Imagine a city flush with both renminbi and Taiwan dollars, one where Chinese and Taiwanese managers, designers, researchers, and officials work together to create a harmonious “home,” and where children from both sides of the Straits play together at summer camps.
Does such a city exist? Not quite yet. But Pingtan—an island located in China’s Fujian province, just 78 miles from Hsinchu, Taiwan—is getting close.
The project began last year, on the 20th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour, a turning point in China’s economic modernization. The government designated Pingtan as an experimental cooperation zone, to be jointly developed and managed by mainland China and Taiwan. Wang Yi, director of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, called the city a “common home.”
Under the banner of “joint planning, development, cooperation, management and benefits,” the Pingtan project took off. Over the past three years, Chinese and foreign investors have poured over US$1 billion into the zone. Additionally, of the 75 new firms with foreign direct investment that have sprung up during that period, more than 80% have received funding from Taiwanese firms. Hotels, apartments, hospitals, business offices, and supermarkets now dot the island—with more to come.
Earlier this month, Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest telecommunications company, confirmed that it planned to invest 30 billion RMB (US$ 4.82 billion) in Pingtan. On February 26, delegates of Taiwan’s China Development Financial Holding Corporation (CDF) inspected the zone, and may launch investment programs as well.
Now, there is even direct mail service from Pingtan to Taiwan, and Pingtan residents can hop on a ferry and reach the city of Taichung before “ice has time to melt,” as one Taiwanese businessman put it.
Cash is rolling in; the economy is bourgeoning. Will Pingtan really transform into a cross-straits “common home?”
Cross-strait cooperation: a one-way street?
Despite such cross-straits economic cooperation in Pingtan, the Taiwanese government remains wary of the project.
Taiwanese authorities have denied Beijing’s claim that development in Pingtan is a co-pilot project. “It’s fine, [China] can do whatever it likes, but we can’t let it trick people in Taiwan into believing that it [the project] has the consent of our government,” stated Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) Deputy Minister Kao Chang last March. MAC is a cabinet-level administrative agency in Taiwan that handles cross-strait relationship.
“China has put too much of a political overtone into the Pingtan project,” MAC spokesman Liu Te-shun also said.
Former Taiwan Premier Sean Chen also warned that China has “ulterior motives” and that the project “is not as simple as it looks.” Before investing in Pingtan, Taiwanese businessmen should “look before they leap,” the administration cautioned.
Pingtan: an economic plan or a political ploy?
Since the 1949 Civil War, when the Communist Party seized control of China and the Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to Taiwan, the two sides have yet to recognize each other’s sovereignty.
In the 1992 Consensus, both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC) agreed that there is only “One China”—but with differing interpretations. Put simply, the PRC believes that it exercises sovereignty over both mainland China and Taiwan (“One China”), while the ROC also claims full sovereignty over the two lands.
The Taiwanese administration suspects that China is trying to promote the “one country, two systems” policy through the Pingtan project.
Originally proposed by Deng Xiaoping, the “one country, two systems” policy attempts to reconcile national reunification with regional independence. Regions would retain their former economic and political systems and a high level of independence while becoming a part of China. Examples of the “one country, two systems” are Hong Kong and Macau.
If Taiwan were to become officially involved in developing Pingtan, it might be seen not as a China-Taiwan project, but a Fujian-Taiwan collaboration—a project jointly run by two local governments of the same nation, writes Want China Times, the English-language website of the China Times, one of Taiwan’s largest newspapers.
China, however, denies Taiwanese claims that the Pingtan project is political.
“The plan to develop Pingtan is an economic concern, not a political one. We have never had a mind to make it political,” stated Wang Yi, head of Taiwan Affairs Office (the PRC counterpart of Taiwan’s MAC) last March.
“The plan for the zone was designed to show our friendly attitude toward Taiwan and set up a win-win situation for both sides. It has nothing to do with ‘one country, two systems.’”
Taiwanese media rejects China’s “friendly attitude”
Even if the Pingtan project is purely economic and not political, Taiwanese media nevertheless regards it as Chinese encroachment.
Pingtan offers many incentives to Taiwanese businesses and residents, including tax cuts, human resource training, financial support for off-shore outsourcing, and free primary-school education to name a few, reports the Central News Agency (CNA), Taiwan’s national news agency. Beijing also announced that it will appoint Taiwanese citizens to civil service positions in Pingtan and offer them salaries higher than are usual in China.
While some Taiwanese citizens welcome such special treatment, the Taiwanese press views it as a Chinese ploy to “steal” Taiwanese money and talent.
A journalist with Focus Taiwan, the CNA’s English-language news service, wrote:
To attract top-notch Taiwan talent to work in Pingtan, China may even offer tax incentives and allow simultaneous circulation of Taiwanese and Chinese currencies there. Only in an authoritarian country like China can such a plan be tried. The project also clearly reflects China’s strong attempt to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Taiwanese citizens and business people.
As a democratic country that upholds rule of law, Taiwan cannot compete with China in the same way. But our government cannot afford to sit idly by in the face of China’s aggressive actions to lure away our high-end talent.
Despite condemnations from the Taiwanese press, the topic has gained little public attention on both sides of the Straits.
Tea Leaf Nation recently conducted searches for the terms “Pingtan” and “cooperation experimental zone” on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. There were over 979,000 and 209,000 hits respectively. Some tweets reported news related to Pingtan; others were personal, in which Weibo users discussed their lives in the zone or their plans to visit it. Most of these Pingtan-related posts had only a few comments, or none at all.
When the Pingtan Qilindao Newspaper tweeted about Chunghwa’s involvement in Pingtan on its Weibo account, the news was retweeted zero times and received zero comment in the seven days after it was posted. Taiwanese netizens remain similarly unresponsive: none of the over twenty Taiwanese articles discussing Pingtan that Tea Leaf Nation has examined had inspired a single reader comment.
Why the silence?
Taiwanese citizens interviewed by Tea Leaf Nation explained that most Taiwanese simply do not know, let alone care, about the Pingtan project. One commented, “I supposed Taiwanese businessmen might pay attention to it, but as long as the project is economic in nature—not political—most Taiwanese people won’t care.”
Perhaps the absence of netizen reaction in both China and Taiwan stems from the lack of direct communication between the two peoples; neither group knows what the other is thinking, so they assume there is no controversy. Or, perhaps distance and the apparent irrelevance of the project render the subject uninteresting to them.
If cross-straits cooperation continues, in Pingtan and in other regions, economic ties will eventually bring political issues further into the forefront. For now, though, Chinese and Taiwanese businesses can agree to disagree, in the name of development.