1995 / 4月
Elaine Chen /tr. by Phil Newell
On the eve of this lunar new year, PRC President Jiang Zemin issued an eight-point statement regarding relations with Taiwan. Premier Lien Chan of the ROC responded to Jiang's statement. As a result, relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait have entered the era of "discussion."
In addition, recently the government has been strongly pursuing entry into the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, has applied to host the Asian Games, and is laying out plans to turn Taiwan into an "Asia-Pacific Regional Operations Center." A key factor in whether or not these ideas can succeed is cross-strait relations.
Vincent Siew, the newly named chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, has served as head of several government economic and trade agencies, has vast experience in international negotiations, and is the originator of the "regional operations center" notion. Do these facts suggest that there will be a change in mainland policy in his tenure? Or will Siew simply continue the policies set by his predecessor Huang Kun-huei? Whatever the answers may be, Siew has become a center of media and public attention.
"Premier Lien has said that the axis of mainland policy will be trade and economic relations. To me this simply means that the axis will be Vincent Siew," says Wang Ming-yi, a senior reporter covering cross-strait affairs for the China Times.
To be sure, the element of last December's cabinet reshuffle that was most popular in the business community was Siew's transfer from the chairman-ship of the Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD) to the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC).
A number of leading businessmen, including Wang Yung-tsai of Formosa Plastics and Wang Ling-lin of the China Rebar Group, expressed "enthusiastic expectations" toward Siew. They felt that Siew would be able to use his trade and economics experience to inject new life into substantive economic relations across the Taiwan Strait.
"At the very least, he is very clear about everyone's needs, and he cannot pretend that he doesn't understand Taiwan's businessmen," says William Wu Shang, president of Chung Shing Textiles, with a laugh. Everyone remembers very clearly the things Siew has said to them in face-to-face meetings.
Vincent Siew has always had very close ties to the business community. When he was Minister of Economic Affairs, he was named in a public opinion poll as the government official with the closest links to the commercial sector.
In fact, entrepreneurs have long known about Siew's qualities. A number of years ago the then Minister of Economic Affairs Chao Yao-tung appointed Siew director-general of the Board of Foreign Trade (BOFT). It is said that Chao, who had no special personal relationship with Siew, selected him for this key post partly because "business people recommended him."
It's not very difficult to see why businessmen are so fond of Siew if you go back over his official career.
In December of 1978, the US unilaterally broke diplomatic relations with the ROC. In this time of crisis, Siew was assigned to go to the US where in only two weeks he negotiated and signed an emergency "Sino-American Trade Agreement," thus consolidating the foundation for the next ten years of economic prosperity in Taiwan.
Over the last couple of decades Siew has represented the ROC in negotiations nearly 100 times. Each time he returns home, the cameras catch an exhausted Vincent Siew: obviously much thinner, his features drawn from stress and lack of sleep.
Perhaps the moment that made the single greatest impression on people was after his return from negotiating the opening of Taiwan's market to turkey imported from the US. Dissatisfied local farmers pelted him with eggs. Yet through it all Siew just stood his ground and smiled. The image of "Smiling Siew" who could persevere through insults and accept heavy responsibilities was deeply imprinted in the minds of citizens. Later, as Minister of Economic Affairs, he went to Kaohsiung in person on many occasions to finally persuade local residents to accept construction of the Fifth Naphtha Cracker in their area. As chairman of the CEPD, he twice represented President Lee Teng-hui at meetings of the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC), firmly establishing his status as an international economic leader.
"Now that Siew, an expert in negotiations and communication, is head of the MAC, people cannot help but wonder if President Lee's policy will change direction and become more open. Does it mean that mainland policy has entered a new stage, and that relations between the two sides will improve through discussions?" So ponders Chen Chung-shin, director of the Policy Research Center of the Democratic Progressive Party. The conservative image of former chairman Huang Kun-huei did not fit in with the idea of a more open policy, but that of "Smiling Siew," with his economic background, does.
"The shift from Huang Kun-huei to Vincent Siew suggests a major shift in policy," argues Wang Ming-yi. He points out that Siew brought with him to the MAC Fu Don-cheng, who was the executive secretary of the Ad Hoc Committee for Improvement of Economic and Social Legislation of the CEPD and the primary drafter on Siew's behalf of the regional operations center proposal. (Fu is now director of the Department of Economic Affairs at the MAC.) According to Wang, this indicates that the MAC and the CEPD are already two sides of the same coin. "The transfer of Vincent Siew has given the mainland a hint of change in Taiwan's policy. They have begun to respond in a very friendly manner. They chose this time to release Jiang's eight point statement," surmises Wang, drawing rather bold conclusions.
