China Alters Language On Taiwan

Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, sits next to Taiwan opposition leader James Soong at a meeting in Beijing's Great Hall of the People in which the two endorsed a new formulation of the long-standing
Chinese President Hu Jintao, right, sits next to Taiwan opposition leader James Soong at a meeting in Beijing's Great Hall of the People in which the two endorsed a new formulation of the long-standing "one China" principle. (Pool Photo/by Ng Han Guan Via Reuters)
By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 13, 2005

BEIJING, May 12 -- Chinese President Hu Jintao proposed new diplomatic language Thursday aimed at ending the decades-old state of hostilities between China and Taiwan, in a rare but tentative concession by a Communist leader on one of the most sensitive issues in Chinese politics.

In a joint communique issued after a two-hour meeting in the cavernous Great Hall of the People, Hu and James Soong, a Taiwanese opposition leader, endorsed a new formulation of the mainland government's long-standing position that cross-strait talks can begin only after Taiwan acknowledges it is part of "one China." Under the new language, Hu effectively agreed to open talks if Taiwan accepted the principle of "two shores, one China" while acknowledging that the two sides might differ on precisely what that term meant.

The disputes over wording may appear arcane and trivial to outsiders, but the governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait regard them with utmost seriousness and sometimes threaten to go to war over them. At stake in these battles over nouns and adjectives is the definition of the Chinese nation itself, with the mainland defending its claim that Taiwan is part of China and the self-governing island territory struggling to present itself as an independent, sovereign country.

The deliberate ambiguity of the new wording could allow Taiwan's president, Chen Shui-bian, to claim that "one China" refers to the Republic of China -- the formal name of the government in Taipei -- or even to a loose federation of the mainland and Taiwan.

Speaking in a televised interview in Taipei hours after the announcement in Beijing, Chen swiftly rejected the new wording, saying, "China did not make any concessions. It did not come up with anything new," local news media reported.

But Chen appeared open to further discussions, reiterating plans to establish a commission to pursue cross-strait talks. Chen is widely believed to be waiting until after Taiwan holds island-wide elections Saturday before deciding whether to make Hu a counteroffer.

Soong, the leader of Taiwan's opposition People First Party and a former presidential candidate, struck an uneasy alliance with Chen before beginning his nine-day trip here -- his first to the mainland since fleeing to Taiwan as a child before the Communists took power in 1949. His talks with Hu were seen as a test of Beijing's attitude toward Chen's government.

Chinese officials have alluded to a linguistic compromise before, referring to it as the "1992 consensus," after the year in which Chinese and Taiwanese negotiators in Hong Kong first succeeded in opening official cross-strait talks. At the time, both sides agreed to the "one China" principle, but the Taiwanese insisted they interpreted the term differently.

Taiwan later described the arrangement as "one China, different interpretations." Beijing never accepted that definition and instead emphasized that Taiwan had agreed it was part of China.

Thursday's communique represents a concession by the Chinese government because it openly acknowledges Taiwan's assertion that the two sides define "one China" differently. In another nod to Chen, it also gives the formula a new name, describing it as "two shores, one China," or "two sides of the strait, one China."

Chen has rejected the phrase "1992 consensus," arguing that China and Taiwan merely agreed to disagree that year.

Thursday's talks began with a nationally televised handshake between Hu and Soong on a red carpet in the Great Hall.

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