Beijing Vice Mayor Ji Lin, second from right, greets Chiang Pin-kung, chairman of Taiwan's Straits Exchange Foundation, in Taichung in December. (Takio Murakami)Zhao Zhengyong, vice governor of Shaanxi province, enjoys local dishes at a namesake village in Taiwan's Changhua county. (Takio Murakami)
TAIPEI--Amid the more relaxed atmosphere between Taipei and Beijing, local Chinese officials have engaged in a spending spree in Taiwan in an apparent effort to soften resistance against reunification on the island.
And although those delegations signed contracts worth a staggering $20 billion (about 1.7 trillion yen) with various Taiwanese entities last year, the consensus in Taiwan seems to be that China's reunification ploy will prove futile.
Since Ma Ying-jeou became Taiwan's president in May 2008, Taipei has been trying to reduce tensions with Beijing brought about by the previous Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration.
In 2009, local Chinese government officials began visiting Taiwan in droves, agreeing to buy huge amounts of Taiwanese products.
Specific targets for Beijing are the central and southern areas of Taiwan, the tradition power bases of the DPP.
That aim was made clear in a September 2010 speech by Jia Qinglin, who is in charge of Beijing's efforts to reunify Taiwan and who also serves as chairman of the People's Political Consultative Conference.
"I hope more colleagues from the continent will visit various areas of Taiwan, especially the central and southern parts, to meet with local people and remove any barriers that may exist," Jia said.
Although some of the $20 billion in contracts signed in 2010 is spread out over several years, the overall figure is significant when compared with the $100 billion in total exports from Taiwan to China between January and November 2010.
The biggest spending delegation was led by Huang Huahua, governor of Guangdong province, that visited in August. A total of $7 billion was spent on products ranging from fruits to electronic products.
Part of the delegation visited a seafood processing company in the Xuejia district of Tainan, a city that strongly backs the DPP. The members agreed to buy 500 tons of fish paste dumplings over a three-year period for T$100 million (about 280 million yen or $3.3 million).
The company chairman, Wang Wen-zong, backed the DPP in the 2008 presidential election, but said, "I will no longer be involved in politics because what is important is developing industry and improving the lives of fishermen."
Visiting Chinese officials have toned down direct talk about reunification and are instead emphasizing the sense that they are all comrades.
For example, in mid-September, a delegation from Shaanxi province led by Zhao Zhengyong, a vice governor, visited a village, also named Shaanxi, in Changhua county. The village is considered fertile ground for interaction because of the perceived historical ties between it and the province.
When Zhao said, "To the people of our hometown, we will depend on you when we want to buy agricultural products," the audience burst out in applause.
The delegation visited a school within the village, but did not complain about the Taiwanese flag on display.
Chinese officials have also taken into account Taiwan's political calendar. In October and November, governors, mayors and their deputies of Chinese provinces and special municipalities refrained from visiting Taiwan. The visits only resumed in mid-December, when Ji Lin, a Beijing vice mayor, led a delegation.
A Taiwan source said Chinese officials stayed away because of the mayoral elections in five major Taiwan cities in late November. There were concerns that even a minor comment during that period might have given momentum to the opposition parties.
Although trade ties are growing tighter, reunification is an entirely different issue. Even the ruling Nationalist Party is showing concerns about Beijing's motives.
In October in the Legislative Yuan, Tsai De-sheng, the director-general of the National Security Bureau, was asked about the visits by local government officials.
He acknowledged: "It is an effort by China for reunification."
Tsai Ing-wen, head of the DPP, cast doubts on whether China's moves will sway the Taiwanese.
"I do not believe it is an effective measure for reunification to purchase agricultural products that are more costly than what is available in China," Tsai said.
Even those who favor reunification do not believe the spending spree will help.
Chang Ya-chung, a political science professor at National Taiwan University, said: "Business ties are a relationship between friends. Even if the relationship becomes close, they will not become brothers."
In a September public opinion poll in Taiwan about reunification and independence, 86.2 percent of respondents favored the status quo.
While 47.5 percent of respondents considered Beijing's stance "unfriendly," only 34 percent considered it "friendly."
There has been very little change in those numbers over the past two years of the Ma administration.