Leaving aside for the moment the accuracy of such assertions, at the very least we can say that the fact that Siew's appointment preceded Jiang's statement shows that Taiwan had already taken the initiative.
Yet, when Siew's appointment was first announced, not only did he feel somewhat nonplussed, his subordinates at the CEPD were also startled. "Chairman Siew was still in the middle of four major projects--the regional operations center plan, the application to GATT, the national pension proposal, and the mapping out of land use for the nation," says CEPD vice chairman H.H. Tsai. "Nevertheless, a nation must be able to rely on its overall system, and, in any case, the policies have for the most part already taken form. In his new post he should be able to make an even greater contribution to the country."
In fact, Siew--who began his career as a diplomat--is no stranger to cross-strait affairs. He studied international affairs in graduate school. Even before completing his studies he finished first on a special exam to enter the Foreign Ministry. So obviously he has a strong background in diplomacy and politics. After entering the realm of economic affairs, Siew--as director-general of the BOFT--first sounded out the business community, then devised the model of indirect trade between Taiwan and mainland China, and suggested to then-President Chiang Ching-kuo that it be implemented. Thereafter, Siew always attended ministerial meetings on mainland affairs, and, as chairman of the CEPD, he became a formal member of the Mainland Affairs Council.
Nevertheless, despite high expectations that Siew would produce an early breakthrough, the situation took an unexpected turn.
Recently the third set of talks was held between Tang Shubei, vice-chairman of mainland China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), and Chiao Jen-ho of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF, a semi-official body representing Taiwan in contacts with the mainland). It was expected that the talks would achieve some agreements, but instead they were broken off. Once again people began saying that "the Mainland Affairs Council [which gives the SEF its instructions] did not delegate enough authority to the SEF." Some in the media even criticized Siew by saying that he was merely following the old pattern set by Huang Kun-huei. Many in the business community assumed that they would rapidly achieve their cherished goal of direct travel and shipping between Taiwan and the mainland after Siew's assumption of the MAC chairmanship. But now they hear Siew intoning, "the guiding principle must be the nation's dignity and the well-being of our 21 million compatriots."
Has Vincent Siew changed?
"Cross-strait relations are after all not in the international realm. That, plus the fact that everything he says is placed under a microscope, has made him more cautious," says Paul Kuo-bao Chang, deputy director of the Department of Data and Information Services at the SEF.
Hu Fu-hsiung, who has been with Siew ever since the latter's days at the BOFT and who is now secretary to the chairman at the MAC, says that Siew seems different only because the nature of his role is different.
"You have to take into account the domestic, international, and Chinese Communist reactions in mainland policy. This policy will affect the well-being of 21 million people, so naturally Chairman Siew is being prudent. His role is no longer that of a pure technocrat, as it was when he was handling economic affairs."
This situation is more understandable when the nature of mainland policy is taken into account.
Peng Chui-ming, director of the Commercial Times, points out that the setting of mainland policy is a very complex process. The MAC cannot simply act based on economic considerations, but must finely balance the positions of all the actors. As everyone knows, President Lee is the final decision-maker on mainland policy, and the National Reunification Council and the National Security Council both have considerable influence. "Don't just look at Siew's close relations with the business community and his image as someone who communicates well, and then assume the posture will change. That is not possible."
Furthermore, there are great difficulties in developing mainland policy. Peng notes that the mainland has adopted a very rigid policy and attitude, so that even if Taiwan would prefer to engage in friendly exchanges, it is necessary to be reserved. "I think it will be difficult to have a major breakthrough. But this is not a vote of no-confidence in Vincent Siew's abilities, and in fact he is a very pragmatic official," he concludes.
