Last weekend the world witnessed the first face-to-face meeting in living memory between heads of state who both identified themselves as the legitimate ruler of the Middle Kingdom.

While Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Xi Jinping (習近平) surely appreciated the attention and adulation of the international press, I imagine they each merely tolerated the foreign scribes stepping on their official ideologies by calling the meeting “the first in 66 years between the presidents of China and Taiwan.” After all, when their respective predecessors Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石), who was Ma’s former boss’s father, and Mao Zedong (毛澤東), who was Xi’s father’s former boss, met for the last time—in 1945—neither held the title of “president” and Taiwan itself was still legally Japanese territory.

Blue or Red, it’s all One China

For Ma and Xi, this was a meeting of Blue China and Red China, and they communicated this very clearly, right down to the color of their ties. The event was held in an entrepôt, from their perspective, controlled by fellow ethnic Chinese who could be trusted to understand the required protocol. Singapore fulfilled this role vigorously, keeping protesting plebeians out and ensuring the rival noblemen were free of disturbances as they clasped hands for fourscore and two seconds before a backdrop of solid imperial yellow.

Normally rivals for the throne compete to oust each other, but due to Taiwanese’s increasing desire to leave the Middle Kingdom behind it, Ma and Xi currently need each other’s help to stay in power. The Kuomintang (KMT) is clinging to relevance based on its argument it alone can guarantee Taiwan peace with Xi and the CCP, and Ma can prolong his own political career by making himself the foremost cross-strait intermediary. Xi needs Ma and KMT cooperation to contrast them with an “unreasonable” DPP externally and to show his internal rivals the success of his Taiwan policy in advancing the sacred mission of restoring the nation’s territorial integrity. While helping the KMT stay afloat preserves the possibility the Chinese people could one day topple the CCP and ask the KMT to return—and Ma himself is keeping the KMT prepped for such a scenario, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by preventing his party from “going native” (Taiwanizing)–this far-fetched scenario is far less pressing to Xi than the blow to his legitimacy that further Taiwanese independence would deal.

Besides needing to coordinate their political projects, Ma and Xi are ideologically similar enough that their philosophies can be melded. Yes, one leads a democratic state and the other a communist one, but this weekend, as on many other occasions, they revealed themselves to be Neo-Confucianists at odds with the multiethnic egalitarian democracy Taiwanese civil society has built. Ma put a fine point on this by quoting the Book of Documents and the Neo-Confucian philosopher Zhang Zai (橫渠).

Ma and Xi each defined their state, China, as a family. And by defining their citizens as family members they implied an obligation for unity and obedience. The basis for their claim was the repeated assertion that the citizens on both sides of the strait are all descendants of the mythical Yellow Emperor, which the imperial yellow backdrop reinforced. This claim combines politics, family, and “5,000 years of Chinese culture” (also referenced, of course) in one and appears to be too opaque for Western governments to openly question. The only thing Ma and Xi asserted more often was the nearly as baseless claim that everyone on both sides of the strait belongs to the “Chinese ethnicity” (中華民族) and bears the responsibility to rejuvenate their people; this talk of national revival predates even the Republican era and calls to mind the Qing Dynasty.

Neo-Confucian Tyranny

“Blood is thicker than water,” Xi intoned, and he defined the blood relationship between mainland and Taiwanese Chinese still more vividly: “If our bones were broken we would still be hung together by our tendons.” As usual for PRC rhetoric, he called Taiwanese “brothers from the same womb” (同胞) several times. Ma talked emotionally of Chinese and Taiwanese students “mixing like milk and water” [such as in baby formula] on Taiwanese university campuses. Ma and Xi made it as clear as could be that they are ethnic nationalists.

The hierarchy within this family was also outlined within the speeches. The biggest outsiders are citizens who are not Chinese in ethnicity. There are dozens of such groups in China and Taiwan alike, and their existence ruins the monoethnic logic of the One China argument, so they were ignored.

