Tension, drama and a long shake of hands

The media waiting in the ballroom during the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday. There was tension as the journalists jostled for a good spot and it took the low-key entrance of Mr Xi and Mr Ma
The media waiting in the ballroom during the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou yesterday. There was tension as the journalists jostled for a good spot and it took the low-key entrance of Mr Xi and Mr Ma to silence the media pack briefly before the burst of camera flashes.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The handshake between Xi and Ma lasted 81 seconds as the media jostled to capture the historic event

A 66-year rift. An unusually long handshake lasting 81 seconds. An hour-long summit meeting followed by back-to-back press conferences, each lasting 30 minutes.

These are the numbers that some might remember about the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou at Shangri-La Hotel yesterday.

But hard numbers do not tell the full story.

It was a historic event after all, which meant it would have its share of tension, drama and some light- hearted moments.

Frayed nerves were visible early on among the 600-plus registered journalists, all worried they would not get a good view of the first-ever meeting between the leaders of China and Taiwan, estranged since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.

Many began queueing in the morning to clear security in the hotel lobby and to enter a ballroom where the handshake would take place at 3pm. There were heated moments early on when the queues became disorderly and queue-cutting took place.

To the credit of the hotel staff, and officials, including those from Singapore who responded to a request for help by the Chinese and Taiwanese governments, order was restored.

Inside the ballroom, tensions rose again as the media jostled for a good spot. At one point, there was mass chanting by those at the back to get those in front to move aside, or to lower their cameras so as not to block the view.

It took the low-key entrance of Mr Xi and Mr Ma to silence the media pack briefly before the burst of camera flashes started.

Mr Xi reached the room's centre, ahead of Mr Ma, who took an extra step forward for their historic handshake.

Both leaders smiled for the cameras - Mr Xi's smile a bit more reserved - and kept their hands locked for 81 seconds.

In an adjoining room, six senior aides from each side were waiting for the meeting to begin. When the presidents entered, both responded gamely to requests for them to wave for the cameras.

When they sat down at the long table, a mad media scrum ensued. There was a loud thump as someone fell.

Mr Xi was the first to give the opening remarks. He spoke for about three minutes, followed by Mr Ma. It is said that each leader had five minutes.

When Mr Ma overran his time, Chinese security officers began ushering the media out, though their Taiwanese counterparts asked the Taiwan media to stay until Mr Ma had finished speaking. The Chinese security officers asserted themselves and got the entire media out.

Following the meeting were the two press conferences, the first by China's Taiwan Affairs Office head Zhang Zhijun and the second by Mr Ma himself.

A Taiwanese journalist provided drama throughout. She shouted at the top of her voice to try to get the attention of Mr Zhang and later Mr Ma. She voiced her unhappiness with the Singapore media for asking questions about what she said was a Taiwan issue. Later, she scolded her President for not answering her question.

But a good-humoured Mr Ma, whose dinner with Mr Xi reportedly included suckling pig, abalone and lobster, provided some levity when asked about the handshake. "It felt very good. We both shook hands with a lot of strength," he said, triggering laughter from the media after a long, hard and historic day.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'Tension, drama and a long shake of hands'. Print Edition | Subscribe