Taiwan and China this weekend held the first-ever meeting between the top leaders of their countries. The goal was to show how similar the two nations are, with shared language, history, and economic interests. But what is usually the most boring of affairs—a political press conference—revealed much more about their differences.
The two presidents, Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan and Xi Jinping of China, met on Saturday (Nov. 7), in neutral territory, Singapore. They exchanged handshakes, niceties, and vague promises in what was a largely symbolic meeting. After that, each side gave a 30-minute press conference.
Presidents rarely reveal new information at press conferences, even when faced with the most damning questions. But forcing them to evade such questions is an essential role of a free press, and no real press conference is without its awkward backpedalling and obvious contradictions.
Ma, a democratically elected leader, gave a real press conference. (You can watch the video, in Chinese, here.) Xi Jinping, appointed by the Communist Party’s rubber-stamp congress, did not.
Ma, for example, faced a question about Chinese ballistic missiles, widely known to be aimed at Taiwan. Ma said that Xi assured him that these missiles are in fact “not aimed at Taiwan.” The claim is pretty absurd: According to the Pentagon (pdf, p. 59), China’s Second Artillery Force is “prepared to conduct missile attacks and precision strikes against Taiwan,” and estimates these missiles to number in the thousands. People in Taiwan frequently joke uneasily about the potential destruction these missiles could bring at any moment.
So the reporter from Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) pushed back. “Mr. President, you said that you and Mr. Xi discussed the reduction of hostilities between the two sides, and that the people of Taiwan are very concerned about China’s missile deployments. Did you or did you not make explicitly clear to Mr. Xi that these deployments should be removed?”
The evasiveness of Ma’s answer showed that he had not made any such thing explicitly clear. “I told Mr. Xi the concerns, misgivings, and hopes of the Taiwanese people, and asked him to take them seriously,” Ma replied. And so the pressure continued. A reporter from another Taiwanese TV station said Ma’s request to Xi about missile removal “seems to have fallen on deaf ears.” Ma also faced repeated questions from CNN and other Taiwanese reporters about whether he had asked Xi for more recognition on the world stage.
Contrast that to the press conference (video in Chinese) on the Chinese side. For one thing, Xi Jinping was unwilling to face the press himself, sending instead Zhang Zhijun, the minister of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office. He gave a lengthy speech, read entirely from a script. After that, he allowed only three questions, each from a news outlet known to be sympathetic to the Chinese side. Here are the three softballs he got:
Xinhua News Agency (China): How would you evaluate the impact and importance of this summit on present and future cross-strait relations?
China Review (Hong Kong): Official status and naming is always a challenge in cross-strait relations. How did you resolve that challenge for this summit?
Want Want China Daily (Taiwan): With only 70 days until Taiwan’s national election, what is the purpose of holding this summit now? Will summits like the one today continue in the future?
And perhaps most telling of all: CCTV, the official Chinese broadcaster, did not show the live feed of the Taiwanese president’s press conference to mainland viewers. Official media only have summaries of it, though some images of a full transcript do not appear to be blocked (link in Chinese) on Weibo, for now at least.
China probably didn’t want people seeing it for a few reasons. Maybe Communist Party leaders were afraid that Ma would say something taboo, or that Chinese viewers would hear Western journalists referring to Taiwan as a “country.” But more than anything, maybe they were just afraid of showing people in China how a democratically elected, Mandarin-speaking leader behaves at a real press conference.