To all Taiwanese harboring dreams of a democratic homeland forever separated from an autocratic China, he came as the devil’s envoy; to the media, as an icebreaker carrying out a historic deed. And to members of the Taiwanese public who are not really into politics, he came as the first approachable zhonggong, the Taiwanese term for officials from the People’s Republic of China.
In the first visit by a ministerial-level Chinese official, Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun arrived on Taiwanese soil on June 25th, for a four-day tour of the de facto independent island nation that Beijing regards as part of its territory, and which, in the past, it has frequently threatened to recovery with its military’s massive firepower.
The landmark visit is the culmination of six years of spectacularly warming ties between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT), which came after decades of mutual distrust following the ruinous Chinese Civil War between Mao Zedong’s CCP and Chiang Kai-check’s KMT.
While Zhang toured the island with the declared aim of establishing a system of regular visits by officials between China and Taiwan and bringing China closer to key members of Taiwan’s political opposition, his itinerary put heavy emphasis on visits with Taiwanese at the grassroots level.
As he wrapped up his visit Saturday, Zhang could boast of of cordial encounters with ordinary people, including Chinese migrant spouses, aboriginal tribes, university students, fishermen and farmers. But he also had less welcoming experiences.
At some stops, behind the barbed-wire fences set up by police to protect the minister, a vociferous mix of Taiwanese independence supporters, pro-democracy students and Falun Gong members gathered. Their signs and chants showed grave misgivings about China and Taiwan edging toward each other.
This opposition was no surprise. In what came to be known as the “Sunflower Movement”, anti-China fury in Taiwan boiled over in March and April, when students occupied Taiwan’s legislature to prevent the ratification of a trade agreement the KMT government had signed with China; the students claimed the pact would invite Beijing’s continuing encroachment on Taiwan’s media, politics and business, and end with Taiwan becoming part the China – another Hong Kong.
In one encounter with protesters, Zhang’s visit was cut short after his security detail was splattered with white paint.
“Yes, the KMT government that does all these under-the-table deals with China was democratically elected by us Taiwanese, but President Ma Ying-jeou’s approval rate has since dropped to 9%, and they have no right to invite Zhang here,” Liu Mei-yu, liaison officer of Democracy Tautin, a Taiwanese NGO, told Al Jazeera.
Liu adds that her own anti-unification stance hardened during visits to Beijing, when she was repelled by what she perceived as “the locals’ rude manners and anti-democratic views”.
Despite Zhang’s vocal opponents, others hold that his historic Taiwan visit is a positive development.
“The TAO director visiting Taiwan relatively close to the completion of the Sunflower occupation is a good thing,” Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“It shows that both governments are able to keep relations on an even kneel and on course and avoid this being disrupted significantly by the unexpected turn of events [the Sunflower movement].”
But another Taiwan watcher, John F. Copper, a professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, believes that the significance of Zhang’s Taiwan tour is being overstated.
“Actually, there is nothing on Zhang’s agenda to suggest the visit is that important,” Copper says. “It has become newsworthy because of the protest, which came about because Taiwan is very polarized and because this is already campaign season for important local elections still five months away.”