October 13 was announced Thursday as the date for the next meeting between Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council Minister Andrew Hsia and his counterpart from China, Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun.
It will not be the first time the two have met, since they already did so earlier in the year, after Hsia took up his new function.
What makes the next meeting special, is first that it comes just three months ahead of elections which might thoroughly change the political landscape in Taiwan, and second that there is actually a point of disagreement between the two sides.
Announcing the details of his trip, Hsia said that he would take the opportunity of the meeting with Zhang to express Taiwan’s dissatisfaction with the introduction of a special electronic entry card for Taiwanese travelers by China.
The issue is important enough that it deserves high-profile treatment, but unfortunately the government of President Ma Ying-jeou has taken its usual low-key approach we know from other disputes with China.
Earlier in the year, after the introduction of the cards became known, Premier Mao Chi-kuo expressed “extreme dissatisfaction,” but in a tone similar to a teacher disapproving of a child failing to deliver his homework on time.
Despite more than seven years of rapprochement largely on the initiative of the Ma Administration, China still has not learned to show Taiwan the most basic respect. Earlier in the year, there was its decision to introduce new air routes close to the median line of the Taiwan Straits, which impacted the island’s security.
Taiwan also expressed anger at the unilateral move, and as a result, Beijing moved the routes a couple of miles to the West. At first sight, it looked like the satisfactory result of Taiwanese pressure, but in the end, China obtained what it wanted: air routes closer to Taiwan than they had been before, posing a threat to the military’s capability to defend the island.
The entry card issue looks a repeat of the same formula barely a couple of months later. A unilateral decision by China followed by rumblings of dissatisfaction by Taiwan. It still remains to be seen whether Beijing will offer any concessions, but if they come, don’t expect them to reach far.
Taiwanese citizens traveling to China used to have to apply for a “Taibaozheng,” a passport booklet-style “document for Taiwanese compatriots.” The special treatment already meant that Taiwanese visitors were differentiated from other overseas visitors to China, who have to apply for a visa. The practice was of course motivated by the People’s Republic of China’s world view, in which Taiwan is merely one of its provinces, even though it is not under its control.
The introduction of the new card, first for a trial run in July and then definitively on September 21, is a further step on the same road. While the card was defended as a step toward more efficiency, there is the logical fear that China is using the change to put visitors from Taiwan on the same level as those from Hong Kong and Macau.
Even worse, the electronic status of the card has led to anxiety about its capabilities. The biggest fear is that the Chinese authorities, including its powerful security apparatus, would gain access to detailed information about Taiwanese citizens. The data would include the itineraries in China of any Taiwanese traveler, but might also reveal content which should be protected by privacy laws, some reports said.
With a defense establishment already racked by repeated espionage scandals, with serving and retired military officers more than willing to sell out their own country’s secrets to the other side, the last thing Taiwan needs is a way in for Chinese government agencies to track down Taiwanese nationals and follow them around. If people in sensitive government or military positions visit China, the country could track their movements, giving them extra information even without having to pay traitors for it.
The government has recently downplayed the attributes of the card, saying its characteristics are not that sophisticated and users should not be too worried about a threat to their privacy.
Be that as it may, the truth remains that China introduced the card just like that, without even bothering to consulting the Taiwanese government, even though the issue clearly touches both sides, including the millions of Taiwanese citizens who travel to or stay in China each year.
The way Beijing handled the issue betrayed its imperial attitude, treating Taiwan as if its opinion did not matter one bit. China wanted something, and it went ahead and did it, never mind the consequences.
The question is now how Hsia will “interpret” or “translate” the government’s dissatisfaction during his October 13 talks in Guangzhou, and how Zhang will react to that statement.
The risk exists that Hsia’s protest takes a polite and low-key form to become a mere formality in diplomatic language, giving China the opportunity to do hardly anything about the situation.
The MAC minister’s protest might just be a short sentence during a long meeting, leaving hardly an impression on Zhang, let alone on his government back in Beijing.
Hsia has to make sure that his trip consists of more than just photo opportunities in Guangzhou and Dongguan in Guangdong Province, which he will visit before his meeting.
As the situation looks now, Hsia still wants to go ahead with the discussion of a trade-in-goods pact with China despite everything, which already shows the will to protest is not there. Only last year, protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan for weeks in a protest against the trade-in-services pact with China, which more than two years after its signing is still not in force. It is hard to believe public opinion in Taiwan will look any more favorably on the new trade-in-goods pact in the works.
If Hsia were serious about expressing Taiwan’s displeasure with the introduction of the entry card, he would have at least told China it could forget about a new trade pact. He could also have canceled part of the agenda for the meeting, if not the encounter altogether.
The Ma Administration’s current attitude and Hsia’s statements reveal that nothing dramatic is on the cards, but that the MAC minister will just make a short statement and everybody will be expected to forget about the incident.