Talking Point

Not so cross Straits

Ordinary Chinese fascinated by Taiwan election. Beijing pleased Ma won

Celebrating a second term: Ma’s KMT leader sees off the DPP challenge with a 51.5% share of the vote

In December, Guo Zhiyong, a 35 year-old man from Xinjiang, was so excited by Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election that he decided to travel to the island to see the contest up close. Guo then spent seven hours paddling out from the mainland Chinese coast on a raft made of foam and bamboo, until he was caught near the outlying Taiwanese island of Kinmen.

After his arrest, the self-proclaimed “political researcher” told Taiwanese reporters that he had come to witness the democratic process – in a contest that pitted the China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou (of the KMT) against Tsai Ing-wen, the main opposition candidate from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“I want to see your elections, with campaign flags flying all over the place,” Guo enthused.

His reaction to the election’s result went unrecorded by Reuters. But China’s leaders, on the other hand, will probably be pleased that the island’s voters awarded Ma a second four-year term, with the incumbent polling 51.5% of the vote versus Tsai’s 45.6%.

So Beijing breathes a sigh of relief?

Although Tsai is considered a moderate in the DPP – she insists that she wants good relations with China – there were still fears that Beijing would have been riled had she won, especially as the DPP has traditionally favoured independence for Taiwan. Ma, on the other hand, has improved cross-Strait relations via economic engagement and adherence to the policy status quo (i.e. a one-China principle rather than outright independence for Taiwan). His stewardship has seen relations between Taipei and Beijing reach their cosiest level ever.

Ma’s victory is welcome news for a Chinese leadership that will be busy with its own leadership changes later this year. The US, too, will be happy enough with the election result. The White House professed neutrality during campaigning, but Ma looks the less likely of the two to stir up political tensions in east Asia. Before the election, a US official told the Financial Times that “[Tsai] left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years.”

The US has a particular interest in the result of the election since it underwrites the island’s security. It did not want to see tempers rise in the Taiwan Strait like they did in 2004 when the previous Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian of the DPP, turned up the political heat. Chen (now in prison for corruption) drove relations with Beijing to rock bottom, and turned Taiwan affairs into a headache for the US.

The other implications of the election?

“Economy first, politics later. That’s the mandate Taiwanese voters have given their re-elected leader in regard to relations with the Chinese mainland,” says the Shanghai Daily.

Since Ma was elected four years ago, economic relations have been prioritised. New business accords, a pick up in direct flights across the strait of Taiwan, agreements on tourism and a partial free-trade pact inked last year have all been part of the larger project. Taiwan’s exports to China then hit a record $115 billion in 2010, up 35% from a year earlier. Spending by mainland tourists also pumped $3 billion into the local economy.

“What this election showed is that business interests in Taiwan now trump ideological ones,” Edward I-hsin Chen, a former legislator and a professor at Tamkang University told the New York Times.

Ma, too, made a similar point in the aftermath of his electoral victory, stressing that it was a mandate for continuing good relations with China. He promised to continue to focus on economic reforms, rather than political breakthroughs, during his second term.

How did mainland Chinese react to the election?

The election was widely followed on the Chinese mainland itself, becoming the most-discussed topic in the weibo world over the weekend. All of the leading internet portals such as Sina, QQ, NetEase and Sohu had special sections dedicated to the event.

Many contributors to the debate were less interested in comparing Tsai to Ma than in contrasting Taiwan’s democratically-chosen politicians to their own unelected leaders.

Investor Wang Gongquan, who has more than a million followers on his weibo (a local Twitter-like service) compared the Taiwanese system with China’s undemocratic approach.

“Given that the mainland can’t have opposition parties and still keeps stability through violence, repression and political persecution of dissidents, my heart is filled with compassion,” he wrote.

Another popular weibo post last week contrasted a series of images of Tsai and Ma reaching out to voters with photos of Chinese citizens kneeling in front of officials.

“With a ballot, the people are in charge,” read the caption. “Without the ballot, the people are slaves.”

Others were impressed by how smoothly the election seemed to have proceeded, reigniting discussions about whether China itself is ready for a more democratic system. Western-style political processes are often portrayed as risky or alien to Chinese culture.

“If the Taiwanese can do it, why can’t we? Many leaders say that the Chinese people are not ready for democracy, but we can see from the Taiwan election that Chinese people can peacefully participate in democracy,” Li Fan, a scholar, told the Hong Kong Economic Times, responding to an earlier argument from famous blogger Han Han that China isn’t ready for full political freedoms (see WiC133).

Another blogger went for a more tongue-in-cheek approach, with another remark that soon went viral. “I truly sympathise with the Taiwanese people,” he wrote. “Not only does the president have to bow to people on the street, but the people have to fight their way through the crowds just to cast their votes. We are so much more fortunate on this side of the Strait. We already know who’s going to be the president 10 years from now.”

Another netizen wrote a little less acerbically: “We all have to thank Taiwan for teaching us an invaluable lesson about democracy, and giving us hope that we are entitled to it and we deserve to have it.”

What’s next?

Just because Taiwan voted for better cross-straits relations, doesn’t mean that the Taiwanese want reunification with ‘the motherland’.

In a 2011 poll, only 1.4% of the Taiwanese surveyed said that they wanted swift unification, and 60% favoured keeping the status quo indefinitely or until some undecided future date. Another 23% said they wanted either immediate independence, or to see the island move towards independence.

China’s ultimate goal of political union still looks a long way off.

Even state news agency Xinhua acknowledged as much. Ma’s victory “may open new chances” but the “situation in the island is still complicated,” it admitted. For those wanting further insights, it added: “There are still some long-term disputes and divergences existing between the two sides.”

Then again Party cadres are in no rush to force the issue. According to a formulation delivered to Henry Kissinger by Mao Zedong in 1975, the mainland didn’t expect a solution to the Taiwan issue for at least a hundred years.

Back to the present day, and the Chinese media took great care with its description of events, given their political sensitivity.

Xinhua termed the presidential race “the leadership election in the Taiwan area” (in keeping with Beijing’s stance that Taiwan is a breakaway province). And to avoid calling Ma “president”, Southern Metropolis Daily, which devoted nearly its entire front page to a photograph of the victor making his acceptance speech, simply put in its headline: “Ma – Victory”.

Compared to the 1996 presidential elections in Taiwan, Beijing has clearly toned down its behaviour (back then, it welcomed the event by launching missiles into the Taiwan Strait). There have been suggestions that the authorities tried to limit travel options to the island during the period, although Wang Shi, a Chinese property tycoon, made the trip and posted reports on political rallies that he had attended on his weibo.

By contrast, the Chinese leadership has remained studiously silent throughout (although its preference for Ma’s re-election was an open secret).

Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper suggests that Beijing has learned that a voluble approach is counterproductive. A threatening attitude would only have seen precious votes siphoned away from Ma.


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