I did a few media interviews about the Ma-Xi meeting yesterday, and they all asked me about the reaction here in Taiwan. My answer was simple: I have no idea. Because the news broke so late on Tuesday night, we missed the evening news cycle, the talk shows, and yesterday’s newspapers only had very cursory coverage. In addition, I have been stuck in my office trying desperately to bang about a paper for an upcoming conference (for my, um, real job). So last night I went home, watched the news and some parts of a few talk shows, read a bit of online coverage, and chewed this all over with Mrs. Garlic. (In case you haven’t figured it out, she is the brains in the family.) So, what do I think about the reaction here in Taiwan?
I have been most impressed by how calmly society reacted to the news. The radical independence forces made an effort to protest. There was some good TV footage of smoke bombs being thrown at the presidential office, but it was only three young men on motorcycles. As they were being arrested (without much of a struggle), there were a lot more media than protest supporters in the pictures. New Power Party chair Huang Kuo-chang led a small protest and gave a fiery speech denouncing President Ma, and in the LY, TSU legislators screamed a bit at the delegation from the presidential office who had come to report on the trip. There were also a few scattered calls to impeach Ma.
However, if the radicals were busy being suitably radical, the mainstream opposition took a more low key approach. DPP chair and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen set the tone with her official statement. She started by affirming the general idea of cross strait interactions, if done with mutual respect, transparency, and without political preconditions. Her objections were entirely focused on the specifics of this particular meeting. She objected that Ma has lost public confidence necessary for any major cross-straits initiatives. Further, she objected to him making any deals that would trade Taiwan’s long-term interests for his party’s short-term gains or that he, as an outgoing president, would not be responsible for. In the official DPP statement, the party also objected to the suddenness of the announcement, which it claimed ran counter to the necessity for transparency and legislative oversight. In short, she objected to the specifics surrounding this meeting, but she has no objection to the general idea of holding meetings between the two presidents.
The green talk shows echoed this sentiment. While there was a lot of complaining about the suddenness, the secrecy, and the possibility that Ma’s motivation was primarily for his own legacy, I didn’t hear many people question why Taiwan’s president would ever want to meet with China’s.
To me, this suggests a quiet confidence in Taiwan. Government officials from both sides are talking all the time. Simply bumping up the level to the presidents doesn’t really change much. If Taiwan could survive lower-level contacts, it should be able to manage higher-level contacts just fine. There isn’t a great fear the China will be able to use that imagery in the international media and diplomatic circles as evidence that Taiwan is subordinate to the PRC. In fact, many of the people on the green talk shows raised the question of why Xi is willing to meet with Ma. One of the most common suggestions was that Xi is facing his own domestic political struggles, and he needs this diplomatic breakthrough to burnish his own credentials. Another suggestion was that Xi is trying to break through American efforts at containment, especially in the South China Seas disputes, where Taiwan happens to own the only real island. The subtext was that China needs this as much as Ma does, and this will still be the case after Ma leaves office. China engaged Taiwan during the Chen presidency over the three small links and tariffs even without the 92 Consensus (gasp!) because it was in China’s interests to do so. When Ma leaves office, China will still need to engage Taiwan, with or without One China or the 92 Consensus.
There is some fuzzy public opinion data that suggests the population is generally supportive of high level contact. The Mainland Affairs Council has been claiming that 80% of the population expressed approval to a meeting of leaders done with appropriate respect. I don’t know where that number comes from, but they do regular surveys. They could be cherry-picking a specific result and this concrete Ma-Xi meeting may or may not satisfy the hypothetical condition of mutual respect, but we probably shouldn’t dismiss this datum altogether. Apple Daily had an online poll yesterday that was running about 70% in favor of the meeting when I checked last night. (I can’t find a link.) However, voluntary online polls are always problematic since supporters or opponents can flood the poll with responses if they wish. Today Apple has a telephone poll up that shows the opposite result: 53% oppose the meeting while only 38% support it. Be careful with this number, though. The two options were, “I don’t support it. President Ma will leave office soon, so handling cross straits affairs should be left to the next president,” and “I support it. It will help cross straits relations.” The sample size is only 420, so this has a sampling error of about 5%. Apple’s polls are also voice-recorded, and they tend to be a little less consistent than polls from other organizations using human interviewers. The Pollcracy Lab run by the Election Study Center also did a quick internet survey yesterday and found that 64% of respondents supported the Ma-Xi meeting. Again, take this number with some reservations. The sample size was only 275, and this was a non-random sample. I have no idea what the margin of error is for this type of survey. However, unlike most media internet surveys, it would be very difficult for supporters or opponents to infiltrate and sway these results. The ESC gets email addresses from telephone respondents (in other surveys), and the Pollcracy Lab sends out invitations to participate in an internet survey to people on this list. Thus, while this is not a random sample, neither is it a self-selected sample. (Note: I am an adjunct faculty member at the Election Study Center at NCCU, but I am not involved in the Pollcracy Lab project. I learned of this survey on my Facebook feed.)
We should probably think about all these results qualitatively rather than quantitatively. There is a good deal of support in society at the abstract level for presidential-level meetings, as long as they are conducted with suitable levels of mutual respect. Remember, this all rests on a deep foundation of willingness to engage in the international economy. Taiwanese are overwhelmingly in favor of better trade relations with the rest of the world, though Taiwanese are a bit warier of China than other countries. In this particular instance, Taiwanese society seems willing to keep an open mind about the Ma-Xi meeting. However, these results depend on the conditions surrounding the meeting. The reminder that Ma’s term is nearly up seemed to depress support just as the condition of mutual respect raises it. We will see much more informative numbers early next week after people watch the actual meeting and decide whether Ma went beyond his mandate and whether he was accorded sufficient dignity.
I don’t think election strategy was the first concern for either Ma or Xi. However, there is a potential strategy buried under all the diplomacy. I think Ma was hoping that Tsai would immediately denounce the meeting. He would then have responded by drawing the electoral choice as starkly as possible as a choice between a Taiwan with economic ties in China and one that is completely cut off from China. Because of the deep commitment that Taiwanese have to (almost all) free trade, he could hope to rebuild the 2008 and 2012 coalitions that put the KMT into office. Tsai refused to fall into that trap by affirming the general principle of engagement. Ma wants to argue that only the KMT can deal with the PRC, but Tsai essentially rejected that premise by responding calmly and objecting only to Ma’s secrecy, opaqueness, and possible selfish motives. In the Pollcracy data, 40+% of people who supported Tsai for president also expressed support for the Ma-Xi meeting. (Again, don’t worry about the exact number. The point is that it is a substantial proportion.) These are people who want contacts with China and also want Tsai to be president. Ma wants to argue that they can’t have both, and Tsai’s job over the next two months is to reassure them that they can.