From watching Taiwan TV to listening to its heartbeat

BEIJING - A story goes that over the past decades, mainland officials formulated cross-strait policies and gleaned insights on Taiwanese society, sometimes by watching television programmes about it.

After all, none of those in charge actually set foot on the island while in office.

This week, the prism will be officially removed. China's pointman on cross-strait relations Zhang Zhijun will visit Taiwan, the first such official to do so.

Hop-scotching across three cities in four days starting tomorrow, the Taiwan Affairs Office director is making up for lost time, meeting not just academics or businessmen, but also the "grassroots" - from papaya farmers to shopkeepers, from students to aboriginal residents.

"He will meet the Taiwan people face to face, listen to their voices and understand what they care about," said Professor Chu Jintao, a Taiwan affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Better than watching television," he added wryly.

Abiding by protocol, Mr Zhang will skip Taipei, the capital, in a reciprocation of his Taiwanese counterpart Wang Yu-chi's trip to Nanjing and Shanghai, bypassing Beijing. That earlier trip in February marked a historic first contact between the two governments on either side of the Taiwan Strait since the Kuomintang retreated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war with the communists. Before that, talks were held via quasi-official proxies.

Neither government recognises the other and thus will skirt the sensitivities of visiting either capital, at least for now.

Instead, Mr Zhang, 61, will tour three other major cities, New Taipei City, Kaohsiung and Taichung. There will be smiles, cordial handshakes and carefully couched speeches. But the Jiangsu native will be navigating a society that remains ambivalent about the giant across the strait.

His debut visit is thus likely to mark the start of a recalibrated Beijing charm offensive to focus on Taiwan's san zhong yi qing or "three middles, one youth" - the middle-lower income, the middle class, small and medium-sized firms, and the youth - a concept broached in a recent meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and former Taiwan presidential candidate James Soong.

It followed the Sunflower movement in March where students led a 23-day siege of Taipei's legislature and attracted a massive rally, scuppering a cross-strait service trade pact.

The protest reflected the limits of Beijing's policy of drawing Taiwan into its economic orbit via strengthening business and financial ties - one that made big businesses happy but left smaller enterprises and workers cold.

As Prof Chao Chien-min, a former vice-minister of the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei, noted: "The two economies might be closer, but the problem is the people are not that happy."

Mr Zhang's trip thus is also a public relations exercise. But the hope in Beijing is that by engaging first-hand with the common folk, it will also have a better sense of the heartbeat of the Taiwanese society it wants to woo.

Far more intractable a task is narrowing the political chasm, despite Mr Xi's stated impatience to resolve "the Taiwan question" and hasten unification. This month, Beijing reiterated its stance that Taiwan's future is in the hands of "all Chinese people" - inviting a retort from President Ma Ying-jeou that it is Taiwan's 23 million people who should decide. He also dismissed "one country, two systems" as being "irrelevant" to Taiwan.

Mr Zhang's secondary agenda is likely to further establish a channel of communication with Taiwan's opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which looks to sweep the local elections this November, and could put up a strong showing for the next presidential election in 2016.

Here, Mr Zhang is also moving carefully, eschewing a meeting with DPP chief Tsai Ing-wen, to avoid any show of willingness to negotiate with a party with a pro-independence platform.

Yet, he will meet DPP heavyweight Chen Chu in her capacity as Kaohsiung mayor. A meeting could be helpful in thawing relations, said Prof Chao, especially at a time when the DPP is undergoing soul-searching on how to proceed with cross-strait ties.

On Taiwan's side, it wants further discussion on the exchange of liaison offices, and to argue for more participation in international organisations.

This article was first published on June 24, 2014.
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