By Jackson Kwok and Marie-Alice McLean-Dreyfus, interns with the Lowy Institute's East Asia Program
Comparing cross-strait coverage of the historic meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore on Saturday, you would be forgiven for thinking that they covered different events. Whereas China's state media was uniform in its praise and pro-reunification stance, Taiwan's media was divided, with a number of articles criticising Ma for leaving Taiwanese democracy out of the discussion.
China's Xinhua News Agency praised the meeting as a success and 'an important step towards achieving national reunification'. Reports portrayed the two sides as brothers in the same family and emphasised a common ancestry. Reunification between Taiwan and the mainland was framed as part of Xi's 'chinese dream' and a goal which would inevitably be realised by the 'tide of history'.
The state-aligned tabloid Global Times used the meeting as evidence that China is committed to regional stability and development. Given regional concerns of tensions in the South China Sea, it argued that Beijing has demonstrated its 'willingness to create peace and common prosperity in good faith'.
But Beijing also used this opportunity to send signals to Washington and Taipei. [fold]
An article published in People's Daily on Monday reiterated Beijing's stance that 'the Taiwan issue is in essence China's internal affair'. The article went on to argue that the meeting demonstrated that the 'Chinese people have the ability and wisdom to solve their own problems'. Though the US was never directly mentioned, the message was clear: Washington should stop interfering in what Beijing considers to be a domestic issue.
China's media also had messages for Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. An article published in People's Daily stated Beijing would remain committed to the 1992 Consensus, in which the two sides agreed there is only 'one China'. The article insisted that 'any government in Taiwan must adhere to the consensus' which has formed the 'foundation for the most stable and prosperous period in cross-strait relations'.
Similarly, the Xinhua news agency stated any attempts by DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen to depart from the consensus would constitute 'the greatest threat to cross-strait stability'.
To demonstrate Taiwanese support for the meeting, Xinhua interviewed a number of Taiwanese businesspeople and students engaged on the mainland. Responses from participants were uniformly positive and often conveyed a desire for peaceful reunification.
Taiwanese media, however, told a different story.
An editorial in the Apple Daily, one of the few true 'independent' newspapers in Taiwan, was critical of the meeting between Ma and Xi, suggesting it was only a consensus between Ma's KMT and China's CCP, as opposed to an agreement between all of Taiwan and the mainland.
The editorial described several aspects of the meeting as disappointing.
First, Ma didn't discuss the democratic system in Taiwan. Nor did he engage in talks with the opposition party prior to the meeting which could have 'set a precedence for democratic processes' in future cross-strait talks.
Second, the 'one China' principle dominated the talks. While the 'one China' principle underpins the 1992 consensus, according to the editorial, Ma did not emphasise the 'different interpretations' under which both sides agree to disagree. This omission edged Ma closer to the 'one China one interpretation' policy preferred by Beijing.
An article published in the nominally pro-DPP Liberty Times was also critical of Ma for not emphasising Taiwan's democratic nature. The article concluded that by focusing on 'Chinese nationality and Chinese descendants', Ma had 'silenced' and damaged Taiwan's democracy.
These comments echoed those of the DPP presidential candidate Tsai. In a post on her Facebook page following the meeting she stated that 'Taiwan's democracy and … existence' were left out of the meeting. She accused Ma of 'limiting Taiwan's future' to advance his political legacy.
In response to Tsai's comments and reflecting the perspective of pro-KMT media, an editorial in the pro-China newspaper China Daily censured Tsai for her criticisms of the meeting and expressed 'regret' that she was unable to embrace the occasion. Echoing Chinese state media, the editorial warned that if Tsai is elected it will damage cross-strait relations and make it harder to establish peace in the Taiwan straits.
China's online community was generally positive about the meeting, with many netizens commenting they began to weep when the two leaders shook hands. Online support for the meeting was even the subject of a People's Daily article published on Saturday.
Taiwan's online community was less enthusiastic, with many citizens taking to Facebook to express their anger. However, the majority of comments expressed a belief in the robustness of Taiwan's democratic processes. Many users wrote they were looking forward to the presidential and parliamentary elections in January when they will finally be able to express their opinion via ballot paper.
Following state visits to the US and UK, Xi's historic meeting with Ma has been used to cement his domestic image as a great international statesman. More importantly, the meeting has been used as evidence that Xi and the government are making solid progress towards the revitalisation of the Chinese people. This has meant reassuring domestic audiences that the CCP leadership remains steadfast in its goal of reunifying the motherland, especially when faced by the likelihood of a more pro-independence DPP government in Taiwan.
On the other hand, the reaction to the Ma-Xi meeting in Taiwan highlights what the Taiwanese people value most: their democratic system. Ensuring this remains in place regardless of which party is in power is the primary concern of Taiwanese citizens.
It will be interesting to see how these different factors develop and interact in the lead up to Taiwan's elections in January.