"The reality of cross-strait relations is that they are very limited by the overall situation," says Shi Hwei-yow, deputy secretary-general of the SEF. The mainland has always adhered to the idea of "one country, two systems" (implying a single sovereignty in Beijing), while Taiwan has always proposed "one country, two areas" (implying divided nation status, as in Korea). Neither side finds the fundamental starting point of the other acceptable. Moreover, the two sides are concerned about different issue areas, so that the agendas of the two sides often do not fit. For example, Taiwan wants to discuss the repatriation of illegal immigrants from the mainland. In response, the mainland argues that the immigrants cross to Taiwan looking for work, and if Taiwan would simply legalize the hiring of mainland laborers, the problem of illegal immigration would disappear. They would thus rather talk about liberalizing restrictions against hiring mainland labor. "The two systems are different, we are concerned about different issues, and the fundamental way that each side sees itself and the other side is different. Moreover, in Taiwan there is the domestic division between those favoring independence and those favoring reunification. Therefore, it is impossible for cross-strait discussions to produce an out-come in the short run," cautions Shi.
But if it is really true that mainland policy will be about the same no matter who is in charge, then why go to all the trouble of shifting personnel? Is it possible that Siew's appointment has nothing more than symbolic meaning?
Faced with this question, Chairman Siew himself says that while the basic posture will not change, he hopes that more flexible methods can be adopted. For example, although it is still not possible to achieve direct travel, direct postal links, and direct shipping between the two sides, Siew has already asked the Ministry of Transportation and Communications to draw up a plan for an "offshore operations center." This would allow third party ships to transport products manufactured by Taiwanese firms in mainland China directly to designated ports, where they can be further processed and then re-exported.
Differences in personal style will also have an impact on the quality of decisions. Shi Hwei-yow, comparing the former and current chairmen, notes that Huang Kun-huei had his background in education. In meetings he emphasized broad discussion, which he would guide in hopes of bringing others around to his point of view. Siew works more quickly, exerts a greater degree of authority, and demands efficiency; he is more in the style of economic man. "Chairman Huang cooked slowly and let things stew, whereas Chairman Siew goes for high heat and pan frying. But either way the meat is the same."
The point deserving the greatest attention is this: With his vast international negotiating experience, in this "era of discussion" Vincent Siew can perhaps bring his skills to bear in mapping out strategy behind the lines.
"Perhaps in the future Chairman Siew will more thoroughly implement his personal negotiating ideas," suggests Shi. Over the past four years, there has been some progress in cross-strait relations, and it is necessary to digest and assess the cumulative experience of these years. In the past only the SEF was involved in negotiations, but now the organizational structure will become more overlapping. In the past, the SEF distinguished between negotiations at the levels of chairman, secretary-general, and vice-secretary-general, and the SEF official of a given level would only negotiate with a mainland counterpart at the same level. Now, in order to increase flexibility, there will not be hard and fast distinctions between the levels. Moreover, in the past there were only negotiations on limited issue areas. Now there will also be sub-units discussing economic and cultural affairs.
"There must be an overall strategy behind these plans in order to insure overall control and a firm grasp on developments," continues Shi. Siew is very experienced in this regard. You could say that Siew's appearance at this juncture--when cross-strait relations move into the era of discussion--is timely.
Vincent Siew certainly is well-known internationally for his negotiating skills. Michael Chang, currently deputy secretary-general of the Taiwan Textile Federation, should know: When Siew was deputy director-general of the BOFT, Chang served for six years as director of Siew's negotiating staff and participated with Siew in thirty rounds of international trade negotiations. In his view, "Mr. Siew is not sharp-edged or harsh; he is extremely cool and careful, always speaking mildly and never saying anything too severe."
Chang feels that this is essential to good negotiating. Only by keeping his or her wits can the negotiator coolly observe the counterpart's position, concepts, demands, and offers, and even sniff out the other side's minimum acceptable bottom line. Siew is very willing to seek out extra chances- -such as after-session meals--to clarify things for the other side. He uses a soft approach to break deadlocks. Moreover, because he has built up an image over many years as a man of reason, his counterparts are very willing to talk with him; there have even been cases of the other side asking for him by name to negotiate particularly sensitive issues. He is able to make friends with his counterparts once they leave the negotiating table. These informal interpersonal relationships are very important to Taiwan, which lacks formal diplomatic ties with most nations. Sometimes when the other side's position is especially rigid, Siew has gone through alternate channels to clarify his position and to moderate the other side's antagonism. "When the other side is willing to coolly hear out our difficulties, then it becomes much easier to reach an agreement."
In fact, the image Siew gives of being able to ignore insults while handling heavy responsibilities is a trait developed in him through negotiations.
