China Official Uses Local Dialect to Sweet-Talk Taiwanese Skeptics

Chinese official Zhang Zhijun (center) surrounded by security staff after a meeting in the New Taipei City, Taiwan on June 26 Photograph by Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

China is trying to revive its faltering campaign to win the hearts and minds of Taiwanese. Since Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou took office in 2008, Beijing’s leaders have been wooing the wayward island it hopes to recover someday, with the two sides agreeing to reduce trade barriers and increase economic cooperation. Detente across the Taiwan Strait is particularly important now, given the acrimony between China and other neighbors such as Vietnam and Japan.

Unfortunately for the Chinese, in Taiwan’s raucous democracy, President Ma has to contend with a vocal opposition concerned about the mainland getting too much influence over the island. Hence the Sunflower Movement in the spring, when students took over the legislature and the Taiwanese government had to promise to slow the pace of integration.

No wonder, then, that Zhang Zhijun, the highest-level Chinese official to visit Taiwan since the two sides separated after Mao Zedong’s Communists took over the mainland and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) retreated to the island, tried to sweet-talk the Taiwanese yesterday. The head of the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office, a cabinet-level position, Zhang arrived in Taipei, and—as Bloomberg News reports—his first words were not in Mandarin, the Beijing-influenced version of Chinese that is the official language on the mainland, but rather in Minnan dialect, also known as Taiwanese.

“I’m afraid I don’t speak it so well, but I speak these words with all my heart,” he said, according to a report by the official Xinhua News Agency.

Give Zhang credit for knowing how to play linguistic politics. His halting greeting is a smart gesture to the island’s native Taiwanese majority, descendants of immigrants from southeastern Fujian province whose families had been on the island for generations when Chiang and his defeated Mandarin-speaking followers arrived in 1949. For decades after, authoritarian Kuomintang governments that insisted they were still the rightful rulers of all of China tried to suppress the native Taiwanese dialect in favor of Mandarin. (See this article from the early 1970s about efforts by Chiang’s government against a Taiwanese-English dictionary.)

After the end of the Chiang dynasty and Taiwan’s transition to a genuine democracy in the 1990s, Minnan dialect speakers didn’t have to whisper anymore. The Democratic Progressive Party, an opposition group with native Taiwanese as their base, used it in public, breaking the KMT’s taboo against Taiwanese in the public sphere. Today, everywhere you go in Taiwan you can hear people speaking Taiwanese, and proficiency is a near must for any politician.

Unfortunately for Zhang, people in Taiwan will be paying attention to what he says, not just the language he says it in. And China’s handling of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong hasn’t helped its cause in Taiwan. The Chinese media has huffed and puffed about the unofficial referendum sponsored by Occupy Central, with the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper calling it a joke and a farce. The Global Times also said that not just Hong Kong’s 7 million people should have a voice in the city’s future, and that since Hong Kong is part of China, the views of 1.3 billion Chinese in the mainland matter, too.

China has tried a similar argument regarding Taiwan. This month the spokeswoman for Zhang’s Taiwan Affairs Office said Taiwanese politicians were wrong to say the island’s 23 million people should determine its future: “All issues related to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity must be decided by all Chinese people, including those on Taiwan,” said Fan Liqing.

It’s not the sort of argument that will win friends in Taiwan, no matter what dialect it’s in. “China understands neither Taiwan’s nor Hong Kong’s democratic values, nor their respective peoples, which is why it resorts to talking of the 1.3 billion Chinese at every turn,” said the Taipei Times in an editorial today. “However, the more threats Beijing makes, the faster Taiwan and Hong Kong run in the opposite direction.”

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