A visit to Taiwan by a top Chinese Communist Party official from Shanghai was met with angry protest on August 22-23. Sha Hailin (沙海林), head of the party’s United Front Work Department in Shanghai, was greeted at the Taipei airport August 22 by pro-independence demonstrators shouting, “Sha Hailin, go back to China” and “Expel propaganda communist, defend Taiwan’s sovereignty.” Protesters followed Sha and Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) to a Shanghai-Taipei cross-strait cities forum on August 23.
Sha’s visit has come at a time of strained relations between Taiwan and the mainland since Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party won the presidency of Taiwan in January. Beijing broke off official contact with Taipei in June following Tsai’s refusal to acknowledge the “one-China principle” on which Beijing insists as the basis of cross-strait relations. Sha is the first high-level mainland official to visit Taiwan since official contact was broken off.
The United Front Work Department is a propaganda agency under the direct authority of the Communist Party Central Committee charged with asserting party “leadership” over non-party groups in China and abroad. The “shadowy agency” has been noted for its role in Beijing’s efforts at gaining control of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province of China. Mainland attitudes stand in stark contrast to those of Taiwan’s 23 million residents, the vast majority of whom are opposed to “reunification” with mainland China and consider themselves to be of “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese” nationality.
Beijing has shown little interest in the opinions or wishes of Taiwan’s people, insisting that “reunification” with the mainland is the only option for Taiwan’s future. The role of the United Front Work Department in Beijing’s efforts consists of attempting to manipulate public opinion and forging alliances with influential groups with the aim of neutralizing pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan. Given Beijing’s economic clout and close economic ties with Taiwan, much of this effort is directed at the island’s business and political elite, who have shown far greater willingness to bow to Beijing’s demands than ordinary Taiwanese.
In typical form as a mainland official, Sha Hailin insisted on the “one-China principle” as the basis for cross-strait relations in a speech at the August 23 forum as protesters demonstrated outside. “I believe most Taiwanese support peaceful unification and closer exchanges and cooperation between the two cities,” said Sha in willful ignorance of Taiwanese public opinion, “Some Taiwanese who opposed the forum either lacked understanding of the actual situation or did it on purpose.”
For his part, Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je said prior to the forum that the United Front Work Department has been unfortunately “vilified” in Taiwan, citing this as an example of “cultural estrangement” between the democratic island and the authoritarian mainland. Said Ko at the forum with Sha: “When we understand and respect Beijing’s insistence on some aspects, we hope Beijing can understand and respect Taiwan’s insistence on democracy and freedom.”
Protesters don’t seem to have been convinced by Ko’s and Sha’s wishful thinking on cross-strait relations, calling the Taipei mayor a “sell out” and his mainland guest a “communist bandit.” Most of Taipei’s city councilors boycotted the forum, citing Sha’s “obvious ‘united front’ intention” among other complaints. Mainland Chinese media ignored the protests, trumpeting Sha’s visit and the Shanghai-Taipei forum as a “boost” for cross-strait ties.