TAIPEI, Taiwan — China has sent its first ever ministerial-level official to Taiwan for four days of meetings to rebuild ties with the self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own, after mass protests in Taipei set back relations earlier this year.
Zhang Zhijun, minister of Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office, reached the island's main airport just before noon Wednesday to speak privately with his government counterpart about cutting import tariffs and establishing consular-style offices helpful to investors and tourists.
China and Taiwan have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. China sees the island as part of its territory that eventually must be reunified — by force if necessary — despite a Taiwanese public largely wary of the notion of Chinese rule. In 2008, Beijing set aside its military threats to sign agreements binding its economy to that of the investment-hungry island.
But in March, hundreds of student-led protesters forcibly occupied parliament in Taipei to stop ratification of a two-way service trade liberalization pact. The 24-day action dubbed the Sunflower Movement spiraled into the thousands, many of whom demanded an end to Taiwan's engagement with China, which they still see as an enemy.
"Zhang wants to show to the world, Taiwan and the mainland included, that the two sides are moving closer in spite of the Sunflower Movement earlier this year," says Lenoard Chu, a China studies professor retired from National Chengchi University in Taipei.
As the official travels around Taiwan through Saturday, he is expected to try to head off any new protests by shunning strong political statements during scheduled chats with students, low-income people and a figure in Taiwan's anti-China chief opposition party.