Xi Jinping (right) and Ma Ying-jeou (left) hold talks at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore on November 7 (XINHUA)
Political communication between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan has never quite matched the frequencies of people-to-people interactions. The leaders of the two sides had not met since they separated in 1949 after a civil war.
That was finally changed in November when Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, in their role as "leaders of the two sides" of the Taiwan Straits, met in Singapore. Both Xi and Ma addressed each other as "mister" throughout their meeting.
The news of this historic meeting was released on November 4 and was greeted with surprise by people on both sides of the Straits, and garnered worldwide media interest.
More than 600 journalists from the Chinese mainland and Taiwan alone flew to Singapore to cover the momentous occasion.
"I talked with journalists from both the mainland and Taiwan, and we were all very excited to witness the historic moment," said Yang Shengyu, Deputy Director of Taiwan-based news channel TVBS. "It was a big surprise, and we all agreed that this meeting has great significance for people in both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan."
Zhang Zhijun, Minister of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, receives a calligraphic work presented by Master Hsing Yun during his visit to Kaohsiung in Taiwan on June 27, 2014 (XINHUA)
When Xi and Ma appeared in the media spotlight at 3 p.m. on November 7, the camera flashlights caught every detail of the two "misters." They were both dressed in dark suits. Xi sported a red tie, while Ma wore a blue one. The firm handshake between the two men lasted for about 80 seconds, and the gesture was splashed over the front pages of newspapers on both sides of the Straits.
"The handshake embodied both the past and the future of the two sides across the Straits, as well as the hopes of the rise of the Chinese nation," Ma said.
"We are sitting together today to prevent historical tragedy from repeating itself, prevent the fruits from peaceful development of cross-Straits ties from being lost again, enable compatriots across the Straits to continue to create a peaceful life, and enable our next generations to share a bright future," Xi said in his opening remarks.
He stressed that the two sides should prove with concrete moves that the Chinese from both sides have the capability and wisdom to solve their own problems.
Ma declared that the conflict and confrontation between the two sides no longer existed, calling on both sides to resolve their disputes through peaceful means.
"We should consolidate the 1992 Consensus and maintain the peaceful status quo," Ma said in his five-point proposal. The 1992 Consensus mentioned by Ma is the acknowledgment that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan belong to one and the same China. It was reached in talks by the two sides across the Straits in 1992.
Ma also suggested that the heads of departments in charge of cross-Straits affairs should set up a hotline to deal with emergency issues.
Cheng You-ping, head of the Political and Economic Research Center at Taipei University, told Xinhua News Agency, "The leaders were comfortable with each other and did not act like strangers. It was very touching for a witness like me."
After the speeches, Xi and Ma held a meeting behind closed doors at the Shangri-La Hotel.
The mainland's Taiwan affairs chief Zhang Zhijun described the Xi-Ma meeting as a milestone in the cross-Straits relationship when speaking to reporters at a press conference after the leaders concluded their talks. He said that the meeting will facilitate communication and dialogue between the mainland and Taiwan, as well as help to expand bilateral exchanges and deepen mutually beneficial cooperation.
According to Zhang, Xi outlined a four-point proposal on the cross-Straits ties during the closed-door session and described the adherence to the 1992 Consensus and opposition to "Taiwan independence" as the common political ground of both sides.
"Both sides belong to one country... That fact and legal basis has never changed and will never change," Xi said.
Xi stressed that the mainland is willing to share its development opportunities with the people of Taiwan and suggested the two sides could improve macro-policy coordination and expand the space for economic cooperation.
Agreements on freight trade and other matters could come quickly, he added.
"Taiwan's people are welcome to join the Belt and Road Initiative, and Taiwan is welcome to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in an appropriate manner," Xi said.
The Belt and Road Initiative was proposed by Xi in 2013 to enhance regional economic and cultural exchanges through the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.
Zhu Weidong, a research fellow with the Institute of Taiwan Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said, "To have these leaders sit down together and meet is in itself a big deal. The meeting will set the tone for the future and certainly play a powerful role in future communication."
Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, noted that although the Chinese mainland and Taiwan had both referred to the 1992 Consensus on different occasions in the past, the fact that leaders across the Taiwan Straits made a clear mention of the term during the meeting gave it a whole new meaning.
We are family
Hong Ying, a student from the mainland, addresses at the graduation ceremony of Taiwan’s Tamkang University on June 13 (XINHUA)
During their meeting, both Xi and Ma called for greater efforts to promote the peaceful development of the cross-Straits relationship and expand bilateral exchanges.
Since 2008, the mainland and Taiwan have signed 23 agreements, and more than 40,000 students have taken advantage of academic exchange programs. More than 8 million tourists travel between the two sides each year. Annual trade is now worth more than $170 billion.
In his speech, Ma told Xi that he was impressed with seeing students from Taiwan and the mainland enjoying discussions, sports and music together on Taiwan's campuses.
Yan Yijing, born in 1993, chose to go to Taiwan in 2011 to study at university after attending high school in Guangzhou, capital city of Guangdong Province. It was the first year that Taiwan universities officially allowed students from the mainland to enroll.
Yan was accepted by Fu Jen Catholic University. She was one of 975 students from the mainland who went to study in Taiwan that year. Even though Yan's grades were good enough to gain admission to quite a few of the top colleges on the mainland, she didn't hesitate about her choice.
"I just wanted to experience something different and Fu Jen Catholic University is also a good university," said Yan, who found the four years of study in Taiwan a pleasant experience.
"The food here is delicious and the people are friendly," Yan said. "With more and more travelers coming to Taiwan from the mainland, many of my friends came and asked me to be their guide. It feels good."
