Do Tainan Mayor's remarks point to a pro-China shift?: The China Post columnist

File photo of Taiwan's national flags on lamp posts in Taipei.
File photo of Taiwan's national flags on lamp posts in Taipei.PHOTO: EPA

Yuan-Ming Chiao

TAIPEI (THE CHINA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK)- Tainan Mayor William Lai remarking at a city council meeting on Monday that he was "pro-China and loved Taiwan" has generated a maelstrom of debate on both sides of the aisle.

On Wednesday, Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan offered his own stance: "harmony with China, love Taiwan."

Does Lai's comment - and similar ones by Democratic Progressive Party(DPP) local leaders - represent a change in the ruling party's traditional China-sceptic stance?

Not necessarily.

On Wednesday, deputy speaker and DPP member Tsai Chi-chang said the mayor's remarks did not contradict the party's charter.

Members of the opposition Kuomintang have been irked by Lai's statement, with some calling it the largest flip-flop ever, pointing out that the DPP repeatedly criticised former President Ma Ying-jeou during his time in office for being "pro-China and selling out Taiwan."

Responding to this criticism, Tsai said "the party was criticising Ma because as the country's leader his statements were weak in the face of China's pressure (on Taiwan)."

Former DPP Legislator Shen Fu-hsiung believes Lai's remark points to a calculated political strategy - one that includes a future shot at the presidency.

Shen said that while past slogans of "pro-China and selling out Taiwan" were directed at the party's opponents, Lai's new phrase was original and a potential asset to help him move toward the political mainstream.

Presidential Office spokesman Sidney Lin said that Lai's views were aligned with those of the Tsai Ing-wen administration. Strong cross-strait relations, Lin said, should not be based on political pre-conditions and "unreasonable interference."

As President Tsai Ing-wen was swept into power last year, China ushered in frigid cross-strait ties, reducing the number of tourists to Taiwan and putting a tighter stranglehold on the island's participation on the world stage.

China has also been holding a Taiwanese pro-democracy activist since March for "endangering national security" - underscoring its increasingly antagonistic approach to cross-strait relations.

Still, Beijing has shown some willingness to deal with local leaders who either support the "1992 Consensus" or downplay ideological differences between the two sides.

Kaohsiung's DPP mayor, Chen Chu, visited China in 2009 and 2013, proving that Beijing was willing to have dialogue with Taiwan's political parties beyond the pan-blue camp - under certain conditions.

It remains to be seen whether Lai's remarks represent a one-off attempt to curry favour with voters or the beginning of a political shift by the DPP.