Among ethnic Chinese, there is the gap between the mainlanders and the multigenerational Taiwanese: The former were granted political existence and the latter were not. Xi and his lieutenant Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) spoke at length about the pain and suffering felt by families who were separated by the Chinese Civil War, and one got the impression from them that everyone in Taiwan is a refugee cut off from his or her relatives. Though Ma himself was, such waishengren (外省人) as he never made up more than a quarter of Taiwan’s population. The backgrounds and hopes and dreams of the other three quarters of the population were never mentioned by Xi, nor by Ma either.

The Ma-Xi social structure also contains a class hierarchy where the elites lead the working classes, at least in Ma’s reckoning. In his purported closed-door speech to Xi that the Mainland Affairs Council revealed to the press today, there are a couple statements that are quite stunning to people like Taiwan’s youth who were raised to believe in egalitarianism.

Firstly, he says that Taiwan’s inability to participate in many international organizations “especially” upsets its social elites, who would otherwise get to participate in such groups. Ma warns that upsetting these elites has far-reaching effects. The second time he shows his penchant for centralized top-down rule, President Ma says this: “The two sides should negotiate as quickly as possible resolutions to the cross-strait trade in goods agreement, mutual establishment of representative offices, layovers by mainland travelers [in Taiwanese airports], and appropriate handling of friction over international space. Based on our observations in recent years, if the governing elites of the two sides do not gavel in their decisions (拍板), the low-level bureaucrats will persist in holding their own opinions, hesitate and not move forward, and refuse to give in to each other, and there will be no way to quickly make the citizens on both sides of the strait happy.” That is, unless the elites lead the way to integration the lower class will prove intractable.

Finally, Ma and Xi portray citizens as passive, always accepting of and benefiting from policies and never originating policies themselves nor disagreeing with them. Concepts like freedom and legitimacy were never broached. In Ma and Xi’s worldview, the people never oppose the rightful rulers; they are incited at worst, and their feelings are hurt by violations of their rulers’ sovereignty.

According to Ma’s closed-door speech, ordinary citizens are “sensitive” about their safety and dignity but the real cause of the anxiety about the 1,700 missiles pointed at Taiwan is the opposition party (which he literally calls 反對黨, “the party that opposes,” rather than the usual 在野黨, which is literally “the party in the wilderness outside of the administration”) using them as an “excuse” to fan opposition to cross-strait policy.

This assumption of the people’s passivity is ubiquitous but becomes especially glaring when Xi makes demonstrably false statements such as “Taiwanese public opinion supports the 1992 Consensus of One China.” So how do emperors enforce a political vision at odds with the facts and the values of their subjects?

In the long term, education (collaborative history-writing was discussed); in the short term, violence. The threat of invasion by China is what gives the red and the blue political breathing space in Taiwan. Given that this was a joyous occasion, Ma and Xi didn’t make threats. But according to Zhang, in the closed-door meeting Xi stated, “Without this divine ocean-quieting needle [the 1992 Consensus of One China; this reference is from Journey to the West (西遊記) by the way] the ship of peaceful development will encounter storms and may capsize.”

But brothers wouldn’t bomb each other, right? So why is there a military threat? What are the missiles doing there? For the good of social stability, anything that disproves the established order must be denied. The massacre during 228 never happened. The missiles are not aimed at Taiwan. Furthermore, rulers, as fathers in certain interpretations of Confucianism, have the right to kill their children and people for the “greater good.”

Back to the people of Taiwan

So does Taiwan really have to put up with all this?

No. Emperors may dictate, but they are not divine. If united and organized, the people can defy them. The Taiwanese can force Xi, Ma, and the world to face the facts about their views and values by voting the collaborationist KMT out into the wilderness. As post-Sunflower Movement coverage of Taiwan shows, the island can even win itself more international attention, support, and protection by asserting its autonomy like so. Contorting oneself into a Neo-Confucian hierarchy is like being conquered from the inside and yet it still offers no guarantee against violence or memory erasure. It’s better to take the initiative and rule oneself.

(Feature photo of Ma and Xi, edited from photo provided by ROC Presidential Office) is the owner and author of the eponymous Tumblr blog, where he translates Taiwan's news media and provides sharp commentary about Taiwan's current affairs.