The Significance of James Soong’s Visit to Macau, HK, and Mainland

The recent visit of James Soong, the chairman of Taiwan’s People First Party, to Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China was another important trip made by a Taiwan politician after the high-profile visit of Han Kuo-yu, the Kuomintang mayor in Kaohsiung city. There were significant similarities and differences in the visits between the two Taiwan politicians.

The most important similarity was the high-profile reception of both politicians by the mainland Chinese officials. As with Han, Soong was greeted by Wang Zhimin, the director of the Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Wang not only praised Soong’s People First Party for its crucial role in promoting the relations between Beijing and Taipei, but also stressed the importance of the Greater Bay Area (GBA) to Taiwan’s industrial advantages, talent development, market expansion and economic integration with the mainland. The official website of the Liaison Office did not mention Soong’s view toward the GBA. However, in his meeting with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, he appeared to adopt a wait-and-see attitude. He remarked that although Hong Kong’s rule of law, civil liberties, openness and civil service professionalism are recognized externally, it remains to be seen whether it would maintain its comparative advantages and elevate its economic competitiveness through the GBA scheme.

According to the website of the People First Party, when asked by the media on whether his visit to the Hong Kong Liaison Office meant that he was politically co-opted by China’s united front work, Soong replied that as early as 2007, the former director of the Hong Kong Liaison Office, Gao Siren, had already invited him to have dinner, and that he could not easily become a supporter of the Chinese Communist Party after meeting the Chinese President Xi Jinping twice in previous meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation. Soong also said that the Taiwan business people invested in the GBA as early as the 1980s, and that the People First Party has to observe whether this region would be beneficial to the Taiwan people. As an experienced politician, Soong was and is aware of the united front efforts made by Mainland officials, but his reserved views toward the GBA were interestingly not reported in the official website of the Liaison Office.

Second, as with Han, Soong also met Fu Ziying, the director of the Macau Liaison Office. Fu said that the “one country, two systems” in Macau was very successful and that it was characterized by social stability and economic prosperity. Fu also appealed to Taiwan to participate in the GBA blueprint in order to reap the gains of mutual economic development.

Third, both Soong and Han met Liu Jieyi, the director of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, in Zhuhai and Shenzhen respectively. In both meetings, Liu mentioned the importance of the 1992 consensus between Beijing and Taipei, the opposition to the call for “Taiwan independence,” and the need for Beijing and Taipei to strengthen economic and cultural relations. In the meeting with Soong, Liu explicitly mentioned President Xi Jinping’s wishes to promote the peaceful development of Beijing and Taipei and to realize the Chinese ‘renaissance.’ Liu’s comments showed that the top leaders of the People’s Republic of China, especially President Xi, are eager to settle the question of Taiwan’s future in the not-so-distant future.

Interestingly, the Taiwan Mainland Affairs Council reacted to Soong’s visit by saying that mainland China was keen to promote the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” to Soong. Chiu Chui-cheng, the deputy minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, remarked that the “one country, two systems” was a “product of low quality” and that it did not have a market in Taiwan.

One interesting phenomenon in Soong’s visit to Macau was that the pro-Beijing Macao Daily News had an extensive coverage of his remarks and interactions with Chief Executive Fernando Chui and other high-ranking Macau officials on April 18. Chui introduced the GBA plan to Soong, who expressed his positive view toward Macao’s impressive and rapid economic development. But Soong told Chui that Taiwan might encounter problems in developing casinos in its outlying islands where citizens would need to express their preferences through referendum. Soong also visited the University of Macau, exploring the possibility of talent exchanges between Macau and Taiwan.

Despite the fact that Soong’s visit to Macau, Hong Kong, and the Mainland was received with mixed reactions in Taiwan, his interactions with mainland officials had several political implications.

First and foremost, given Soong’s status as a senior advisor to the Taiwan President, he still plays a role of a middleman in Beijing-Taipei relations. It was exactly his role as a middleman that was so cherished by the Chinese officials during the recent visits. Soong himself was aware of his role as a middleman, reiterating during his meeting with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam that his visit was of “learning, exploring and communicating” nature.

Second, no matter whether he would run for the Taiwan presidential election again in 2020, Soong’s pro-reunification background and politically moderate stance are his assets that can cement the relations between Beijing and Taipei, especially when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is in power in Taiwan. Unlike Han Kuo-yu whose visits to Macau, Hong Kong, and the Mainland were regarded by Chinese officials as providing a golden opportunity to enhance city-to-city relationships in the region of Greater China, Soong’s visit provided another chance for Beijing to assert the 1992 consensus and to express its eagerness to start a political dialogue with Taipei in the coming years. Soong repeated twice during his visit that he believed in the “same family relatives in cross-strait relations,” a point in conformity with Beijing’s emphasis on the same Chinese cultural heritage in its relationships with Taipei.

Third, it is not known whether Soong would participate in the 2020 presidential elections – he was defeated in 2002, 2004, 2012 and 2016. And it would be highly unlikely that he would win the next 2020 presidential election even if he decides to run, because of the strong popular support for the Kuomintang candidate and business magnet Terry Gou. If Guo really forms a running team with other Kuomintang heavyweights, such as party chairman Wu Dunyi and Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu, it would be quite likely that a united Kuomintang would defeat the incumbent DPP, which is now divided between President Tsai Ying-wen and Premier William Lai. A divided Kuomintang between the supporters of Guo and Han would likely mirror the previous split between Lien Chan and James Soong in the 2000 presidential election that benefited Chen Shui-bian of the DPP. In any case, although Soong’s brightness in Taiwan’s domestic politics is no match with other rising political stars, his status and intermediary role in cross-strait relations remain symbolically and practically significant.

In short, the ways in which Soong was received warmly by mainland Chinese officials in the region of Greater China, as with Han’s visit, are a testimony to the top priority that the agenda of the President Xi Jinping leadership places on Taiwan. It means that Beijing is following the development of the 2020 presidential elections in Taiwan closely, attentively and strategically. Beijing’s united front efforts on both Soong and Han are obviously pointing to its hope for a political comeback from the moderately blue camp in Taiwan’s presidential politics.

*Political commentator and regular contributor to MNA