A Rather Lackluster Performance by Xi

The KMT chairman’s meeting with his Chinese counterpart on Monday spoke volumes about the gap that continues to exist between the two sides
Photo: Agence France-Presse
Photo: Agence France-Presse
J. Michael Cole
By

Given that it had been nearly six years since a chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) had journeyed to Beijing to meet the secretary general of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) performance on May 4 was rather odd. If only for the propagandistic value of the meeting, one would have expected Xi to do his best to be charming (admittedly no small challenge) when meeting Eric Chu (朱立倫). Instead, a dour-looking Xi gave the impression that he would rather have been somewhere else.

The scene of the meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing was worth a thousand words and epitomized the gap that continues to exist between the two societies. On the KMT side of the table, the Chu delegation included men and women. On the other side, the Chinese delegation was entirely made up of middle-aged men. Even more telling was the body language. During his speech, KMT Chairman Chu spoke eloquently, without referring to his notes, and looked straight at Xi and other members of the Chinese group, smiling occasionally. Xi, meanwhile, sounded sometimes bored, sometimes condescending, making little eye contact and constantly referring to his written notes, stumbling on a few occasions and sounding very much as if this was the first time he’d seen them. Chu exuded confidence; Xi, disengagement. From that scene, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Chu, not Xi, was in charge.

Of course we do not want to read too much into this. Still, as head of a party that has mastered the art of stage setting and charming foreign dignitaries, Xi’s performance on Monday gave the impression that he had not prepared for the meeting, or that he could not be bothered to try to woo his Taiwanese counterpart, the man who, we can assume, Beijing will want to work with for the foreseeable future.

The lack of warmth, furthermore, says a lot about the state of affairs between the KMT and the CCP. If this is the kind of reception that the KMT can expect after a decade of engagement — then-KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) first met Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) in Beijing in April 2005 — then the camaraderie between the supposed “brothers” is far less secure than we’ve been led to believe.

And it goes without saying that the absence of any substantive talking points during the meeting, where Xi and Chu regurgitated the same old platitudes we’ve been hearing over the years, is also indicative of stalled progress rather than a relationship that has supposedly deepened and flourished. Mr. Chu may have emphasized “one China” a bit too much for some people’s comfort, but the fact remains that this is mere word games. Both Chu and Xi know that such language has little appeal back in Taiwan, and that if it were to go beyond mere shadow boxing while in Beijing, Chu and his party would most assuredly be trashed in the next elections (indicatively, even KMT legislators were emphasizing this point on TV talk shows last night).

The differences in style were marked, and so is the gap that continues to exist between the two societies due to their irreconcilably different political systems.

As if Mr. Xi’s glum performance were not enough, the CCP mounted an altogether amateurish propaganda performance by using Tung Shu-chen (董淑貞), a taishang, whose speech during an event with the KMT delegation in Shanghai on Sunday was subsequently leaked on the Internet. Passing off as a businesswoman, Tung openly expressed her support for the KMT and proposed a scheme to ensure future KMT electoral victories that shared uncanny similarities with the kind of ethnic dilution strategies adopted by Beijing in places like Xinjiang. (In case you’re curious, Tung’s plan involves taishang finding Chinese spouses, making babies, rearing said offspring in China, and using them as automata voting for the KMT back in Taiwan. Of course, such mindless voters wouldn’t be able to exercise their democratic right until 2037 at the earliest, or 2034 if the voting age in Taiwan is lowered to 18 as hoped.)

A few hours after Tung’s speech, netizens back in Taiwan had discovered that in addition to being president of Tung’s Co, Ms. Tung is also director general of the China Overseas Friendship Association (COFA), a unit of the CCP United Front Work Department. That the Chinese side made little attempt to hide this silly exercise in propaganda is an insult to the KMT delegation and underscores the coarse underpinnings of the entire visit.

The Chinese side seemed unprepared and doesn’t appear to have been overly committed to getting relations with Chairman Chu on a positive footing. Instead of pulling out all the stops to charm Chu, Mr. Xi gave the appearance that he didn’t want to be there. So much for a reunion between “friends.”

 

J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. His latest book is Black Island: Two Years of Activism in Taiwan.

4 Responses to “A Rather Lackluster Performance by Xi”

May 05, 2015 at 3:28 am, tom ferstl said:

A friend who threatens to punch you in the mouth if you don’t tell him the words he wants to hear was never your friend to begin with.

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May 05, 2015 at 4:05 am, Les Sharp said:

I’m sure Xi realizes Eric Chu will not be able to deliver the results he wants (Taiwan on a silver platter), even if he is elected President. All the One China nonsense he spouted in Beijing will make that election a damn sight harder, even if he does decide to run. The days when the public would acquiesce to this sort of black-box negotiation are over.

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May 05, 2015 at 10:34 am, Mike Fagan said:

It’s understandable really. Eric Chu is simply wasting Xi’s time and taking up space. But there is an alternative view: that for the moment Xi attaches far more importance to other concerns (e.g. the AIIB and the “one belt, one road” scheme) than Taiwan. In that greater scheme of things, Eric Chu’s significance doesn’t amount to much especially given that he is, to all intents and purposes, ready to concede the next election to the DPP.

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May 14, 2015 at 7:28 am, Tim Boyle said:

Completely agree with Mike. Xi travelled to Moscow later in the week for the Victory Parade and meetings with Putin, and today Modi arrives in Beijing. Having to go through the motions with Chu must have felt like a complete waste of his time.

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