Two different Diaoyutai’s are front-page news today.
First, Diaoyutai islands: a Taiwanese fishing ship collided with a Japanese patrol ship off of the disputed Diaoyutai islands. One man was slightly injured as the boat sank; the passengers have been repatriated, but the crew remains held under Japanese custody.
The sovereignty of Diaoyutai is disputed by all sides on the basis of conflicting history; it’s either part of mainland China, Japan, Okinawa, or Taiwan depending on who is doing the talking. Wikipedia has the details in English. It certainly remains a potential flashpoint. Chinese nationalists (from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland) have at different times made attempts to plant Chinese flags onto the island. Japanese nationalists have done the same.
These pictures come from an attempt in 1996, during which a Chinese activist (David Chan) tragically drowned.
Official reactions to this sinking are interesting. Over the past month, Beijing and Japan have tried to put aside nationalist arguments and focus on boosting bilateral relations; this will restrain mainland China’s response. However, Beijing still issued a statement expressing its dissatisfaction over the incident. Taiwan is taking a harder line, and demanding both compensation and an apology from Japan.
Now, the second Diaoyutai.
That would be the Diaoyutai Guest House in Beijing. History is being made here, as this is where cross-strait negotiations are formally taking place after a 16 year break. Recent meetings involving Lian Zhan, James Song, and Wu Boxiong have all been unofficial meetings between political parties. Taiwanese law explicitly forbid any unofficial negotiations between private citizens and the mainland “rebels”; therefore, no signed documents have resulted over the numerous meetings over the previous 3-4 years. (Ironically, the two officials leading the meetings, Chen Yunlin and Jiang Bingkun have already met extensively in recent years through the Communist/Nationalist party dialog… but this is a new role for them.)
The meetings this week are semi-official, and being conducted by Taiwan’s SEF and mainland China’s ARATS; both sides have the legal right to sign agreements, and that’s precisely what they will do. First, direct (weekend charter) flights will be inaugurated by early July. Flights from Shanghai or Guangzhou to Taipei will now take less than an hour. Second, the gates to visiting Taiwan will now be flung wider open to mainland Chinese tourists. I personally have wanted to visit Taiwan for years, but it’s still a painful process for Chinese nationals… I hope this will change in the near future.
Even as we celebrate the progress, there’s still a long way to go. A series of public opinion polls are published by Roland at ESWN. I think these polls are legitimate, and accurately reflect Taiwanese public opinion. Basically, if forced to choose right now, a large majority of Taiwanese would choose independence over reunification.
Q4. If you can choose, would you prefer Taiwan to become an independent country, or unify with mainland China?
65%: Independent country
19%: Unified with mainland China
16%: No opinion
There is reason to be optimistic, however. Half of Taiwanese continue to be comfortable thinking of themselves as being “Chinese and Taiwanese”; in this poll, Chinese is defined as zhongguo ren (中国人).
Another poll on the same page asks Taiwanese a slightly different question: are you a member of the zhonghua minzu, Chinese race (中华民族)? The response here is overwhelmingly positive; 77% responded that they identify as part of zhonghua minzu. This is an important statement, as it is becoming the fundamental foundation for improving cross-strait relations on the short term. Both Hu Jintao and Ma Yingjiu have delayed the challenging question of “nations” and “countries” for now, and both are instead focusing on both sides of the strait as compatriots, fellow members of the zhonghua minzu.
I believe that’s all we really need, for now. The path towards peaceful reunification is long, very likely at least 30-50 years in the future. This fundamental issues of identity is very relevant; as long as we recognized a shared heritage, and with growing cross-strait integration, I’m optimistic about the likelihood of eventual reunification.
Chen Shuibian and the Taiwanese independence movement are well aware of the importance of this issue, which is precisely why it has been pushing an agenda that strengthened a de-Sinified Taiwanese identity for the past 8 years. And the survey results do show that he has made progress in his goals. Now, it’s time for those who support a shared zhonghua minzu identity to have their chance at driving the agenda.