Last month, Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) hosted the annual Taipei-Shanghai City Forum (台北上海城市論壇). In its seventh iteration, this year’s twin-city forum was met with greater attention and scrutiny than the six prior, due to heightened uncertainty in cross-Strait relations and Beijing’s decision to send a party representative as delegation head, rather than a local government official.
The Taipei-Shanghai City Forum was formally established on April 6, 2010 with the signing of four Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) between the Taipei City Government and the Shanghai Municipal People’s Government, after a decade of smaller cross-city exchanges under the same appellation. The purpose of the Forum is to enhance cooperation between the two cities, with each MOU outlining collaboration in key areas of focus, such as environmental protection and exchanges between each city’s respective science and technology parks.
Yet, a deeper examination into the backdrop of the formalization of the Taipei-Shanghai City Forum shows that broader overtures made by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the administration of then-president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) provided the political preconditions for the agreement. President Ma, of the Kuomintang (KMT) party, came to power in 2008 and pursued a policy of rapprochement with Beijing after years of tense cross-Strait relations. Ma’s acknowledgment of the so-called “1992 Consensus” was seemingly reciprocated with goodwill from China, which reopened unofficial channels of communication and established official ones. The two sides also authorized direct flights between Taiwan and China and began negotiations for a preferential trade-agreement.
Explicit to the twin-city Forum was an announcement made by MOU signatory, Han Zheng (韓正), then Shanghai mayor, that the Bank of Communications would begin offering bi-directional currency exchange services between two sides’ currencies and that he would push for the establishment of direct routes between the two cities’ respective airports, as well as open a Taipei branch of the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (上海浦東發展銀行). The gesture by the local government was consistent with the central government’s moves to relax cross-Strait restrictions, demonstrating that Beijing’s policy towards Taiwan cuts across all levels of governance.
However, the pace in expanding relations across the Taiwan Strait has stalled since the May 2016 inauguration of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). Indeed, soon after Tsai’s inauguration, China terminated official contacts and consultation mechanisms. Beijing cites the Tsai administration’s refusal to acknowledge the so-called “1992 Consensus” and its corresponding “One China” principle as the basis for cross-Strait relations as its reason for cutting official channels.
In an unprecedented move, China sent Sha Hailin (沙海林), Director of the Shanghai Municipal Committee United Front Work Department and a member of Shanghai’s Communist Party standing committee, as head of delegation to the 2016 Taipei-Shanghai City Forum, which took place August 22-23. Sha went in lieu of Shanghai’s mayor or deputy mayor and against established precedent. In Taiwan protesters gathered at the airport upon Sha’s arrival and outside Forum venues. Ko, who identifies as an independent, was criticized for trying to undermine President Tsai and manage cross-Strait relations for his own political gain.
Ko defended the Forum, citing the importance of trade relations and arguing that the annual meetings allow for dialogue to continue with counterparts in the PRC in spite of the freeze in direct contact at the national level. The noteworthy element is the political significance of Sha’s position, which is more as a representative of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) than of the local Shanghai government. This shifts the tone of the Forum away from its original intent of advancing cooperation on more apolitical matters, such as medical services and film festivals, to one that hones in on what the Chinese leadership expects from Taiwan—and what is at stake.
Sha’s remarks at the Taipei-Shanghai City Forum were strikingly different from those of previous delegation leads. Statements from the Shanghai representative and from state-owned media on past forums commended the spirit of cooperation and the achievements of the meetings, while withholding comments on Taiwan’s political status. Even in 2015, when Ko—as the first non-KMT mayor since the inception of the twin-city forum—was pressed on the so-called “1992 Consensus,” Chinese media remained muted, citing his “goodwill” in merely saying he “respects” the 1992 Consensus, which falls short of supporting its tenets, a response that demonstrated flexibility on Beijing’s end.
Sha, however, focused his statement on the so-called “1992 Consensus” and the “One China” principle, arguing that the former is foundational to stable cross-Strait ties. He likewise stressed the “familial” ties between Taiwan and China and remarked that the Forum was not taking place in a “foreign” city. Notably, he referenced statistics on the number of Taiwanese workers and businesses in Shanghai, hinting that economic progress could be at stake. This parallels Beijing’s current approach to the Tsai administration, which has been to withhold “carrots” from the Ma years to convey its dissatisfaction.
While allowing this year’s forum to take place is seen as a reward to Ko for his conciliatory remarks towards China, Beijing may also be signaling to Tsai the consequences for not cooperating. Symbolically, Sha’s presence extends the threat, given that his vocational capacity is to mobilize outsider and nontraditional groups in support of CCP ideologies and, in particular, a unified Chinese state.
Further, by suggesting it may change its policies towards the city-level exchanges, exemplified this year by a CCP member taking the place of a Shanghai municipal government representative, Beijing is signalling its willingness to threaten local exchanges that provide tangible benefits for the Taiwan electorate. This appears to be a part of Beijing’s concerted strategy of trying to demonstrate to Taiwan’s electorate that the Tsai administration is ill-equipped to handle cross-Strait relations, with direct implications for the economy and their livelihoods.
A week after Sha’s visit, the spokesman for the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office reiterated a statement made in May that cross-Strait dialogue would resume if Taiwan’s government accepted the so-called “1992 Consensus.” Accordingly, it appears as if China’s broader cross-Strait policy is trickling down to the level of local exchanges. For instance, on September 18 a delegation of officials from select Taiwanese cities and counties visited Beijing and were received by Yu Zhengsheng (俞正声), Chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Yu also reiterated how the so-called “1992 Consensus” is the basis of cross-Strait ties and openly opposed Taiwan independence.
Whether Beijing’s tactics will cover the spectrum of local exchanges between Taiwan and China remains to be seen. The recent Global Harbor Cities Forum, hosted by Taiwan’s southern city of Kaohsiung may serve as a harbinger. Five Chinese cities did not respond to DPP Mayor Chen Chu’s invitation and the forum came and went without their attendance. Perhaps most telling will be China’s approach to local-level exchanges organized or led by politicians outside the pan-green camp. As in the case with Mayor Ko and counter to Mayor Chen, Beijing may persist with a more accommodating stance towards local leaders that are willing to make concessions on the so-called “1992 Consensus.” This would allow it to seek counterbalances to Tsai and limit the DPP’s space on cross-Strait issues, with the aim of providing political capital to her domestic opponents and as part of a strategy of bringing more conciliatory parties to power.
The main point: China is using local cross-Strait exchanges, such as this year’s Taipei-Shanghai City Forum, as a platform to signal its stance that the so-called “1992 Consensus” should serve as the foundation of all levels of cross-Strait contact.