by Jonathan Adams Posted September 3
Taipei — Take an exiled spiritual leader seen by Beijing as a “splittist.” Add an island Beijing sees as a wayward province. Flavor with a strong dose of political posturing and grandstanding. The result? The perfect end-of-summer cocktail for Taiwan's sensational media.
Yes, it seems everyone here—and in Beijing—has something to say about the Dalai Lama's visit to Taiwan. One TV station even remarked that Taiwan is becoming a political "Superstar Boulevard" (a popular music competition show modeled on "Pop Idol"). Everyone wants their turn at the microphone—or megaphone, as the case may be.
The Dalai Lama arrived Sunday night for what he insists is a humanitarian mission to comfort and pray for victims of Typhoon Morakot. (See post here on the Taiwan government's apologies for its slow and disorganized response to the disaster). He was invited by a group of local government officials from the pro-independence, opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
China was the first to weigh in, even before His Holiness had set a sandaled foot on the island. "The Dalai Lama is not a pure religious figure," said an unidentified spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, according to a Aug. 27 Xinhua report. "Under the pretext of religion, he has all along been engaged in separatist activities. When people from all sectors on the mainland are lending a hand to help Taiwan reconstruct and overcome the typhoon disaster quickly, some DPP members have taken the chance to plot the Dalai Lama's visit to Taiwan. . . . Obviously this is not for the sake of disaster relief. It's an attempt to sabotage the hard-earned good situation in cross-Strait relations."
Just in case anyone wasn't listening, Beijing on Aug. 31—the first day of the Dalai Lama's visit—repeated its "resolute opposition" to the visit. (See statement here.)
At the airport late Sunday night, a small but vocal group of supporters of China-Taiwan unification raised a ruckus, shouting at the Dalai Lama "go home" when he arrived at the airport, and scuffling with security guards. From the loud protests shown on TV, you might never guess that only 9% of Taiwanese support unification, according to one recent poll. The quieter majority welcomed the Dalai Lama as a celebrity—sort of a spiritual version of a Hong Kong pop star.
The ruling Kuomintang basically took the same line as Beijing. It slammed the DPP for exploiting a tragedy for political ends. The KMT—now on friendly terms with the Chinese Communist Party—favors closer relations with China. It worries that President Ma Ying-jeou's efforts to cozy up to Beijing may be set back by the Dalai Lama's visit. One KMT bigwig publicly scolded the opposition to stop creating trouble in cross-strait relations.
The pro-KMT United Evening News went farther, engaging in fear-mongering about the potential backlash from China. On its front page Monday night, it said China “might” cancel group buying trips to Taiwan by Chinese businessmen, postpone an agreement on cross-strait financial exchanges and a cross-strait trade deal, and temporarily ban mainland tourists from visiting Taiwan.
Nervous pro-KMT commentators also noted that China had canceled an opening ceremony Monday marking the start of regular cross-strait flights, and canceled or postponed other events. And others have suggested that the Dalai Lama's visit was related to China's decision to boycott the Sept. 5 opening ceremony for the Deaflympics in Taipei.
The DPP dismissed such talk, saying China would have boycotted the Deaflympics opening ceremony regardless—just as it snubbed the World Games opening ceremony back in July. And the cross-strait flights ceremony would likely have been scotched anyway, with such a party deemed unseemly while Taiwan was still mourning typhoon victims.
The Dalai Lama, for his part, appeared to take all of the controversy in stride. He praised protests against him as a healthy mark of a free society, in an indirect jab at authoritarian China. And he insisted his trip to Taiwan had no political agenda.
More than 17,000 people who packed a hall in Kaohsiung Tuesday morning to see him lead a prayer ceremony seemed to agree. His message of compassion and spirituality resonated with many southerners still reeling from the effects of the typhoon.
So will the Dalai Lama's hurt cross-strait relations or not? China says it will have an "unfavorable" effect. But that's more likely rhetoric than reality. Chinese companies, too, benefit from more cross-strait commercial exchanges. And Beijing is for now aiming all its venom at the opposition, not at the KMT.
In fact, the KMT confirmed it had sent a representative to Beijing to exchange views on the Dalai Lama's visit, in an effort to contain the political fallout. That means the two governments likely have an understanding on where Beijing's "red lines" are regarding the visit.
So far, President Ma and officials in his government have declined to meet with the spiritual leader—unlike his visits here in 1997 and 2001, when he met two sitting presidents. As long as Taiwan's government keeps up that "good behavior," the current political storm will likely pass.
"In the short term the visit may be harmful, but not in the long-term," said Li Peng, a professor at Xiamen University's Taiwan Research Institute. "If nobody in Ma Ying-jeou's government meets the Dalai Lama, maybe the Chinese government will just make comments—nothing more."
Jonathan Adams is a Taipei-based journalist.