China's first-ever summit with Taiwan is one for the history books

GlobalPost
A placard against the meeting between Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, due to take place in Singapore this weekend, during a demonstration outside the parliament in Taipei on November 4, 2015.
Sam Yeh

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NEED TO KNOW:

It’s yet another diplomatic summit where everyone knows in advance that nothing concrete will happen. Two leaders will shake hands, take some photos and probably say something vague about friendship. And yet, for all that, this weekend’s meeting between the presidents of China and Taiwan will be one for the history books.

The encounter, announced unexpectedly last night, will be the first time that the leaders meet. We don’t mean just these two leaders, Xi Jinping of China and Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou, but any Chinese leader and any Taiwanese one, ever. The two sides haven’t held talks once since Mao’s Communists forced Nationalists to retreat there during China’s civil war, 66 years ago.

Ever since then, there have been two Chinas: the People’s Republic of China, governed by the Communist Party that Xi represents today, and the Republic of China, less confusingly known as the sovereign state of Taiwan. The ROC introduced democratic reforms while mainland China, well, stayed China. Beijing continues to view Taiwan as a wayward province that will eventually return — or be returned — to the fold.

The Taiwanese opposition, which will take on President Ma’s party in elections two months from now, accuses Beijing of calling the landmark meeting in a bid to influence the outcome of that vote. If so, it could backfire: polls have the pro-independence opposition candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, in the lead and voters don’t tend to take kindly to meddling, especially by a country that openly seeks to run theirs. When Xi meets Ma this Saturday in Singapore, it might be in everyone’s best interests if they stick to smiling for the cameras.

WANT TO KNOW:

The things the US does for democracy. So committed is Secretary of State John Kerry to taking Freedom (™USA) round the globe that he’ll roll up his sleeves and put out his hand to some distinctly non-freedom-loving people.

This week the USA’s top diplomat has been touring the “’Stans”: those five nations in Central Asia that share a final syllable, a Soviet past and not-much-more-democratic present. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are each governed by strongmen with a reputation for flouting democracy and systematically abusing human rights. The president of Turkmenistan, for instance, likes to build monumental golden statues of himself. Uzbekistan’s has been accused of having prisoners boiled alive. At least Kazakhstan’s president is legitimately elected — with an entirely non-suspect 97.7 percent of the vote.

These are the good folks with whom John Kerry has been posing for photos. Why? It’s the Russians, stupid. Washington is none too keen for the Kremlin to continue treating the strategic region as its own backyard. 

STRANGE BUT TRUE:

They call Guinness “the black stuff.” Because that’s a lot more appetizing than “the semitransparent whitish stuff,” which is how the dictionary describes one of the velvety stout’s lesser-known components: isinglass.

You’ll forgive us for having to look the word up. Until this week, only vigilant vegetarians, vegans and perhaps ichthyophiles would have recognized it on an ingredients list. But the announcement by the brewers behind Ireland’s most famous drink that they’re removing the substance from their recipe has made a whole load more people wonder what the mystery item could be.

And the answer is: fish guts. Fish air bladders, if we’re being precise. The gelatinous substance makes the live yeast particles in unfinished Guinness stick together in a clump so that they can be — ahem — fished out.

But from next year, the original Guinness brewery in Dublin will trial an alternative method that doesn’t involve fish bits getting in your pint. Yay! Which is not to say that isinglass isn’t commonly used in the production of other beers and wines. Boo! Nor that all sorts of unmentionable parts of animals don’t go into foods and drinks that we’d usually assume were vegetarian. Ugh, really? Yes. Bottoms — and bladders, and stomach enzymes — up.