of it. Polls conducted at the time showed the majority of the population in Taiwan saw Lien’s trip as a step heading in the right direction. [1] Lien’s conduct before, during, and after the Mainland trip also created an image of him as a respectable, unselfish political figure whose goal was to promote cross-strait reconciliation. [2]

Compared to Lien’s trip as an opposition leader, James Soong’s Mainland visit carried some official connotations. It is open knowledge that Soong wanted the position of special Taiwan envoy to China. After President Chen and Soong signed the so-called Ten Point Consensus in February 2005, it was clear that Soong would help create a bridge between Taipei and Beijing as an “unofficial” official representative of Chen. This arrangement offered both Chen and Chinese President Hu Jintao the opportunity to be creative without fear of being set up by the other. It also left the door open for Chen to back out of any deal should he decide to do so, which is exactly what happened.

While Chen was under pressure from the secessionist Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), constituents and political figures within his own party were trying to understand why he suddenly decided not only to work with Soong, but also to use him presumably in search of reconciliation with the Mainland. This was an unappreciated step by Chen at a time when many Greens still harbored the hope of eventual de jure independence. In addition, it was clear that support for Chen’s DPP in the upcoming special election for National Assembly dropped substantially. Chen, living up to his political reputation as a perennial flip-flopper, distanced himself from Soong before the latter’s trip to Mainland, then conducted several television interviews in which he accused Lien Chan and Soong of being disloyal to the country. This tactic, apparently aimed at shoring up voter support on the eve of the election, ultimately proved effective. Soong did not help himself by working out a “Two Shores, One-China” formula with Hu as a possible foundation for restarting cross-strait dialogue. Most Greens, including Chen, denounced the formula – even the KMT saw it as a minor step back from “One-China, Different Interpretations” (later abbreviated as the “92 Consensus”), which Chen has repeatedly rejected as a basis to restart the talks with Beijing.

Pan-Greens interpreted the DPP’s better-than-expected showing in the National Assembly election as a victory over “China Fever.” Furthermore, the refusal to cooperate with Beijing on practical issues, and the suspicion that the Giant Pandas to be sent to Taiwan might in fact be “Trojan Pandas,” show that Chen never wholeheartedly embraced the idea of rapprochement with Beijing. He never believed that it was worth committing substantial political capital to a détente with Beijing. The Soong episode was simply a trial balloon floated by Chen to probe the possibility of a Chen-Hu summit, which, if successful, would conceivably elevate Chen to the level of Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, and grant him a shot at the Nobel Peace Prize.

Hu Jintao’s current plan seems to be forestalling de jure independence in favor of maintaining the status quo, with the ultimate goal of reunification – allowing Beijing to concentrate its energy and resources on its “peaceful rise,” with a relatively stable cross-strait environment. He has displayed both tactical acuteness and political tenacity in recent months. He initiated talks with the KMT to make the New Year charter flights possible, and also seized an opportunity to dispatch two senior officials to Taipei for senior elder Koo’s funeral. Most significantly, he adopted the ASL, pursuing a strategic objective at no small cost in the forms of international condemnation and Taiwan’s public backlash.

The fundamental dilemma facing President Chen is this: Beijing’s proposal, which the people of Taiwan have by-and-large warmly received, can be considered a win-win arrangement. But, on the governmental level, it appears Beijing has no immediate plan to pursue a dialogue with Chen. Though the situation is reminiscent of Chen’s first term, pressure within Taiwan to seek practical progress with the Mainland has become so much stronger, and Chen has had difficulty containing it. President Chen did, however, successfully manage to drive a deep wedge between the KMT and the PFP by supposedly agreeing to cooperate with James Soong on cross-Strait issues, therefore rendering the Pan Blue alliance ineffective. However, in the grand scheme of things, the Chinese were able to severely weaken Chen’s bargaining positions by enacting the ASL and choosing to cooperate with the KMT instead.

On cross-Strait relations, Chen can still withstand pressures from inside and out while waging various counter measures. However, pressure is mounting by the day. It will be interesting to see where and how the Chinese leadership will choose to apply the next wave of pressure. By the same token, it will also be interesting to observe whether the Chen administration’s response will become more sporadic or more coherent.


1. “DPP: Lian Chan stampedes Taiwan’s democracy.” The Liberty Times, April 30, 2005.

2. “The change of cross-strait relationship after Lian Chan’s mainland trip.” China Times, Editorial Page A2, May 4, 2005.