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Taiwan and China: a handshake more symbolic than constructive?

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REUTERS/Edgar Su

(Read caption) Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou (L) wave to the media during a summit in Singapore November 7, 2015. Leaders of political rivals China and Taiwan met on Saturday for the first time in more than 60 years for talks that come amid rising anti-Beijing sentiment on the self-ruled democratic island and weeks ahead of elections there.

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Chinese President Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou, the President “of the Republic of China,” also known as Taiwan, had a monumental meeting in Singapore last Saturday. It was the first time leaders of the two countries met in over six decades, and it comes following a series of brewing peace talks.

And during the talk, a quiet "war" was brewing on an unlikely platform: support for Taiwan's opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen was surging on Facebook with over 70,000 posts during the talks. Dr. Tsai is the front-runner in Taiwan's current presidential race, which will come to a head this January.

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The handshake between Mr. Xi and Mr. Ma was a historical moment – and a hopeful step towards a much-anticipated peace between the two neighbors. The last time such a high-level meeting took place was in Chongquing in 1945 to celebrate Japan’s downfall in World War II. But after Mao and the Communists took control of the country in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalist army fled to Taiwan. 

But this year's meeting turned out to be more symbolic than anything else. 

The most concrete proposal came with Ma’s suggestion to set up a hotline for both sides for emergencies. The rest was mutual flattery.

“History will remember today,” Mr. Xi said, calling China and Taiwan “one family with blood that is thicker than water.”

“We are seated together here today so that the tragedies of history will not be repeated, so that the gains from peaceful development across the strait will not be won and again lost, so that compatriots on both sides of the strait continue making peaceful and tranquil lives, and so that succeeding generations can share a beautiful future.” 

China, however, did not acknowledge Taiwan’s potential independence, and still views Taiwan as a lost colony that someday will reunite with mainland China. China and Taiwan have grown closer since Ma’s presidency, with over 20 signed trade agreements. Many, however, fear an economic partnership will disrupt Taiwan’s democracy.

It was also a chance for Mr. Xi to construct a more peaceful image in the public eye after being repeatedly cited as a growing aggressor in Asia.

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The meeting took place in Singapore, but back home in Taiwan, citizens were less than happy to see the leaders get together. At least 100 protestors attempted to break through the parliament building in Taipei with “Taiwan independence” banners. The police stopped them but no arrests were made.

The talk comes at a time when Taiwan is about to see a new 2016 presidential election, where support is growing for Tsai, a liberal female leader of the Democratic Progressive party. In prior years, and much to the disdain of China's leaders, Tsai's party has called for independence from China. Support for the Democratic Progressives surged during the protests, and her Facebook page had over 70,000 posts during the meeting between Xi and Ma – a uniquely recalcitrant platform for Taiwan's democracy, because Facebook is banned in China. 

“I hope this rare new experience can let the ‘new friend’ see a more complete democracy, freedom and pluralism of Taiwan,” Tsai posted to contributors “from across the Strait,” the strip of water separating the mainland and Taiwan. “Welcome to the world of Facebook!”

Her message can be perceived as a stab at China's lack of press freedom – and Taiwan's celebrated press freedom. Separated by a small strait, the contrast between the two countries' press outlets could not be more stark: during the meeting, China's President read from a lengthy statement and allowed three hand-selected questions while Ma opened the floor for questions.   

Chinese leaders have long called out Tsai's party's radical independent stance, and say they will do anything necessary – including taking Taiwan "by force" – if the party tries to move towards independence.

But whether this will happen will be left to the 18 million Taiwanese who will be voting this coming January.