Bid for better Taiwan-China relations knocked on its heels

Magnier is a Times staff writer.

China condemned an assault on one of its envoys by an angry crowd in Taiwan on Tuesday, an attack that came as the two longtime adversaries are trying to ease decades of tension.

Taiwanese television showed Zhang Mingqing, vice chairman of a mainland association handling cross-strait relations, lying on the ground beside his eyeglasses. Other footage showed an elderly woman hitting his car window with her cane and a pro-independence activist with a green headband stomping on the roof of the car.

That followed an incident Monday in which about 200 demonstrators yelled, cursed and heckled Zhang as he took the podium at Tainan National University of the Arts. Zhang was in Taiwan for an academic symposium, ostensibly in a nonofficial capacity. Taiwan and China often communicate through unofficial channels, given their strained relations.

Analysts said both sides have an interest in preventing public anger from raging out of control as they work to reduce tensions and boost transportation, cultural and business links.


“I strongly condemn the violence,” P.K. Chiang, Taiwan’s top negotiator on cross-strait policy, said at a news conference Tuesday. “We want people to be more rational when others come from mainland China.”

Beijing, however, was not soothed. The official New China News Agency condemned the incident, quoting a protest letter from Zhang’s semiofficial group, the Assn. for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits.

“We are astonished at this,” it said. And a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office called for “severe punishment” for those involved.

China and Taiwan are scheduled to hold talks in the next few weeks on improving relations. They will be closely watched, and Chen Yunlin, chairman of the association, will head the Chinese side.


China views Taiwan as part of its territory. The two sides parted ways in 1949 after an extended civil war.

In recent months, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has made improved relations a cornerstone of his administration, although the island remains politically divided.

Much of the anti-China anger in Taiwan comes from supporters of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, which until May presided over eight contentious years under the leadership of then-President Chen Shui-bian.

“It’s pathetic to see how divided Taiwan is,” said George Tsai, a professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, the capital.


“Violence is wrong and must be condemned,” he said. “It’s not in anyone’s interest if China and Taiwan go back to confrontation.”

Opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen expressed regret over Zhang’s harassment in an article in the Liberty Times. But she said China’s negotiators should think twice before coming to Taiwan for further talks since “you should consider their feelings when visiting.”

The attack on Zhang points to deep underlying tensions in Taiwan, said Lo Chih-cheng, a former official research director in Chen’s administration, arguing that the new president is moving too fast.

“This has to do with the speed and scope of Ma Ying-jeou’s opening to China,” he said. “It generates concern among people, particularly in the south.”


Zhang cut short his trip. “Why am I leaving early?” he said to reporters before his flight this morning. “The place where I was hurt is sore, and my head is a bit dizzy.”

Many Taiwanese expressed concern about the attack.

“Regardless of what position [Zhang] holds, he’s still our guest,” said Hsu Hsi-tsun, a Taipei commercial driver. “We should arrest those people and convict them. This is bad for Taiwan’s image.”

The media on both sides of the Taiwan Strait played up the confrontation. Television stations on the island aired a continual loop of Zhang being jostled by protesters at the Confucius Temple in Tainan. “Zhang beaten, pushed to the ground,” read a headline in the United Evening News.


One Taiwanese website, called Spicy News, suggested that Zhang wasn’t pushed and that his tumble was planned to test the island’s reaction.

China reported on the incident on the official wire service and major Web portals.

“I can’t contain myself anymore,” read an Internet posting by a writer identified as Gangan on the discussion group Tianyu. “Let the Taiwanese who work in China go back!”

The incident occurred as plans were unveiled to allow direct commercial flights between Taiwan and China starting next month, a move that will save 90 minutes and significant fuel and spur fare reductions. Planes now must pass through Hong Kong airspace.


Special correspondent Cindy Sui in Taipei contributed to this report.