Taiwan Votes Amid Growing Fears Over Closer Ties With China

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Supporters of DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen rally in New Taipei City, Taiwan, Jan. 15, 2016.
Supporters of DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen rally in New Taipei City, Taiwan, Jan. 15, 2016.

Taiwan voters go to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president and parliament, as polls predict the democratic island could get its first-ever female leader amid growing public fears surrounding closer ties with Beijing.

The ruling nationalist Kuomintang (KMT)'s incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou will step down at the end of a second term in office, and the embattled party is fielding Taipei mayor and party chairman Eric Chu as presidential candidate in the wake of disastrous results in local elections last year.

Meanwhile, opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairwoman and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen showed a strong lead against Chu when the last electoral opinion poll was released earlier this month, despite having lost the presidential race to Ma in 2012.

The political landscape has shifted considerably since Ma's victory, however, with a student occupation of parliament in 2014 highlighting growing popular concern over the KMT's policy of ever-closer ties with the Chinese Communist Party on the mainland, analysts told RFA.

The Chinese Communist Party and the KMT nationalist party were bitter foes during a civil war that flared up after the defeat of Japan in World War II, and the KMT government fled to the island from Chongqing after losing to Mao Zedong's Soviet-backed communist forces.

The Taipei government sees itself as the legal continuation of the KMT regime that began with Sun Yat-sen's 1911 revolution and the fall of the Qing dynasty, while Beijing sees Taiwan as a renegade province awaiting reunification, and has threatened to use military force if the island seeks independence.

According to Liu Bing, Washington correspondent for Taiwan's China Times newspaper, the DPP's Tsai has strong support among younger people, the main force behind the 2014 Sunflower Movement that occupied parliament and other official buildings in protest at a proposed trade deal with Beijing.

"For many Taiwanese, it's not such a glorious thing to be Chinese," Liu said. "Perhaps if the political system on the mainland were to change one day, then maybe it would become so."

"But right now that seems like a very distant possibility."

'Not Chinese'

Many of Taiwan's 23 million residents identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and there is broad political support for de facto self-rule, if not formal independence.

Taiwan was governed separately from mainland China throughout the Japanese occupation (1895-1945) and since 1949, and has never formed part of communist China.

But Beijing is keen to preserve a 1992 consensus agreed between the KMT and Beijing that sees both political entities as part of "one China," and that policy is also a key plank in the KMT's election platform.

"On cross-straits relations, Eric Chu is continuing the current policies of the KMT, which is basically the One China policy with each side sticking to its own interpretation of that," Liu said.

A historic meeting between President Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping last year sealed the KMT's commitment to that consensus, but is unlikely to have helped the party's election hopes, he said.

"What that meeting did was to set a certain direction for cross-straits ties," Liu said. "What it means is that the two leaders will continue to hold meetings in the event that there are further concessions in cross-straits ties."

Voters worried

However, DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen's approval ratings rose the day after the presidential meeting in Singapore, leading many to predict that the island's voters are too deeply worried by the prospect of closer ties with the mainland to vote KMT on Saturday.

Kuo Pao-sheng, a political and religious affairs commentator, said the 1992 consensus implies an eventual future for Taiwan as part of a unified China, with Beijing promising a "one country, two systems" framework similar to that operating in Hong Kong since the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.

But recent developments in Hong Kong, including Beijing's refusal to allow fully democratic elections and the apparent arrest of a bookstore manager by Chinese agents within the city's jurisdiction have made that prospect less appealing to Taiwanese.

For its part, Beijing has pulled out the economic stops in a bid to swell popular support for closer ties, inviting Taiwan companies to set up shop in the mainland and investing billions in the island's economy through its state-run and state-invested companies.

The DPP's Tsai has hit out at recent plans for China to invest some U.S.$2.6 billion via state-owned company Tsinghua Unigroup as a threat to the island's semiconductor industry.

Growing influence

According to Xie Tian, professor at the University of South Carolina, Beijing has already extended its political and economic influence well within Taiwan's borders.

"The Chinese Communist Party has already managed a certain economic penetration in Taiwan, and its spies are extremely active on the island," Xie said.

"They are using their representatives and agents to exert political influence on the Taiwan elections," he said. "They have invited large numbers of Taiwanese businesses to invest in the mainland, and many Taiwan businesses have made a lot of money out of that."

"They have also been busy investing in Taiwan through private channels."

For most Taiwanese, closer ties with Beijing can only lead to a similar situation to Hong Kong's, given that the 1992 consensus assumes eventual reunification under a "one country, two systems" model, analysts said.

Losses feared

According to Kuo: "That means that Taiwan would basically turn into something like Hong Kong, so Taiwanese people are very afraid of this outcome," he said.

The KMT has tried to present itself as the party of unity with the historic meeting between the two presidents taking place as campaigning began, but that approach may have backfired, Kuo said.

"That meeting was an endorsement for the consensus that there is only one China, interpreted differently by the two sides. But ultimately, in Taiwan, it largely had a negative effect [on the KMT's campaign]," he said.

According to Liu, the KMT is also worried about retaining its majority in the island's Legislative Yuan. The party, which currently holds 65 out of 113 seats, needs to retain 57 of them to form a majority government.

"The KMT doesn't just fear losing the presidency. It fears losing seats in the Legislative Yuan as well," Liu said.

"And we're not just talking about losing its overall majority; it could be left with just a quarter of the seats, and then where would it be? If that happens, the DPP could even proceed with constitutional reforms [towards formal independence], and the KMT is extremely worried about that eventuality," he said.

According to former 1989 student leader Wang Dan, who fled China after the 1989 pro-democracy movement on Beijing's Tiananmen Square, Taiwan's democracy is now entering a new phase of pressure groups and grass-roots activism.

"Taiwan's political direction will no longer be decided by political parties or personalities, but civic groups and ordinary people acting via the Internet," Wang said in a recent interview.

"If Tsai Ing-wen is elected with a huge mandate, then I think her main challenge will come from civil society groups," he said.

Reported by Chang Li and Tang Qiwei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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