Copyright The South China Morning Post
Could there be something between the timing of the anti-Japanese protests and the mainland visits by Taiwanese opposition leaders? It is probably too early to say, but there are many reasons to believe that profound shifts are under way in Sino-Japanese and cross-strait relations which are inextricably linked.
It is hard not to believe that motives beyond the most obvious exist for the latest outbreak of anti-Japanese protests on the mainland.
Trying to prevent Japan’s admission to the UN Security Council as a permanent member and taking umbrage at revisions to Japanese history textbooks must surely have been sparked by more important considerations than “the feelings of all Chinese people”.
It is plain to see why the central government would want to maintain China’s dominant Asian voice in world affairs or why it would want to channel popular discontent towards a traditional bogeyman. But the way the public’s anti-Japanese button was pushed so hard recently by state-run media gives more food for thought.
I have also had conversations with intelligent, well-read people on the mainland that suggest a concerted propaganda campaign is being waged.
Publishers of supposedly broad-minded, outward-looking magazines, and executives at supposedly cutting-edge newspapers have started to say things like: “Well, we may not get Taiwan back, but we must grow strong and prepare to crush Japan.”
Now that Kuomintang chairman Lien Chan has made his historic trip to meet President Hu Jintao , it is all starting to make a bit more sense.
Mao Zedong might have been able to explain it better. As he told his doctor, Li Zhisui (in The Private Life of Chairman Mao), keeping the Taiwan reunification issue unresolved would be in the best interests of the Communist Party as it struggled to create a new China. It would help maintain unity by providing an objective that everyone could agree and focus on (besides the hardships caused by of collectivisation).
He also saw the value of keeping alive the flames of anger towards Japan, saying that the party should have been grateful for the Japanese invasion. It brought temporary respite to the internal conflict with the KMT, and allowed it to project itself as both a socialist and nationalist party.
But in recent years, Taiwan has been visibly slipping from Beijing’s grasp. The objective of reunification has undeniably been downgraded to simply preventing formal independence. Threats have made less and less difference, and policy-making options have fallen into the “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” range.
Mr Lien’s trip has helped turn attention towards a supposed “more carrot, more stick” approach – following the recent passage of the Anti-Secession Law. What is important to understand about such an approach, is that offering more carrot is much harder for the mainland than brandishing more stick. Direct flights could be done tomorrow; but allowing Taiwan participation in the World Health Organisation would require a hard sell domestically.
Moreover, Mr Hu’s decision to shake hands with Mr Lien on a red carpet, bringing to an end 60 years of supposed unresolved civil-war conflict, leaves the mainland short of a traditional bogeyman.
Whatever you might say about Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, the potential for conflict with his government can now be seen as a recently created one, born of the Taiwanese democratic transition. It should become easier to negotiate with him if there is not the same historical baggage.
That leaves only one other enemy with “unfinished business”. And it is one that is much easier to keep unresolved. Selling the public on the idea of giving Taiwan more international breathing space will be much easier if the government is seen as being unswervingly hard nosed on Japan.
Anthony Lawrance is the Post’s special projects editor.