By Initium Media reporters Lin Yangyi and Lv Yirong
Most commentators have focused on the vehement attacks Tsai Ing-wen delivered against her opponent Eric Chu in the recently televised presidential candidate debates in Taiwan.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate said that eight years of governing under Chu’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT), have made Taiwanese feel hopeless. She added that Taiwan’s economy was stagnant and broken. When Tsai finished, social media erupted with reports of her intense criticism of Chu.
But regardless of Tsai’s impact on these points in the debates, observers should pay more attention to her conversation with the third person, who was not present at the exchange. That person is Xi Jinping. The Chinese president, would as a matter of course, be more concerned about Tsai’s stance on the so-called 92 Consensus than Chu and the other presidential candidate, James (Chuyu) Soong, of the People First Party (PFP).
The 1992 consensus between Beijing and a KMT government in Taipei established the so-called “One China” principle where both sides recognize that both China and Taiwan belong to the same China, though their individual definition of that one China might differ. Tsai’s DPP, in the past, has questioned if there is a “consensus” on one China since there was no agreement on the meaning and mutual understanding of one China and which government represents it.
Tsai was defeated in the last 2012 presidential election, and many have attributed that loss to her cross-strait policy with respect to the mainland.
In retrospect, Tsai’s weakness on cross-strait relationships might have something to do with the vote rates of the DPP in the past elections. In 2000, though DPP’s Chen Shuibian won the presidential election, his vote rate was 39%, only 2.6% higher than Soong, the PFP candidate. In the 2004 election, the DPP’s winning margin even shrank to 0.22%. Moreover, the DPP never won the majority in Taiwan’s national legislature. It could, therefore, hardly get rid of the KMT’s influence when dealing with cross-strait relationships. It never developed its own path of negotiation with mainland China.
From 2000 onwards, the DPP has always been in need of a baseline in cross-strait negotiations while eluding the 92 Consensus issue. This year it finally found the baseline amidst its winning momentum in the election.
The first signal appeared in the meeting of the DPP Central Committee after the news of Xi-Ma meeting came out. The meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan on Nov. 7 in Singapore was the first such meeting between the two adversaries since the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949.
Tsai stressed that she was not against the meeting of the leaders of China and Taiwan. Instead, she was against the lack of transparency in the KMT’s work on this issue. By criticizing Ma rather than Xi, Tsai sent a message that she was softening her stance.
China got the message. Zhang Zhijun, the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office of China’s State Council stated Xi’s stance during the press conference held after Xi-Ma meeting, saying, “We hope all the parties and groups in Taiwan could recognize the 92 Consensus. Whatever parties, whatever their past stances, as long as they recognize the existence and the significance of the 92 Consensus, we would be happy to talk to them.”
On Dec. 25, Tsai mentioned her experience of attending the 1998 Wang-Gu meeting with Gu Zhenfu, the then president of Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation. She even emphasized that the DPP “does not deny the historical fact of the 1992 cross-strait meeting,” and that it recognized that at the time of the meeting, “both sides shared the spirit of mutual understanding, sought common ground while reserving differences, and tried to advance cross-strait relationships through peaceful negotiations.” It was part of the achievements of cross-strait exchange, she said.
During the debate on Dec. 27, facing the series of questions put forward by the KMT’s Chu, Tsai insisted that the DPP recognizes the 92 Consensus meeting and its spirit of mutual understanding and is seeking common ground while reserving differences.
Tsai still did not recognize the 92 Consensus. But her comments show a change to the DPP’s stance on the issue. To some extent , she also responded to mainland official Zhang Zhijun’s speech. Thus, the exchange between Tsai and Xi was kept in motion.
According to Tsai, there was not a so-called “92 Consensus” at the time of the 1992 meeting. The term was coined after 2000. She said that the meaning and usage of this term is “open to negotiation.”
The stance on the 92 Consensus has always been a key issue between the KMT and DPP’s fight. But this time whether Eric Chu understands Tsai’s message is no longer relevant. What’s relevant here is whether the current exchange between Tsai and Xi will continue after the May of 2016.
This article was first published in Chinese on Dec. 28, 2015 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.
Translated for Asia Times by Jiawen Guo