Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan arrived at Taipei’s zoo as gifts from mainland China in 2008, when Ma Ying-jeou had just become Taiwan’s president. The two pandas were named in tribute to tuanyuan – meaning reunion – an allusion to China’s goals for reunification with the island.
So it seemed an ill omen when the Global Times reported that Tuan Tuan was dead last week – just days before Tsai Ing-wen was set to be sworn in as Taiwan’s new president.
Unlike her predecessor, Tsai won the election by taking a frostier stance on cross-Strait ties (see WiC310).
But it turned out the Global Times was wrong about the bear. That became evident when a photo was posted online, featuring Tuan Tuan in his cage with the day’s newspapers before him (the zookeepers playfully mimicking the ‘proof of life’ image normally associated with kidnappings). “Please don’t believe in online rumours. Friends who care about Tuan Tuan don’t need to worry,” the caption read.
Political analysts are questioning whether cross-Strait ties are more likely to deteriorate under Tsai’s leadership. As we reported in WiC303, the main purpose of Xi Jinping’s historic meeting with Ma last year was to underline the importance of the so-called “1992 Consensus” ahead of Taiwan’s general elections. This accord was first reached after representatives from the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwan’s Nationalist Party (known as the KMT) met in Hong Kong in 1992. Both sides reached agreement on the ‘one China’ concept, but they retained the right to define the term in their own ways.
Ma, formerly the KMT’s president, started his inauguration speech in 2008 by hailing the accord and putting more emphasis on improving economic ties with the mainland.
Tsai is from the very different Democratic Progressive Party, whose former leader Chen Shui-bian riled Beijing with talk of independence. And in her inauguration speech, she seemed to skirt around the accord, saying only that she would respect the “historical fact that the two institutions representing each side across the Taiwan Strait reached joint acknowledgement and common understanding in 1992 through communication and negotiations”.
It wasn’t the most elegant of assurances, and the media seized on it.
“Tsai adopted a circuitous and indirect stance and, in a tricky way, avoided answering the yes or no question [of whether she agrees with the 1992 consensus],” noted the China Times, a pro-KMT newspaper. “Such rhetoric may temporarily avoid a showdown but will not win trust.”
Beijing seems to have adopted a wait-and-see approach, with its Taiwan Affairs Office choosing to describe her remarks as an “incomplete answer”.
But if Tsai fails to “complete the incomplete response”, communications between Beijing and Taipei could be cut, Xinhua predicts (including the high-level hotline installed between the two sides in 2014). The People’s Daily also drummed up the pressure on Tsai to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, demanding that she do more to set out her position.
In this kind of context, the article on the Global Times website about the perishing panda could be a sign of the times – and maybe even a prophecy about the direction of the relationship. The newspaper also published an opinion poll this month indicating that 85% of respondents supported unification with Taiwan by force, and that 58% believed the best time for military action would be within five years.
Again, however, the paper seems to have erred. In a statement circulated to the editors of news portals, the Cyberspace Administration of China blasted the decision to run the poll ahead of Tsai’s inauguration. “It was a serious violation of news discipline and had caused serious political consequences,” the CAC said.
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