The 1992 Consensus is dead.
This afternoon local time, Republic of China president Ma Ying-jeou met with the People’s Republic of China president Xi Jinping in Singapore. At the press conference immediately following their 50 minute closed door meeting, Taiwan Affairs Office chairman Zhang Zhijun reaffirmed all of Xi’s agenda, and stressed that both leaders certainly confirmed the 1992 Consensus—that Taiwan is part of China, as Ma mentioned in his opening statement.
Right now, the attention is on the fact that Ma’s opening statement neglected to mention the second part of the 1992 Consensus that Taiwan had insisted on—that Taiwan can interpret “China” to mean the government in Taiwan. For Taiwan, that is the only part of the 1992 Consensus that keeps it palatable, that the government in Taiwan still has any leverage to claim its existence. Since the Chinese side made no comment on this line whatsoever, in effect China had just denied Taiwan’s political existence to Taiwan’s face.
As a tool of diplomatic ambiguity, the 1992 Consensus is now dead to the Taiwanese people. There is nothing ambiguous about it anymore. We have officially ended the era of the 1992 Consensus, and entered a new era—where China thinks there is no more room left for Taiwan.
But I see some hope here.
Yes, Ma had a laughably embarrassing performance in front of Xi Jinping. Yes, Ma showed us all how far away from reality his agenda and worldviews are. Yes, he ushered in a new “consensus” without him even knowing it. But all of that is, so to speak, in the past now.
But let us forget about all that. Regardless of all the speculation about future developments, the fact that the meeting itself took place is, to me, the most significant development of all. Before today, a veil existed between the two sides; as long as the highest representative of the state cannot talk directly to one another, there has to be a pretext for any of their subordinates to meet—in other words, state officials under the president must receive a mandate that is circumscribed by the policy decision of the head of state. For the past 23 years, that pretext was called the 1992 Consensus.
When the heads of state themselves finally meet, they do not have the luxury of hiding behind a circumscribed pretext from someone else. They themselves represent the pretext.
Of course, Ma and Xi chose to remain in the last century, by holding on to a so-called consensus that supposedly stemmed from a meeting 23 years ago. But by meeting and institutionalizing the possibility of leaders from Taiwan and China meeting, they have also made it possible that the two sides can meet under a different pretext, or under no pretext at all.
An event like this could be the start of something positive. As polls have shown, the people of Taiwan are not against all meetings of the two heads of state. They believe that it may actually be possible for such kinds of meetings to produce agreeable results. However, as I argued earlier in the week in Foreign Policy Magazine, because of the vast gap in relative negotiation power between Ma and Xi, this particular meeting will be trouble for Taiwan. What business does a lame duck and profoundly unpopular president has, trying to represent any semblance of a public will? How much can any result Ma brings back to Taiwan be enforced, given the disconnect between his vision and the almost nonexistent faith the Taiwanese society has in that vision?
So the people of Taiwan, take advantage of this opportunity. Take back the power to set the pretext—by rebuilding what it means for Taiwan to be a state and a nation. Find a new way to form a trustworthy and accountable government. Start those conversations about the relationships between individuals, communities, and how mandate to be governed is transferred. Think hard about how you want your rights to be protected, and how collective decisions are made. Decide how someone like Ma will never come to represent you in the first place; that when your leader, the person charged to represent you, speaks to China, she or he does that job right.
Furthermore, boldly and bravely embrace the possibility of final settlements with China. It’s time, I believe, to start this conversation as well. Let us have those grand debates again, on the streets, and in the halls of power. Taiwan’s future affects the agenda of great powers, so if you don’t seize the right to do this now, before you know it someone will have done it for you.
Doing all those things is what this new era will be about. I call that my vision, a “2015 Consensus.”
Enough of Ma and Xi. Enough of the word games and whether Taiwan is part of China or not. Enough of the 1992 Consensus. A new era is dawning in Taiwan. The 1992 Consensus is dead; long live the 2015 Consensus.
(Feature photo of Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, courtesy of Clara Chou)
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