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June 28, 2017

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Are pan-green mayors undermining the president's China policy?

Tainan Mayor William Lai and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je seem to be showing the Tsai Ing-wen administration that it doesn't have the final say on cross-strait relations — at least for the moment.

Lai, a rising Democratic Progressive Party star, has made a somewhat dramatic shift in discourse in recent weeks regarding cross-strait ties, so much so that his party has rushed to say that his viewpoints align with the central government's. Party central was more pointed regarding DPP Legislator Hsu Chih-chieh's stance on a "conditional '1992 Consensus,'" saying Hsu's viewpoints were his own. One Kuomintang official gleefully invited Hsu to join the opposition.

Meanwhile, Ko is embarking on a trip to Shanghai for a cross-strait cities forum, an annual ritual dating back to the KMT's détente with Beijing starting in 2009. His July 2 trip will be the first for the Taipei mayor since Tsai took office more than a year ago and is symbolic of other challenges.

For its part, the administration has urged a united stance in the face of China's increasingly aggressive moves to corner Taiwan on the international stage. The Mainland Affairs Council last week called on Taiwan's political parties as well as other sectors to take a concerted stand in the face of Beijing's efforts to delegitimize the nation.

On their own, none of these actions set a new precedent. Non-KMT local leaders have visited China before. Past presidents have also faced a showdown domestically over cross-strait politics when tension was brewing with Beijing. Local leaders represented by the opposition tried to devise their own deals with China after the former reduced the number of tourists visiting the island in response to Tsai's non-acquiescence to the "1992 Consensus."

But because these actions come at a time when Tsai's cross-strait policy is facing renewed criticism from some quarters, such local initiatives, whether concerted or coincidental, mean that the central government stance is being challenged — and by members of her own party.

Lai is currently on a trip to the U.S., and since he arrived there, the southern mayor has turned up the volume on cross-strait relations, posturing on an issue in the purview of the president. He defined his version of "pro-China" as goodwill toward Taiwan's giant neighbor that doesn't ignore Taiwan's popular sovereignty.

In Maryland, Lai said that rather than being worried about the "1992 Consensus" itself, Taiwan should be worried about what accepting it entails: unification under Beijing's terms. His forays into a topic of national and regional significance forebodes not only future political ambitions but a possibly widening gulf in the DPP leadership on cross-strait issues.

Saying that "loving Taiwan" needed to be complimented by "extending a hand of friendship to China," Lai's comments hint at a pragmatic stance — something generally associated more with the KMT than the DPP.

On the other hand, while Ko is not a member of the DPP, his decision to "remain committed to goodwill" by attending the cross-strait cities forum symbolizes that the ruling party's coalition building based on similar China-skeptic ideologies could be challenged in local elections next year. In fact, Ko's decision to make a trip to Shanghai is the latest in a series of disagreements he has had with the central government, and it may signal wrinkles in his cooperation with the DPP.

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