In a déjà vu of last year’s Sunflower Movement, during which protesters occupied Taiwan’s parliament for 24 days and stopped it from ratifying a trade in services agreement with China, a group of Taiwanese youth once again tried to break into the Legislative Yuan on the eve of the meeting between Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou and PRC president Xi Jinping.

It is not known whether the occupation will last as long as the one in 2014 during the Sunflower Movement. However, the very active civil society currently existing in Taiwan has manifested to demonstrate a strong Taiwan-centric identity the likes of which has never been seen in the history of the island.

As the meeting unfolds today—forget all the historic symbolism, the diplomatic intrigue, or the geopolitics. The only thing that should really matter at the end of the day is the people of Taiwan. And they want to be heard, too.

When Ma Ying-jeou, their President, told an audience of international journalists that “the two sides should look to further reduce hostility and try to stay on the correct path that has been established,” the term “correct path” raised eyebrows amongst the Taiwanese people.

The “correct path” for President Ma, is the unchangeable 1992 Consensus, a formula under which both China and Taiwan recognized there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China. Ma claims that the 1992 Consensus leaves room for Taiwan to interpret China to mean the government in Taiwan.

This is the “status quo” as Ma defines it. In 1992, it was agreed upon by two undemocratic political entities. Taiwan did not have its very first direct presidential election until 1996. In other words, the people of Taiwan were never consulted by the then-KMT government on the “definition” of the status quo.

The runaway Taiwan identity train

So how would the people of Taiwan define the status quo?

According to an October survey by Taipei-based Taiwan Indicators Survey Research, 69% of respondents supported that the phrase “A different country on each side of the Strait” (一邊一國) should be used to describe the current cross strait relations. In contrast, the 1992 Consensus, which has been long chanted by Ma, only received public support of 27.4%. The survey, which allowed for multiple answers, asked respondents to choose the terms to best describe the current state of cross strait relations. For those aged 20-29, a majority of 78.3 % chose “different country on each side,” and only 20.3% chose the 1992 Consensus. Similarly, 79% of 30-39 year-old respondents chose the former, whereas 24.4% supported the latter.

As for how the Taiwanese people see themselves, a survey conducted by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in June found a record-low of 9.1% of respondents supporting unification with China, and a record-low 3.3 % identifying themselves as Chinese only.

Despite a strong sense of an independent identity politically and ethnically from China, the Taiwanese people are nevertheless open to exchange between both sides, and between the leaders of both sides. As political scientist Nathan Batto at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica said, “there is a good deal of support in society at the abstract level for presidential-level meetings, as long as they are conducted with suitable levels of mutual respect.” DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, who holds a strong lead in polls at the moment, said that she would not rule out the possibility of visiting Beijing if elected, as long as conditions of “openness and transparency, equality and dignity, and no politics” are met.

Against this trend in public opinion, Ma is of course aware of the fact that the Taiwan identity will only grow stronger along with future generations. The rising Taiwan identity is akin to the runaway train, which is going to steer Taiwan away from the “correct path” built by the KMT and the CPP over the past decades.

With little political capital to spare before he steps down in seven months, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou needs this “historic” meeting to make sure that the “1992 Consensus” be elevated as doctrine before it’s too late.

Two dreams in one bed

From his remarks at the pre-meeting press conference, Ma envisioned a future where leaders from China and Taiwan will hold regular talks with an aim to resolve cross strait issues peacefully. Ma may fundamentally believe that by communication, the separate historical narratives of cross straits development could be gradually merged into one.

In other words, Ma wants these high-level meetings to bind future leaders to a framework he sets down today—even if those future leaders, as chosen by the Taiwanese people, embody a different vision from Ma.

But democracy—a system to which Ma once commented that “the Republic of China” has provided the best example of—is also the key of why there is still a group of Taiwanese who chose to step up and express their disapproval of the upcoming Ma-Xi Meeting.

The water that bears the boat is the same that swallows it up. As much as Ma likes to emphasize how much he supports “democracy”, democracy is not just a word. Democracy is a system, a kind of mentality, a way to engaging in public affairs.

In a democratic society, the legitimacy of a leader derives from the people. Ma attempts to use his remaining term as a democratically elected president to further consolidate his own solution to the existential question of Taiwan, one which his citizens have rejected. What he is trying to do is to institutionalize an undemocratic consensus with a leader from an autocratic China.

As the world watches today’s “Ma-Xi Meeting,” I expect to see the results reinforce the significance of the 1992 Consensus. However, by holding such an unprecedented meeting under the international spotlight, Ma has opened up a Pandora’s Box, and unleashed Taiwan’s dynamic and strong civil society, which has taken root in a democratic soil. They will demand democratic scrutiny of the meeting and will not tolerate any unilateral decision to define the “status quo.” Welcome to democracy, Xi Dada.

(Feature photo of Xi Jinping)


Gwenyth Wang

Gwen is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Warwick. She has a Master’s degree in democracy and democratisation from the University College London. She has previously worked in Taipei, Los Angeles and London – in fields ranging from think tanks to academia. She is currently based in Taipei and tweets at @GwenythWR.