With Historic Ma-Xi Summit, Chinese State Media Walks a Fine Line

For the first time in 66 years, the president of mainland China and the president of self-governing Taiwan will meet face to face. On November 3, Zhang Zhijun, minister in charge of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, stated that China’s Xi Jinping would meet Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore during Xi’s upcoming trip there. The historic encounter between the heads of mainland China and the island it considers a rogue province comes as a surprise, with Western media reports attributing the move to Xi’s confident and sometimes aggressive foreign policy—and to Ma’s last-ditch effort, as a lame-duck president in the last few months of his tenure representing an unpopular party, to burnish his legacy.

Whatever the particulars, China’s state media clearly sees the meeting as a huge public relations victory. But in trumpeting the triumph, it’s had to walk a fine line. While outside media coverage has emphasized not just the meeting’s implications for cross-strait relations but also its effect on Taiwan’s polarized internal politics, often divided into pro-Beijing and pro-status quo camps, Chinese state media have almost completely avoided the latter—doing so would highlight the fully independent political system of what Beijing views as a rogue province. And while mainland media has portrayed the meeting as momentous, it’s also taken pains to show the encounter, however hastily announced, was not a surprise—which would imply that the relationship had previously been beyond Xi’s control.

In the wake of the announcement, numerous major state media outlets, including state news agency Xinhua, ruling Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, and online Party publication The Paper swiftly featured the news atop their homepages, and state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported on the meeting in a November 3 broadcast. People’s Daily highlighted Zhang’s remarks that the meeting would be a “milestone” and that it would set a “precedent of direct communication” between the top Chinese and Taiwanese leaders. A November 4 editorial in the reliably nationalist Global Times called the upcoming meeting an “important breakthrough,” predicting that it would exercise a “positive guiding influence on Taiwan’s future mainland policy” and establish a framework for “global understanding of the cross-Strait relationship.” For his part, Ma echoed that language on November 5, denying that the meeting was intended to influence Taiwan’s early 2016 presidential election, as opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen insinuated on November 4, and stating that the historic summit was intended for the “happiness of the next generation.”

On November 4, the Global Times explained why Singapore was the destination selected for the meeting, explaining that the city-state had a special relationship with both the mainland and Taiwan and that if Ma were to visit Xi in Beijing, “some Taiwanese opinion” would criticize the selection as too deferential. But the article made no mention of why the meeting would not be held in Taiwan. In fact, a visit by Xi would most certainly arouse fierce opposition on the island, which just last year saw widespread protests against a trade deal that appeared too cozy with the mainland.

State media articles employed the careful language regularly invoked in China to tiptoe around different interpretations of the self-governing island’s sovereign status—articles referred to both Xi and Ma as “leaders,” not presidents, and mentions of Taiwan’s “office of the president” appeared in scare-quotes. Xinhua reported on November 4 that Zhang had indicated the two presidents would refer to each other as “mister” to avoid the fraught title of “president.”

The jubilant mainland coverage contrasted sharply with the strongly divided reaction within Taiwan after the news broke.

The jubilant mainland coverage contrasted sharply with the strongly divided reaction within Taiwan after the news broke. Demonstrators staged a protest outside Taiwan’s parliament on November 4, expressing concerns that the Xi-Ma summit could damage the island’s democracy. As one protester told the Taipei Times, “What right does he have to make such an important decision about Taiwan’s safety and future” with approval ratings in the teens. The legislative caucus of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which many expect to win in the January election, condemned what it termed a “black-box” meeting, saying that the preconditions of “national need, public support, and legislative oversight” had not been met.

Meanwhile, commentary on China’s tightly controlled social media spaces was relatively scanty, perhaps due to the highly sensitive nature of the topic. But some online commentators still weighed in, and many expressed subtle support by posting smiling emojis or thumbs-up. But less optimistic commentary still seemed to carry some resonance. On one November 4 post by CCTV’s Weibo account announcing the meeting, the most up-voted comment was by a man who self-identified as Taiwanese. “Speaking frankly, it will difficult for there to be any kind of real progress,” he wrote. “Taiwanese basically don’t even think of themselves as Chinese. People on the mainland may be awaiting reunification, but it might be no less difficult than uniting the two Koreas.”

Those negative views did not make their way into mainland media. The message conveyed to consumers of news in the world’s most populous country was, rather, that Taiwan’s leader values ties with the mainland, that Taiwanese detractors are only a small and extreme minority, and most crucially, that the cross-Strait relationship is making steady and inevitable progress. As one featured November 4 Global Times article proclaimed, the “Taiwan problem is already not a problem.”