As a Chinese government minister began a landmark trip to Taiwan, a leading politician on the democratic island called on him to respect the choices made by its people.
China's Taiwan Affairs Office minister Zhang Zhijun flew into Taipei Wednesday for a four-day round of talks on trade and consular services with his opposite number -- the first mainland minister to visit the island since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.
New Taipei mayor Eric Chu, who is administrative head of the capital Taipei and surrounding suburbs, highlighted pluralist politics in Taiwan as he met with Zhang.
"The best part of Taiwan society is our diverse democracy," Chu said on Thursday in a statement.
"The ideas and decisions of the Taiwanese people are to be respected," he added. "We have to seek consensus and respect differences, with mutual empathy for both sides."
Zhang's trip comes just weeks after thousands of student-led protesters surrounded and occupied Taiwan's parliament and government buildings over a trade pact with Beijing they said was moving too fast with not enough consultation.
On Wednesday, he was greeted at the airport by several hundred student demonstrators calling for the behind-closed-doors talks to be canceled.
The protest was led by student activists Chen Wei-ting and Lin Fei-fan, key figures in the three-week-long occupation of Taiwan's legislature earlier this year over the rapid passage through parliament of a cross-straits trade pact.
"Student groups in Taiwan issued an open invitation to Zhang Zhijun, before he came to Taiwan, for a public discussion on the decisions of Taiwan's 23 million people regarding the island's future," Lin told the gathered protesters.
"But we never got a response."
Zhang, for his part, said his first words after getting off the plane on Wednesday in Taiwan's Minnan dialect, a language which is strongly connected to the island's political identity and pro-independence leanings of the pre-1949 population.
Later, he described his visit as a historic step.
"It takes less than three hours to fly from Beijing to Taiwan, but it is a step that has taken 65 years to make," Zhang said during talks with Taipei officials.
"Ever since 1949, the flames of war have fanned across the straits, amid implacable confrontation, until 2008, when a fundamental change occurred," Zhang said.
Relations with Beijing first began to thaw with a 2008 presidential victory for the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou, whose family hails from pre-war mainland China and whose party opposes formal independence for Taiwan as a nation while insisting that it rules a much-reduced Republic of China dating back to the 1911 revolution spearheaded by Sun Yat-sen.
Taiwan and China have been governed separately since the KMT fled to the island after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's communists on the mainland, and Beijing still regards Taiwan as a breakaway province awaiting reunification.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party has vowed to use military force, should Taiwan, which is excluded from membership of the U.N. and other international bodies, seek formal independence as a sovereign state.
President Ma said on Thursday that the proposed trade agreement would open up a number of sectors in both economies, while the opposition says it could open the door to Chinese influence over the island's politics, via vested business interests.
While the pact was signed last June, the concerted opposition has slowed its passage through the Legislative Yuan, which is preparing to discuss it in detail this week.
Zhang will also travel to the southern city of Kaohsiung on Friday, political heartland of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the pro-independence movement, where he will meet with the city's DPP mayor Chen Chu.
Relations between Beijing and the DPP have improved somewhat since Chen visited the mainland on a goodwill and fact-finding mission in August 2013.
Wang Yu-chi, who heads Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, said Zhang's trip would give him the opportunity to understand Taiwan's democracy.
"We want mainland China to understand the ecology of Taiwan's constitution system of government and politics, especially the development of civic awareness and citizens' movements," Wang told reporters.
"Also, we hope to meet the expectations of the people of Taiwan regarding solutions for the expansion of trade," he said.
In Beijing, Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said both sides had exchanged views on the current situation and the development of cross-Straits relations.
They also discussed the establishment of consular offices on both sides of the Taiwan strait and economic cooperation and development, he said.
Reported by Lee Tung for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.