Pro-unification groups gathered outside the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters in Taipei on Wednesday afternoon to pressure president-elect Tsai Ing-wen, who will be inaugurated on May 20, to recognize the “1992 consensus,” which authorities in Beijing have touted as a non-negotiable precondition for continued stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Led by Chang An-le (張安樂), chairman of the China Unification Promotion Party (中華統一促進黨), about 500 protesters, part of the “518 Action Coalition,” called on Tsai to adhere to the “1992 consensus” to ensure “cross-strait peace.” A large number of participants were visibly associated with criminal organizations; several dozen police blocked the entrance to the building. Police estimates of a crowd of 1,000 seem inflated.
In a statement, the “518 Action Coalition” said that without the “1992 consensus” as the basis for cross-strait peace, Taiwan would face destitution and economic stagnation. Lost on the organizers is the fact that despite Tsai’s predecessor’s adhesion to the so-called consensus, Taiwan’s economy has also continued to stagnate.
Also known as White Wolf, Chang is a former leader of the Bamboo Union triad and once was on Taiwan’s most-wanted list. After spending 16 years in exile in China, he returned to Taiwan in June 2013 and immediately embarked on a campaign to promote unification with China under the “one country, two systems” formula. His party fielded candidates in the January 16 elections but fared poorly, not securing a single seat.
Addressing the rally and some reporters from Chinese media outlets, Chang warned Tsai that she should not “destroy the good foundations laid out during the past eight years.” Echoing Beijing, he added that if there is no “1992 consensus,” negotiations will not be possible.
Representatives from the New Party, another pro-unification party whose star has dimmed in recent years, were also present on Wednesday. Woman in qipao, a handful of women in traditional Aboriginal garb, gods of the underworld and a few men dressed as Japanese imperial army soldiers, were also part of the crowd. According to recent polls, less than 10% of the Taiwanese support unification with China.
Chang has organized a number of rallies since his return to Taiwan, none of which has succeeded in attracting more than 500 people. At previous events, elderly participants were reportedly offered a free trip to Taipei and upon being interviewed did not seem to know what they had gotten themselves into. Indicatively, supporters of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) rarely, if ever, mix with the Chang crowd, which testifies to the lack of support nationally for the ideology espoused by those groups. Su Chi (蘇起), the former KMT legislator who years ago admitted he had coined the term “1992 consensus,” most definitely would not. Thus, although the pictures may give the impression that there is widespread support for Chang’s cause, this is misleading—that is about as much followers he can gather at any particular time.
Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who was president at the time of the cross-strait meeting, denies a consensus ever existed. Tsai has refused to adhere to it, although in an interview with the Chinese-language Liberty Times earlier this year, she said she did not deny the “historical fact” that a meeting between negotiators from the two sides had indeed occurred in 1992.
The “one China” clause contained in the “consensus” is unpalatable to the DPP and many Taiwan supporters; under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), Beijing has also chipped away at the “different interpretations” formulation, which during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration gave Taipei enough flexibility to get away with its position on the “consensus”—in this case, that “one China” refers to the Republic of China and not the People’s Republic of China. In the current environment, it now appears that such word games are no longer possible.
Despite her reservations about the “consensus,” Tsai has emphasized her desire to ensure stability in the Taiwan Strait and to engage in constructive dialogue with Beijing. That the entire architecture of cross-strait relations could collapse due to one side’s refusal to recognize four Chinese characters (九二共識) speaks volumes about Beijing’s inability to move beyond ideology and rhetoric. Still, at this point there is reason to believe that some sort of accommodation remains possible even without Tsai embracing the “consensus.”
Given their lack of appeal, and despite their ostensible connections with agencies back in China, it is unlikely that Chang’s organization will have any impact on Tsai’s cross-strait policies. We should nevertheless recognize that the ability of groups that advocate unification with authoritarian China to hold protests in Taiwan is once again a demonstration of the tolerance that is now part of Taiwanese society. One can only imagine what fate would befall a group of similar size gathering outside a Chinese Communist Party office in Beijing calling for, say, Taiwanese independence.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and a Research Associate with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC).
First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White