Michael Chang recalls one occasion when he, Siew, and Lin Yi-fu (the current director-general of the BOFT) went to Geneva for the Sino-American trade negotiations. At that time the Americans put forth extremely rigorous conditions, and took a very hard line: Either accept the conditions, or we'll abrogate our bilateral agreement. When the day's talks were over, the three strolled along the lake in a state of anger and sadness. How should they respond?
Chang still remembers very clearly what Siew said at that time. "If we reject the conditions, we'll be greeted as heroes by the media. They'll say we have spine, and would not accept an insult to the nation. But it would be a serious blow to the international reputation of the ROC to lose the agreement with the US. Moreover, an absence of order in the export of textiles would be bad for local industry. If we break off talks now and then try to reenter negotiations with the US later, we will be in an even worse position."
With these considerations in mind, notes Chang, the problem became how to extract the best possible terms for Taiwan within the framework of the American conditions. In the end, the negotiating team gave up things that Taiwan really didn't need, but in return got to keep some things that were very important to local industries.
"As a negotiator, you absolutely cannot think of your personal image and expect to be applauded as a hero. You can only present your case well, and feel that you have made a contribution to the country, and give yourself a pat on the back. You always have a heavy cross to bear," says Chang.
Today, Siew is in the process of making requests of the SEF based on his own ideas about negotiating. He says that there is in fact no problem about how much power the SEF should have delegated to it: "The function of the SEF is to do only what it has been given the authority to do, nothing more. Negotiators should report to those in charge about what is happening on the front line, and those in charge will make the decisions. But negotiators should never promote their own views."
In fact, this is perfectly acceptable to the SEF. Secretary-General Chiao Jen-ho says that people in the SEF feel they can rely on Siew's fast-paced style. Shi Hwei-yow says that the SEF is empowered by the government to undertake negotiations; since they are working at the government's behest, naturally they should loyally follow what the government tells them to do.
But Siew, with his wealth of experience, knows that he must look after the interests of both sides. On the one hand, he has been strengthening discipline in the SEF, but on the other he is allowing the SEF to participate in the MAC's task force on cultural and educational affairs, in order to strengthen ties between the two agencies.
It seems that Siew has already taken preliminary steps to better coordinate the SEF and the MAC. But he has a still greater challenge before him.
"Right now there are two major parties plus a significant smaller third party in Taiwan. We cannot be like the mainland, where they rely on whatever Deng Xiaoping has decided. There is always 'background noise' on our side. In the past the MAC always played of the role of keeping its foot on the brake. For the future, one of the biggest challenges for the MAC will be to build a consensus and play a mediating role," says Chen Chung-shin of the DPP. For example, if the government and opposition parties do not communicate routinely, but simply adopt extreme positions at election time and then let the voters decide, this could be very destabilizing.
There is certainly a great deal of controversy over mainland policy in Taiwan. The MAC often takes public opinion polls before implementing a particular policy initiative. It is said that, typically, one-third of the public will disagree with the proposed policy. Once, disappointed with this result, they asked people their views on the exact opposite policy, and again one-third disapproved!
It is like the story of the father and son riding the mule: A father and son brought a mule to sell in the market. Along the way, a bystander ridiculed them for having a mule but not riding it. So the father got on the mule. However, a woman then reprimanded him for not loving his son. The son then got on the mule, only to be accused by yet another onlooker of lacking in filial piety. Then they both got on the mule, but were again reprimanded for being cruel to animals. Finally, with no other options, they strapped the mule to a pole and carried it over their shoulders. But the mule could not stand it, and struggling to free itself, it fell into the water and drowned.
Today, the reins of the mule have been put in Vincent Siew's hands. He will have to rely on a great deal of political wisdom to build a consensus and reach the destination.
With the approach of the "era of discussion" between Taiwan and mainland China, the transfer of expert negotiator Vincent Siew from the Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD) to the Mainland Affairs Council has created new expectations among the public. (photo by Hsueh Chi-kuang)
In 1993, Siew attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Seattle as a special ambassador of President Lee Teng-hui, and participated in meetings with the leaders of various nations. (photo courtesy of the Central News Agency)
"Smiling Siew" also has his moments of tears. The photo shows Siew at a send-off party held for him by his colleagues in the CEPD. At right is his wife Chu Shu-hsien. (photo by Tung Chun-fei)