Venue for China-Taiwan pact a potent historical symbol

Click to follow
The Independent Online

China's wartime capital of Chongqing, the venue for Tuesday's signing of a sweeping trade agreement with Taiwan, is a city with deep historical resonance for the former arch-rivals.

Dramatically perched on steep hills between two major rivers, Chongqing in the southwest is a symbol of the years from 1937 to 1945 when the Communists and the Nationalists, later Taiwan's rulers, faced a common Japanese enemy.

"By picking Chongqing, Beijing underscores the link between Taiwan and the mainland," said George Tsai, a political scientist at Taipei's Chinese Culture University.

"It is mindful of the historical cooperation between the Nationalists and the Communist party during the eight years of bloody struggle against Japan."

Chongqing was China's capital after the Nationalists, or the Kuomintang (KMT), had been driven from their seat of government in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing by a ruthlessly efficient Japanese war machine.

The need to fight a foreign invader threatening the nation's survival forced an uneasy truce between the KMT and the Communists, who had been locked in a spiral of violence from the 1920s.

Given the historical context, China may be sending a signal by deciding to sign the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with Taiwan in Chongqing, and not in another city that might highlight economic synergies, Tsai noted.

"Choosing Chongqing as the venue certainly has political implications, and this is understandable, as ECFA is more than an economic agreement," he said.

"Beijing hopes the agreement will eventually lead to the reunification of China."

On the surface, it would seem that Chongqing has long ago left the past behind, transforming itself into a huge, modern Chinese city rushing into the future at full speed.

But in between the shining high-rise buildings and behind the dusty construction sites are discreet memorials to the brief period when the KMT and the Communists were not mortal enemies.

It boasts the former residence of Zhou Enlai, the Communist representative to the KMT government in the 1940s and later, as foreign minister and premier, one of the most recognised faces of the People's Republic.

And it is home to the wartime dwelling of KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek, who was reviled in China for decades after the Communist takeover in 1949, but has seen something of a rehabilitation in recent years on the mainland.

The signing of the ECFA on Tuesday puts Chongqing right at the centre of the reconciliation that has been under way since Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou became self-ruled Taiwan's president in 2008.

But it is not the first time China's ruling communists have invited high-ranking Taiwanese visitors to come to Chongqing for tours that highlight the ties that bind.

"Chongqing and Taiwan share deep historical roots," then-KMT chairman Wu Poh-hsiung said as he toured war memorials in Chongqing on a visit in May last year.

The history is both positive and negative. Chongqing was also the shining capital of KMT corruption in the 1940s, when officers living in pampered luxury would send farm boys barefoot into battle against the Japanese.

And it was one of the last cities to be evacuated by the KMT before it conceded defeat in the civil war with the Communists in 1949 and withdrew hastily to Taiwan.

But these are not the associations that the Taiwanese visitors are lingering on this week. Rather, they meditate on how quickly an absence of 61 years can be ended.

"The distance between Taipei and Chongqing has narrowed," top Taiwan negotiator Chiang Pin-kung said upon his arrival on Monday.

"Today we spent less than three hours to get here."