Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, shake hands at the Shangri-la Hotel on Saturday in Singapore.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, left, shake hands at the Shangri-la Hotel on Saturday in Singapore.

A China-Taiwan handshake, 66 years in the making

It was just a handshake. Just two prosperous-looking men in dark suits walking across a hotel meeting room to say hello.

But, of course, it wasn’t. It was highly choreographed political theater, a gesture that had been discussed and negotiated for more than two years. And now, the leaders of China and Taiwan, two rivals whose hatred for each other had once seemed poised to draw the world into nuclear war, were shaking hands and smiling for hundreds of cameras. They kept it up for a full minute, turning together so everyone in the cavernous room could capture the moment from the proper angle.

For decades, that handshake had seemed impossible.

Sixty-six years ago, in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek retreated to an island across the Taiwan Strait as Mao Zedong’s forces took control of mainland China. Each man claimed to be the true leader of all of China. Each claimed the other was an illegal occupier. In the depths of the Cold War, the world lined up behind their favorite: the Eastern Bloc behind Mao and Beijing, the West behind Chiang and Taiwan.

Slowly, though, the enmity faded. Talk of war was heard less and less. Money became a common language.

First Taiwan got rich, in part by investing the wealth that Chiang’s forces had carried with them on their retreat, becoming an industrial powerhouse that churned out cheap electronics. Then, after China opened its economy, Chinese factories became the place to go for cheap consumer goods. Eventually, Taiwanese investors poured billions of dollars into the mainland.

By then, Taiwan had become an international stepchild, a not-quite country abandoned by the United Nations and forced to compete in the Olympics as Chinese Taipei. But if China became far more powerful, Taiwan wasn’t just going to give up.

Bitterness, both sides saw, was not going to achieve very much.

Which is why at 3 p.m. Saturday, China’s Xi Jinping and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou entered from either side of a ballroom at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel, walked up to one another and shook hands.

They stood there long enough so each could try out a variety of smiles: effusive, diplomatic, maybe even coy. Stuttering shadows danced behind them as hundreds of cameras clicked on and on.

You could endlessly try to parse the moment. What did it mean that Ma kept up his brightest politician smile as Xi started to look bored? Why did Ma keep Xi’s hand pulled so close?

But the men wanted no other news. Even the backdrop — a plain yellow wall — was selected to be neutral, neither the red of China nor the blue of Ma’s Kuomintang party.

They made sure the handshake itself was the news. And it was.

More in News

A Princess Cruise Line ship is docked in Juneau on Aug. 25, 2021. (Michael Lockett / Juneau Empire File)
Ships in Port for the week of Sept. 25

Here’s what to expect this week.

People work together to raise the Xa’Kooch story pole, which commemorates the Battle of the Inian Islands. (Shaelene Grace Moler / For the Capital City Weekly)
Resilient Peoples & Place: The Xa’Kooch story pole — one step toward a journey of healing

“This pole is for the Chookaneidi, but here among us, many clans are represented…”

A bracket fungus exudes guttation drops and a small fly appears to sip one of them.( Courtesy Photo / Bob Armstrong)
On the Trails: Water drops on plants

Guttation drops contain not only water but also sugars, proteins, and probably minerals.

A chart shows what critics claim is poor financial performance by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, especially in subsidizing private industry projects intended to boost the state’s economy, during its 55-year existence. The chart is part of a report released Tuesday criticizing the agency. (MB Barker/LLC Erickson & Associates/EcoSystems LLC)
AIDEA’s fiscal performance fishy, critics say

Report presented by salmon industry advocates asserts state business subsidy agency cost public $10B

Police vehicles gather Wednesday evening near Kaxdigoowu Héen Dei, also known as ]]Brotherhood Bridge Trail, while investigating a homicide. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)
Police: Woman was walking dogs when she was killed

JPD said officers are working “around the clock” on the criminal investigation.

In this photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard, a Coast Guard Cutter Kimball crew-member observes a foreign vessel in the Bering Sea, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter on routine patrol in the Bering Sea came across the guided missile cruiser from the People's Republic of China, officials said Monday, Sept. 26.  (U.S. Coast Guard District 17 via AP)
Patrol spots Chinese, Russian naval ships off Alaska island

This wasn’t the first time Chinese naval ships have sailed near Alaska waters.

An Alaska judge has ruled that a state lawmaker affiliated with the Oath Keepers, Rep. David Eastman, shown in this February 2022 photo, may stay on the general election ballot in November even though he's likely ineligible to hold public office  (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)
Judge keeps Oath Keepers lawmaker on November ballot

Judge ordered delaying certifying the result of the race until a trial scheduled for December.

Water rushes down Front Street, just a half block from the Bering Sea, in Nome, Alaska, on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 as the remnants of Typhoon Merbok moved into the region. It was a massive storm system — big enough to cover the mainland U.S. from the Pacific Ocean to Nebraska and from Canada to Texas. It influenced weather systems as far away as California, where a rare late-summer storm dropped rain on the northern part of the state, offering a measure of relief to wildfire crews but also complicating fire suppression efforts because of mud and loosened earth. (AP Photo / Peggy Fagerstrom)
Repair work begins in some Alaska towns slammed by storm

ANCHORAGE — There’s been significant damage to some roads and homes in… Continue reading

j
Sniffen indicted on sexual abuse counts

Sniffen will be arraigned Monday.

Most Read