The historic encounter seems to be an implicit acknowledgment by China’s President Xi Jinping that the Chinese effort to woo Taiwan with economic benefits alone has been unsuccessful.
HONG KONG — For the past eight years, the Chinese government has showered its former enemies in Taiwan with economic gifts: direct flights, commercial deals, even an undersea water pipeline.
Trade is up more than 50 percent, and mainland tourists, once barred from traveling to the island, now arrive in droves, nearly 4 million last year.
But the Beijing government has discovered, again, that money can’t buy love.
In Taiwan last year, large protests erupted against an agreement to expand trade with the mainland, and the governing Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, which favors closer ties with China, has plummeted in popularity and is widely expected to lose the presidency and possibly the legislature in January elections.
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Now, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has agreed to meet the president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou in the first meeting between the leader of the Republic of China, the government that fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war in 1949, and the leader of the People’s Republic of China, established on the mainland by Mao Zedong’s victorious Communists.
The historic encounter, scheduled to take place on neutral ground in the city-state of Singapore on Saturday, will be trumpeted by both sides as a milestone in cross-strait relations.
But it also seems to be an implicit acknowledgment by Xi that the Chinese effort to woo Taiwan with economic benefits alone has been unsuccessful — and that Beijing’s dream of unification with the island is as distant as ever.
“Xi Jinping is at a loss,” said Parris Chang, president of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies, a think tank in Taipei. “He doesn’t know what to do.”
Jonathan Sullivan, an associate professor at the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham, described the decision to meet Ma as “a Hail Mary pass with time expiring.”
“Beijing has finally realized that the partner it has been working with on Taiwan, the KMT, is heading for disaster,” Sullivan said, referring to the Kuomintang by its initials.
Xi is breaking with long-established policy by agreeing to meet Ma. But it is unclear how much further the Communist leadership is able or willing to go to win over the 23 million people of Taiwan, who polls show are uninterested in unification and increasingly anxious about the self-governing island’s dependence on the much larger Chinese economy.
Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is widely favored to become Taiwan’s new president. She has not been subjected to the sort of vitriol that the Communist Party has heaped on some of the DPP’s past candidates.
Yet there has been no hint that China is capable of taking steps that might improve its public standing in Taiwan, by allowing the island greater representation in the United Nations or other international organizations, for example, or signaling a willingness to treat it as an equal in a future political union.
Since his election in 2008, Ma has made more than 20 deals to expand commerce and interaction with mainland China.
But student-led demonstrators occupied Taiwan’s legislature for nearly a month last year to block passage of a new trade bill that he championed, a protest that became known as the Sunflower Movement and that unnerved Beijing officials.
The lesson for the Chinese leadership was that “the usual influence of the mainland — more money, more investment — has less impact,” said a senior Asian diplomat following cross-strait relations, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Joseph Wu, secretary-general of the DPP, said the meeting scheduled for Saturday represented a shift by Beijing but was also a “double-edged sword.”
“China is trying to woo Taiwan,” he said. “However, I think the resentment among regular people for China is quite deep. People’s dislike of President Ma is also deep. For those two to get together in Singapore may not change people’s minds.”