On August 28 Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou compared the relationship between his island and mainland China to a “big tree”.
“If a pest is discovered we need to find it and remove it so the tree can develop normally. One pest won’t affect the development of cross straits ties,” Ma suggested.
The “pest” in question was Chang Hsien-yao, deputy head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. Chang was one of the principal negotiators of the controversial Cross Strait Trade Agreement (see WiC231 for details of the demonstrations arranged to derail the deal). But he was stripped of his responsibilities last month amid allegations he had endangered national security.
Chang is accused of passing five classified documents, including information about the free trade pact, to recipients in mainland China, local media has reported. He denies the charges, saying that he “followed instructions” during his two-and-a-half-year stint at the council and that his actions were guided by his superiors, including the president.
Initially the government wanted Chang to go quietly, asking him to resign citing family issues. But the allegations were leaked to Taiwan’s media, sparking fevered debate and a number of conspiracy theories. Could Ma have authorised Chang’s alleged information leaks to smooth relations with Beijing – a key tenet of his presidency? Or could this be a witch-hunt, the result of Ma and Chang falling out over other matters?
Others suggested the row is symptomatic of a deeper rift in Taiwan’s ruling KMT party, with one faction wanting to push for closer ties with China and the other favouring relations with its long- term ally, the US.
Whatever the case, the scandal is unlikely to help cross straits relations, especially as it comes at a time when sections of the Taiwanese public are wary of Beijing’s new assertiveness. China’s more aggressive position on territorial disputes in the region have unnerved many on the island. Comments by Chinese President Xi Jinping last October that a decision on Taiwan’s status “cannot be put off forever” prompted another flurry of support for those who oppose the idea of unification.
Taiwan has never formally claimed full independence from China, although it has been ruled separately since the Nationalists fled to the island at the end of the civil war in 1949. Since then the Communist government in Beijing has categorised the island as a renegade province that must return to mainland rule through dialogue if possible, or by force, if necessary.
To make sure Taipei understands that its position is unchanged, Beijing occasionally authorises shows of strength such as the events of August 25 when two patrol planes twice entered area that Taiwan considers to be its own airspace. The Taiwanese air force scrambled fighter jets in response.
The island’s government also announced this week that it would be spending $2.5 billion on a missile defence shield to protect it from potential attack.
Beijing’s decision this week not to grant Hong Kong any further freedoms to select its own chief executive (for background, see WiC244) could also play badly in Taiwan, analysts say.
Many of the same protest groups that occupied the Taiwanese parliament in March have sent activists to participate in the Hong Kong protests and Taipei’s Mainland Affairs Council has said it felt “regret” at Beijing’s decision on the electoral rules in the city. “Democracy and popular voting are universal values. We understand the Hong Kong people’s expectation for the implementation of real universal suffrage,” the statement added.
So while Ma is free to picture relations between Taipei and Beijing as a “big tree”, he might be wrong to think there is only a single “pest” eating away at its roots. In fact, there are quite a few.
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