Hsieh Chinchung, a 20-year-old from Yunlin County in west Taiwan, decided to choose the opposite route. He went to study at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.
"My mother is from Tianjin, so I've been visiting the mainland frequently since I was a youngster," Hsieh said. "Members of my family began to settle in the mainland when I was in junior middle school."
He regards himself as a local resident in Guangzhou. "I like the local cuisine and I can speak Cantonese," he said. "I think it's good to maintain the status quo between the mainland and Taiwan."
Chang Yichen, 22, from Kaohsiung in Taiwan, is new to the mainland. He has just started his postgraduate study at Peking University in Beijing.
"I've been in Beijing for two months and am still getting used to the food and the air," Chang said. "I hope the separation issue is solved as soon as possible. Only a united country can stand out against global competition. There is no doubt that Taiwan and the mainland need each other."
Taiwan businessman Vincent Hsu, who has businesses in the mainland and Hong Kong, watched the live TV broadcast of the leaders' meeting and posted dozens of social media posts out of sheer excitement.
"Only by building up political mutual trust, will peace be sustained and avoid any backtracking," Hsu said.
David Gosset, a global affairs specialist and founder of the Euro-China Forum, said, "The leaders' meeting signals to the world that the Chinese mainland and Taiwan are moving toward more coordination and convergence. As such, they are contributors to peace and prosperity in the region."
"In this context, and at this stage, what really matters is the very fact that direct conversation takes place," he continued. "The outcome is secondary."
The EU's diplomatic service EEAS released a statement, saying the Xi-Ma meeting was an encouraging step, demonstrating the level of trust that has been built through the ongoing process of rapprochement.
Several opinion polls after the meeting in Taiwan showed supporters of the meeting outnumbered the critics.
The latest poll made by TVBS after the meeting, showed 55 percent of the 1,026 respondents considered the Xi-Ma meeting "conducive to cross-Straits peace and development," 8 percentage points higher than before the meeting.
An online survey by Tw.yahoo.com showed one of the highest support rates with 68 percent of respondents in favor of the closer political ties.
"Supporters of the cross-Straits leaders' meeting far outnumbered the opponents," said Chiu Yi, a board member of the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research. "The majority of Taiwanese residents have acknowledged the significance of the Xi-Ma meeting. That's the mainstream public opinion in Taiwan."
Major Events in Cross-Taiwan Straits Ties After 1949
The Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan after being defeated in a civil war with the Communist Party of China (CPC). Military confrontation dominated the cross-Taiwan Straits relationship in the following 30 years.
The Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) issued a message to compatriots in Taiwan on January 1. In the statement, the mainland first proposed to end the military confrontation across the Taiwan Straits through dialogue and welcomed exchanges between the two sides.
In a statement on September 30, Ye Jianying, Chairman of the NPC Standing Committee, further elaborated the mainland's policy and principles for the settlement of the Taiwan question. He affirmed that "after the country is reunified, Taiwan can enjoy a high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region."
Referring to Ye Jianying's remarks, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping pointed out on January 11 that in effect it meant "one country, two systems," that is, on the premise of national reunification, the main body of the nation would continue with its socialist system while Taiwan could maintain capitalism.
Taiwan authorities decided to allow civilians to visit relatives on the mainland in October. In November, the mainland issued its first travel document to a Taiwan resident.
Representatives of the mainland-based Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) and Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) held talks in Hong Kong in November. The two organizations reached what is called the 1992 Consensus, an agreement that calls for both sides to adhere to the one-China principle. Founded in 1991 and 1990 respectively, the ARATS and the SEF are authorized by the mainland and Taiwan to handle cross-Straits affairs.
On April 27-29, ARATS President Wang Daohan and SEF Chairman Koo Chen-fu met in Singapore. The meeting marked the beginning of cross-Straits engagement on the basis of the 1992 Consensus.
Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, met with Kuomintang Chairman Lien Chan in Beijing on April 29. It was the first meeting between top leaders of the two parties in 60 years. Following the meeting, the two parties released a press communiqué and
announced they had reached a five-point consensus for "promoting peace and development across the Taiwan Straits." The CPC and the Kuomintang have since jointly hosted a series of forums and seminars to promote cross-Straits economic, cultural and agricultural exchanges.
The ARATS and the SEF resumed talks in June after a nine-year suspension. Since then, top leaders of the two organizations have held 11 talks and signed 23 agreements on cross-Straits cooperation and exchanges.
The mainland and Taiwan started direct air and sea transport and postal services on December 15. The move marked an end to the practice that air and sea transport as well as mail between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits had to go through a third location.
Mainland and Taiwan negotiators signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) on June 29 in Chongqing. Aiming to establish a systematic mechanism for enhancing cross-Straits economic cooperation, the ECFA was agreed upon by the ARATS and the SEF. Under the 16-article agreement, the two sides agreed to "gradually reduce and remove trade and investment barriers and create a fair environment" in the two areas.
Taiwan universities opened their doors to mainland students, in line with an initiative to increase understanding among students from both sides.
Zhang Zhijun, head of the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office, held talks on February 11 with Wang Yu-chi, Taiwan's mainland affairs chief, in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. It was the first informal meeting between mainland and Taiwan's top officials in charge of cross-Straits affairs since 1949. They agreed to launch regular communication between their departments.
Zhang paid a reciprocal visit to Taiwan in June. He became the first Taiwan affairs chief from the mainland to visit the island in 65 years.
The mainland removed the entry permit requirement for Taiwan residents starting from July 1.
Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, in their role as "leaders of the two sides" of the Taiwan Straits, met in Singapore on November 7.
Copyedited by Calvin Palmer
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