Breakthrough in prickly China-Taiwan consular issue

Breakthrough in prickly China-Taiwan consular issue
Chinese official Zhang Zhijun (left), director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, shakes hands with his Taiwanese counterpart Wang Yu-chi, director of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council in Taoyuan, Taiwan.

TAOYUAN, Taiwan - China and Taiwan have agreed that any representative offices established in each other's territory should allow officials to visit those detained or jailed by the other side - a breakthrough in a prickly consular issue that has been deadlocked due to the mainland's concerns that this confers diplomatic legitimacy on Taipei.

A meeting yesterday between the two ministerial-level chiefs of cross-strait ties - China's Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) director Zhang Zhijun and Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council chairman Wang Yu-chi - saw agreement on the matter, announced Mr Wang, citing it as "concrete progress" on an important issue.

Analysts believe that with this knot untied, progress on establishing such offices with consular services should be swift. No timeframe has been given.

Beijing has previously baulked at this, believing it to be a country-to-country privilege.

The concession, said Mr Wang, is a "positive signal" from the mainland and augurs well for further developing relations between the two former enemies.

There is also an urgency to move on the issue, given the rapidly rising number of visitors and businessmen settling down on both sides, said Mr Chang Pai-ta, a former deputy director of China affairs at Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

The progress came during Mr Zhang's landmark visit to Taiwan, the first to the island by a top Chinese official.

In remarks ahead of the meeting with Mr Wang, he offered an upbeat take on cross-strait ties.

"It is inevitable that we will have problems. But the problems we had in the past were not less intractable," he said. Thus, so long as both sides are "willing to work hard and with sincerity", the obstacles can be overcome.

This was even as his visit was marked by protests, heavy police security and even an eviction of pro-independence activists from the rooms at the hotel where the two men met.

Mr Wang noted that "many things had happened" in the past four months since their last meeting. They had met in February, when, in a sign of warming ties, Mr Wang visited Nanjing and Shanghai. It was the first government-to-government contact between mainland China and Taiwan after the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.

A month later, student protesters laid siege to Taiwan's legislature for 23 days, in opposition to a cross-strait services trade pact, highlighting the fears of small businesses and local workers over increasing competition from the mainland. Others worry that China's expanding economic clout increases its political influence.

Another furore erupted when a TAO spokesman stated earlier this month that Taiwan's future is up to "all Chinese people". Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou retorted that it is up to the island's 23 million people instead.

Yesterday, Mr Wang said he had highlighted to Mr Zhang the "hurt" that the remark had inflicted on the Taiwanese.

He also called on Mr Zhang to "understand the voices" of Taiwan's society on his trip.

In a whirlwind tour over four days, Mr Zhang will visit three cities - Taiwan's most populous city of New Taipei, the southern port city of Kaohsiung, and Taichung in central Taiwan.

He will skirt the capital, Taipei, due to political sensitivities.

The charm offensive, though, began right from the start. On his landing at the airport in the morning, he greeted the waiting media with "tai gei ho", or "hello everybody", in the Taiwanese Min Nan dialect, similar to Hokkien.

He noted that his flight from Beijing took less than three hours. "But it took 65 years for us to come here."

This article was first published on June 26, 2014.
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