Who are the players? Xi Jinping is president of the People’s Republic of China and head of the Chinese Communist Party; the PRC is a Party/State. Ma Ying-jeou is president of the Republic of China (Taiwan); his party is the Kuomintang (KMT). The two parties were rivals in China from the 1920s through the 1940s and fought a civil war. The CCP won in 1949, and the then head of the ROC, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan with his military, a large part of the bureaucracy, and many others who feared a CCP takeover. Chiang re-established his government there, an authoritarian regime that strongly favored the ‘Mainlanders,’ i.e. those who had fled China with him, over the Taiwanese inhabitants.

What is the issue? The status of Taiwan has since been contested. The PRC view is very clear; it regards Taiwan as a part of China and demanding that it unify with the PRC. The ROC government initially vowed to reconquer the Chinese mainland and reinstall itself as China’s sole ruler. That notion began to fade in the late 1950s, but it continued to be used as the basis of KMT government legitimacy until Taiwan began to democratize, the KMT faced a rival political party in the Democratic Progressive Party, which represents a pro-Taiwan perspective and questions whether Taiwan should be ‘Chinese’ or have a separate identity.

Since democratization, Taiwan has had a Taiwanese KMT President Lee, who regarded the ROC and the PRC as two separate states, a Taiwanese DPP President Chen, and the present Mainlander KMT President Ma. Whereas Lee and Chen tried to steer Taiwan away from the PRC, Ma has brought the two closer together through various trade pacts and direct flights, bringing large numbers of Chinese tourists to Taiwan.

However, especially during his second term (2012-2016), the Taiwanese people have become very leery of Ma’s efforts, and his popularity has plummeted, at one point dipping to a 9% approval rating. Last year his attempt to ram a services trade pact through the Legislative Yua prompted a three-week occupation of the legislature building by students. His party suffered severe losses in local elections in 2014. In the upcoming election (January 2016), the KMT presidential candidate is expected to lose badly, and the party is likely to lose control of the legislature for the first time.

The importance of this is that Xi Jinping will lose the negotiating partner who is most favorably disposed to bring Taiwan and the PRC closer together. This is not to say that the DPP will refuse to negotiate; indeed, its candidate, the US and UK educated PhD economist, Tsai Ing-wen, has promised to maintain the status quo, but she favors a more restrained relationship. But the PRC does not trust the DPP, and it has vowed to bring about unification by force if necessary.

Given that this meeting was the first between the KMT and CCP leaders since 1945 and that Ma has been pressing for a meeting with Xi for several years, what was Saturday’s meeting about? As there were no joint post-meeting press conferences or statements, the meeting was more one of symbolism than substance, so one can only speculate. Some suggest that the meeting is to bolster the KMT chances in the election. That may be in some minds, but there is a far greater chance that it will hurt KMT candidates than help them. Ma told a reporter that the purpose was to advance cross-Straits relations. That could be accomplished by the precedent of the ROC and PRC leaders being able to meet in the future, which could be very important if the next ROC leader is Tsai. Washington Post journalist Simon Denyer wrote that ‘Both men want to go down in history as having helped to end decades of division, mistrust and sometimes armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait.’ But the meeting was more about symbolism than substance, with experts saying they had heard nothing from either leader that broke from precedent,’ and a day after the meeting, nothing concrete has been announced.

Reaction from Taiwan has been predictable. The pro-KMT media, which consists of the bulk of newspapers and TV channels, has lauded the meeting for its historical significance, while the pro-DPP outlets, along with the one politically neutral paper, the Apple Daily, has criticized Ma for his tacit acceptance of the PRC interpretation of the ROC’s status and for failing to make a direct statement lauding Taiwan’s vibrant, democratic way of life.

Written by Griffith Asia Institute Adjunct Professor David Schak.