A recent visit by a top ruling Chinese Communist Party official from Shanghai for talks on city-to-city ties has sparked political worries in democratically ruled Taiwan over what is a highly unequal relationship with its powerful neighbor.
Sha Hailin, who heads the Shanghai United Front Work department charged with bringing minority and “outsider” groups into the party’s ideological fold, was met with angry public protests in Taiwan this week, amid fears that too cozy a relationship with Beijing could undermine the island’s democratic way of life.
“Get lost, Sha Hailin!” read one placard outside the venues where the meetings were held.
“No to United Front! Communist bandits, get lost!” protesters chanted, using an insult dating back to the civil war era of 1946-1949.
Politicians and protesters also took issue with Sha's reception by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je.
“Ko Wen-je is a traitor to Taiwan!” some protesters shouted, while politicians argued that Ko shouldn’t have thrown a welcome banquet for Sha, who they said wasn’t highly ranked enough to be treated on equal terms.
"Such forums should be attended by the mayors of both cities,” pro-independence lawmaker Chou Ni-an of the Taiwan Solidarity Union party told journalists.
“Therefore if [Ko] meets with a United Front Work department official, it would be on an unequal footing,” he said. "This is wrong. We don't need to endorse China's United Front Work.”
Ko was meanwhile praised by Sha at the end of his trip, which came as Beijing failed to pressure President Tsai Ing-wen into endorsing the “One China” policy, which accepts that Taiwan is a province of a divided China.
Ko told journalists: “We understand and respect the support for certain policies on the Chinese mainland, but at the same time, we hope that the mainland will support and understand democracy and freedom in Taiwan.”
“Right now, Taiwan enjoys democracy, freedom, openness, and diversity. That is our overall situation,” he said.
But Lai Chung-chiang, who heads a civic group set up to limit cross-straits pacts with China, said Ko’s attempts to cozy up to Beijing were unwelcome.
“We completely reject this idea that Ko Wen-je has expressed, that everything will just keep running normally [if we allow closer ties with Beijing],” Lai said.
“The United Front project will fail here,” Lai told RFA. “Taiwan is a democratic country, and we do not welcome United Front department chiefs here right now.”
Sha denied any covert agenda to his trip, saying that cross-straits ties wouldn’t be easy.
China's Taiwan Affairs Office announced it had suspended official contacts with Taipei earlier this year, after Tsai declined to endorse the One China policy consensus hashed out in 1992 talks with the then Kuomintang (KMT) government of Taiwan.
Pressure at home
Meanwhile, Tsai is coming under growing domestic political pressure after 100 days at the helm.
Her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which swept to power earlier this year amid fears of growing Chinese influence over Taiwan under her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, still has a staunchly pro-independence wing, in spite of repeated warnings from Beijing that it will use military force to “reunify” Taiwan, should it move towards formal statehood.
As if to underline the sense of threat from the Chinese Communist Party, which has never ruled the island, Taiwan on Thursday launched its annual series of live-fire military drills, the first since Tsai came to power.
The war games are intended to simulate incoming attacks from China, the biggest threat to Taiwan's security, and Tsai on Thursday ordered the military to keep updating its defense strategy.
"Some of the challenges faced by our army come from external structural limitations, others are because our performance isn't good enough," she told troops at the Pingtung county army base after watching fighter jets and tanks fire live rounds.
She also pledged to update the military’s equipment, following a series of gaffes including the misfiring of an anti-aircraft carrier missile towards China last month.
The United States last year announced a U.S.$1.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan, the first in four years, to counter the 1,500 missiles China has aimed at the island.
Support for self-rule
Beijing has said it is willing to deal with any party in Taiwan, as long as they recognize both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China and don't allow the island to move towards independence.
Repeated polls have shown that many of Taiwan's 23 million residents identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and that there is broad political support for de facto self-rule, if not formal independence.
Taiwan has been governed separately from mainland China throughout an occupation by Japan (1895-1945) and since 1949.
Tsai, 59, is an academic-turned-politician who taught international trade law for 16 years, and who has served both as trade negotiator and mainland affairs adviser to successive Taiwan governments.
She mentioned the One China policy in her inauguration speech, but has stopped short of endorsing it.
Taiwan’s former governing party, the Kuomintang (KMT), had seen itself as the legitimate ruler of a post-1911 Republic of China that was temporarily relocated to Taiwan after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's communists in 1949.
In theory at least, it also laid claim to the whole of mainland China and the independent country of Mongolia, based on the borders of the old Republic.
But Tsai won a landslide victory on a DPP platform that affirms the island's separate identity from mainland China.
Reported by Hsia Hsiao-hwa for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Ho Shan and Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.