When the leaders of China and Taiwan met last weekend for the first time since 1949, the unseen presences in the room were the ghosts of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party’s Great Helmsman, and his bitter rival, the gaunt Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. They had been adversaries in the Chinese civil war for more than two decades, before Mao’s victorious peasant revolutionaries took power in Beijing that year.
Chiang was driven into exile on Taiwan, taking with him his Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang. The enmity of Mao and Chiang endured across a Cold War frontier—for a time, their troops hurled shells and propaganda messages at each other across the narrow strait separating Taiwan from the mainland—but they always shared a dream, born of their long struggle: “One China.”
The unification of China and Taiwan has been the sacred mission of every Communist leader since Mao, including the current president, Xi Jinping. And though the idea of “One China” today commands virtually no popular support on Taiwan, which prizes its fledgling democracy, it nevertheless clings to life as a legacy within the Kuomintang, the party of the country’s current president, Ma Ying-jeou.
Not for much longer, though. As the political heirs of China’s wartime foes reached out for a historic handshake in a five-star Singapore tourist hotel, both men surely understood that “One China” as a common goal is now as good as dead.
Mr. Ma is a lame duck, nearing the end of two terms in office. His signature policy of economic opening to China has been spurned by angry young Taiwanese who stormed the legislature last year to block a trade bill. The Kuomintang is in disarray, and the likely victor in presidential elections in January, Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, can’t bring herself to utter the “One China” mantra. Her party espouses independence, although she herself doesn’t go that far.