A prominent figure in Taiwan’s opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Frank Hsieh made a five-day “unfolding visit ” to the Chinese mainland early last October. As Hsieh is one of the “heavenly kings” among DPP’s founding elders, has served as DPP chairman and “premier” of the “Administrative Yuan” and currently serves on the DPP’ Central Permanent Committee, his visit stirred up seething political waters not only inside the DPP, but also in cross-Strait relations. The ripple effects are still being felt.
How to deal with the mainland has always been a controversy in the DPP. Its fundamentalist wing insists on the party’s “Taiwan independence” platform and labels any attempt by any person to engage the mainland as “selling out Taiwan” or “kowtowing to China”. Why then has Hsieh braved the blames? Hsieh was quoted as explaining candidly: “The trip was planned and executed under the grand scheme of the DPP’s quest of returning to power.” To realize that, the DPP would need a new mindset and approach, and “the road would have to go through China”, he noted.
The DPP’s defeat in the January 2012 general election prompted a heated debate among its members about the causes of the loss—the second since 2008. Many, particularly the programmatic elites, attributed it to voters’ skepticism about the party’s ability to maintain the present cross-Strait rapprochement based on the “1992 consensus” which embodies the one China framework and enjoys the support of the majority of the Taiwan electorate. The “Taiwan independence” platform had navigated the party into a corner, they said, and called for recalibration of its mainland policy. Otherwise, they believed, the DPP would remain “a permanent opposition party”. The 2012 election vindicated that the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Mr. Ma Ying-jieu’s victory was mainly due to his mainland policy characterized by its commitment to the “1992 consensus” and opposition to “Taiwan independence”. Some commentators in Taiwan even labeled the election a “referendum on the 1992 consensus.”
For quite some time, some programmatic DPP elites have been in search of a new discourse for its cross-Strait policy, so as to reach a so-called “1992 consensus without 1992 consensus” with the mainland. By getting rid of the self-imposed insulation from cross-Strait affairs, the DPP would deprive KMT’s advantage over the matter. But why not just accept the “1992 consensus”? They argue that to accept it would mean “plagiarizing the KMT.” On the other hand, they are aware that the CCP has no objection to a new formula as long as it does not run counter to the “1992 consensus.”
Twelve years ago, when Frank Hsieh was the mayor of the southern port city of Kaohsiung, he floated the idea of a “constitutional one China” in an attempt to twin his city with the opposite mainland port of Xiamen and then rejuvenate its economy. Proceeding from the “Constitution of the Republic of China (ROC)”, he defined the relationship between Kaohsiung and Xiamen as “two cities of one country.”
“I am using the ROC constitution to respond to one China”, he said. But his effort was blocked by the DPP authorities in Taipei. He came to the mainland this time with the platform of “constitutions with different interpretations.” He explained that “the initiative basically tells you that there are two constitutions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, which is a fact.” However he added it had nothing to do with the “one China” ideology.
It is obvious that Hsieh’s new formula is shrouded in thicker ambiguity than the “constitutional one China.” Hsieh, known for his political savvy and flexibility, certainly attempts to gain wider ground for maneuvering. He is in fact trying to walk a tight rope between attuning to mainland’s one China bottom line while preserving DPP’s “values and principles.” That said, Hsieh’s endeavor to convince the DPP to accept the “ROC constitution” is by no means insignificant.
Whatever reasons Hsieh might give, the indisputable fact is that the “ROC constitution” is a one China constitution. Promulgated in Nanking in 1947, the constitution legally establishes both Taiwan and the mainland as parts of one China.
Although the constitution has been added to and amended seven times, it has never changed the national boundary. Furthermore, the amendments were made “to meet the requisites of the nation prior to national unification”. So the current relationship across the Strait is: Taiwan and the mainland are both areas of one China, with its territory and sovereignty remaining intact. If the DPP would be realistic enough to break away from the past and formulate its mainland policy on the basis of the 1947 constitution, a new consensus to bridge the gap between the DPP and CCP could be expected although it would not be plain sailing.
This author’s measured optimism derives basically from three facts: First, Hsieh was well received on the mainland. The visit was planned and carried out meticulously in every detail. He came as an individual at the invitation of a little-known Hong Kong base folk organization, the “International Association of Professional Bartenders”, yet was met by the minister for Taiwan affairs Mr. Wang Yi and his direct superior–State Councilor Dai Bingguo. The low-key but substantive reception made Hsieh’s visit smooth if not successful. And it might help set up a pattern for prominent DPP figures to interact with the mainland.
Second, Hsieh’s visit has been well received in Taiwan. According to public opinion polls, 63.2% of DPP supporters and 64.7% KMT supporters affirmed that Hsieh’s visit was conducive to political exchanges and peaceful development across the Strait. Third, the United States also indorsed Hsieh’s mainland tour. Christopher Marut, director of American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), was quoted as saying: “We think this kind of interaction–this kind of direct communication—is very important to building understanding. We think that also contributes to long-term cross-Strait stability.”
The question being asked now is whether Hsieh’s “constitutions with different interpretations” would one day become DPP’s cross-Strait policy? It is still too early to give an affirmative answer. The transformation of the DPP is definitely an ordeal. It also threatens a split of the party. In this author’s analysis, a clearer picture would emerge after the 2014 “seven in one” elections in Taiwan. Administrative and legislative elections will be held simultaneously at municipality, county, township and village levels. The cross-Strait issues will not be prominent in these local elections and Ma Ying-jieu’s popularity is very low at the moment. So the DPP cherishes the hope of winning the elections. If it were the case, the fundamentalists would have hardened grounds to obstruct any moderation of the party cross-Strait stance. If the DPP would just stay put, not to speak of a defeat, the reformist factions like Hsieh’s would gain more ground because the cross-Strait issue would again be a key point in the 2016 general election. After all, the raison d’etre of any political party is to be in power. By that time, the DPP would properly find that Hsieh’s “constitutions with different interpretations” platform is the most benign option it could choose.
Xu Shiquan, vice chairman of the National Society of Taiwan Studies and honorary director of the Institute of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau Studies, SIIS