Opinion | Kaohsiung Mayor’s visit to the four Chinese cities

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An unprecedented visit by the Taiwan Kaohsiung mayor, Han Kuo-yu, to Macau, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Xiamen sparked tremendous media spotlight in the regions of Greater China.

Han’s visit to Hong Kong was marked by his meeting with the Liaison Office director Wang Zhimin. In Macau, Han met the Liaison Office director Fu Ziying. Most importantly, the Kaohsiung mayor reached trade agreements that amounted to MOP$188 million, including deals on investment, tourism and medical products.

When questioned by some Taiwan reporters on his trips to Hong Kong and Macau, Han remarked on March 22: “Economy is very important and it is impossible to make it important by just having a dinner yesterday night (with Chinese officials in Hong Kong). From ancient dynasties to the present, which dynasty did not attach importance to the economy? In entire China over 5,000 years, the ordinary citizens who did not have enough food could rebel. Hence, economic questions have to be tackled with great importance by every government.”

When challenged by some Taiwan reporters, Han said that he did not “betray” Taiwan by having meetings with the Chinese officials in Macau and Hong Kong, because he was accompanied by many Kaohsiung city councillors who could supervise his work.

In Macau, Han met the Macao Chief Executive, Fernando Chui Sai-on, an arrangement similar to his meeting with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

During the meeting with Chui, Han said he hoped more Kaohsiung agricultural products could and would be exported to Macau. He added that direct air flights between Macau and Kaohsiung could be established. The Taiwan media quickly corrected Han by saying that every week there were and are already 32 direct air flights between Kaohsiung and the city.

Han also paid visits to the Macao Jockey Club and the University of Macau, saying that Taiwan’s heydays in developing horse-racing were gone, and that it would be up to the Kaohsiung city council to decide whether horse-racing should be revived.

The high-profile visits by Han, and the arrangements of having many mainland Chinese officials to meet him in Macau, Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Xiamen raised the eyebrows of some Taiwan critics.

Han’s critics said that China conducted united front work on him, implying that the Greater Bay Area plan could be expanded to cover Taiwan as well. One Taiwan media organization that frequently covers Han has been penalized monetarily for “biased” coverage, while Han’s visit was openly criticized by the Taiwan government’s Mainland Affairs Council for “violating” the Taiwan legal relations with Mainland China.

Specifically, a mayor like Han who interacted directly with mainland Chinese officials had to acquire prior approval from the Taiwan central administration. Clearly, Han’s visit to Macau, Hong Kong, and the Mainland was heavily politicized.

What was significant in Han’s unprecedented visit to those locations was that the mayoral diplomacy was conducted directly between Kaohsiung and the cities chosen by Han in his visit. In an era of global economic interdependence and city-to-city relations, Han’s visits highlighted these phenomena but aroused the strong reactions of the pro-independence media and critics in Taiwan.

His answers pointed to the need for economic pragmatism, which is also coincidentally the principle of Beijing’s formulation and implementation of the Greater Bay Area plan.

Beijing naturally hopes that economic pragmatism and enhanced economic relations between Kaohsiung and cities such as Macau would help the development of Beijing-Taipei relations in the long run.

However, the strong ideological reactions from Han’s critics in Taiwan have shown that Beijing’s idea of using a Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” to tackle Taiwan’s political future has already encountered resistance and opposition from some Taiwanese.

Han visit was heavily politicized also because of his rapidly rising and populist political stature. Some Kuomintang leaders toy with the idea of grooming Han to be a presidential candidate in 2020 or in the longer term, but Han is cautious and avoided an overly ambitious image.

In short, Han’s visits to the four Chinese cities sparked unprecedented united front work from Beijing and yet severe resistance from his Taiwan critics in the era of combined regional interdependence, economic pragmatism and yet ideological conflicts.

*Political commentator and regular contributor to MNA