Economic and strait-talk as Taiwan votes
By Cindy Sui
TAIPEI - Lily Wang's family is split down the middle on who to vote for in
Saturday's presidential election. The owner of a small homestay hotel in
southern Taiwan's Tainan city said she and her husband will vote for the major
opposition Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Ma Ying-jeou, while her parents-in-law
will cast their ballots for Frank Hsieh, the candidate of the ruling Democratic
Progressive Party (DPP).
This used to be an unusual thing in this island where families tend to act in
unison when dealing with outside affairs.
For historical and political reasons, local people from families which lived
here before 1949 like to call themselves native
Taiwanese - although their ancestors might have come from the mainland. People
from families which came here after the KMT lost a civil war on the mainland to
the communists in 1949 are considered "immigrants", though many of them were
Therefore, the DPP is considered a party which represents the interests of
native Taiwanese, and the KMT representing the interests of the immigrants. It
used to be that a family of native Taiwanese would vote for DPP and a family of
immigrants would support KMT.
But increasingly, people from the same family tend to hold different views
about who should be elected the island's next president to replace Chen
In southern Taiwan - a stronghold of the DPP - residents traditionally voted
for the DPP. But a growing number of them, like Wang, are focusing on bread and
butter issues in this election, largely because they are disillusioned with the
past eight years of DPP rule.
"In the past eight years, things have gotten worse. We haven't seen any
benefits. Life is really hard," said Wang, whose family barely manages to pay
their bills from the NT$50,000 (US$1,613) to NT$60,000 (US$1,935) a month they
earn operating the hostel.
Unlike in the 2000 and 2004 presidential races, when Taiwan's independence from
mainland China was a key issue, the economy is of overriding concern as the
island of 23 million people heads to the polls on Saturday.
Taiwan's gross domestic product growth has slowed from double to single digits
in the past eight years. Incomes are stagnating while inflation is high and
there's a sense that Taiwan has fallen behind other East Asian economies
despite once being one of Asia's "four little dragons".
The younger generation is becoming turned off by the DPP's attempts to
highlight Hsieh's family background as a native Taiwanese and his opponent Ma's
background as a child of wartime immigrants from China.
"It's silly to distinguish between benshengren [native Taiwanese] and waishengren
[immigrants]," said Renee Lin, 23, who comes from a family of longtime
Taiwanese. "What we young people care about is finding jobs. Many of my friends
who graduated from college still haven't found a job."
But the island's politics are more complicated than that.
Taiwan's relationship with arch rival China remains a key concern for many
voters. So is the fear of one-party domination by the KMT, which won nearly
three fourths of the seats in the legislature in January elections. Still, for
many the candidates' family background and identity are key factors that will
influence voters' choices.
Many DPP supporters feel the economic problems Taiwan is suffering cannot be
blamed on the DPP administration and they question whether Ma's proposal for
closer ties with China, including a common market with the mainland, will
really benefit Taiwan. Some fear this would bring an influx of Chinese workers
They also fear and oppose Chinese rule. Beijing's crackdown against Tibetan
protesters in recent days further fueled such fears.
"A lot of Taiwanese companies have moved to China in recent years ... No
country can withstand this," said Chen Ten-Jiang, a Taipei businessman who has
invested and lost money in China. "Taiwan has to have its own way, not rely on
China. For 50 years Taiwan was doing very well. Only when it wanted to go and
help [invest in] China did things become bad."
People of the older generation, like Wang's in-laws whose ancestors came to
Taiwan centuries ago, continue to distrust the KMT.
"My parents-in-law, they don't care whether the DPP does a good job or not.
They vote for the DPP because they feel the DPP is Taiwanese," said Wang.
About 80% of the population is native Taiwanese. Ma's family immigrated from
China because of the war. He was born in Hong Kong and brought to Taiwan by his
parents when he was one year old. The view of Ma as an outsider is not
restricted to the older generation.
"I don't feel Ma is truly Taiwanese," said Steve Lee, a manager at a high-tech
company in his late 30s. "He didn't begin learning the local Taiwanese dialect
until he was 40 and he probably didn't have any Taiwanese friends until then -
when he began to have political aspirations."
Even if this is not true, these views are still common among Taiwanese people,
especially those who still resent the preferential treatment the KMT gave to
mainland immigrants, including free housing and stipends for the soldiers, as
well as job opportunities. The KMT also forbade people from speaking the native
Taiwanese dialect in schools and at work. In its half century of rule in
Taiwan, the KMT was known to be corrupt even though its leaders also oversaw
the island's transformation into a powerful economy. As a result, fear of
one-party domination is still strong.
The KMT won nearly three quarters of the seats in the Legislative Yuan
(Parliament)in the January 12 legislative elections and although Ma's party
celebrated it as a victory, Ma himself held a stern face, worried that it could
harm his chances.
Many pro-DPP voters, like Lee, disillusioned by corruption in a party which
they had hoped would be cleaner than the KMT, stayed away from the polls in the
legislative elections. But many, including Lee, will turn out to vote in the
"Ma might be a good man, but I don't believe he can control his party," said
native Taiwanese Doris Liu.
Ma, a Harvard University graduate and former Taipei mayor known for his
integrity, has led his opponent Hsieh, a former human rights lawyer and mayor
of Taiwan's second largest city - Kaohsiung - by as much as 20 percentage
points in opinion polls. However, the gap has narrowed to single digits in
recent days, according to the DPP. Opinion polls in Taiwan have often been
Ma has advocated closer economic relations with China, including regular direct
flights and allowing more mainland tourists visit Taiwan. This has appealed to
voters who have grown weary of current President Chen's anti-China rhetoric
during his two terms in office - a strategy widely seen as having isolated the
island and hurt its chances of benefiting from China's economic boom.
Even Hsieh has departed from his party's traditionally pro-independence
platform. He has promised to build stronger ties with China, echoing Ma's calls
for regular direct flights and easing restrictions limiting Taiwanese
investments in China, although at a slower pace than Ma's proposals.
In recent years, China has become Taiwan's top market for its exports,
exceeding even the United States. China is also the island's number one
destination for foreign direct investment.
Compared to eight yeas ago, when the DPP first came to power, sovereignty and
independence have taken a back seat to economic concerns, but it doesn't mean
Taiwanese want to reunify with China, analysts and voters said.
"The most important thing is liberty, freedom, democracy. That's our most
important concern. We don't want to be a part of China," said a Taiwanese man
who turned out for a march to rally support for Hsieh on March 16.
For the past eight years, Chen has pushed for firmer independence from China,
but it has been to no avail and has even eroding Taiwan's important relations
with the United States. Now, a growing number of people are wondering what the
"Of course we want Taiwan to be independent, but can Taiwan really be
independent?" asked Wang, back in Tainan. "The key for me is will that help me
economically? Can I make money to support my family? And is this the right
Most surveys show a majority of Taiwanese people want to maintain the status
"They don't want unification, but they don't know whether or not they want
independence. They don't know yet," said Kou Chien-Wen, an associate political
science professor at National Chengchi University. "If China becomes
democratic, then public opinion could change. Or, if the situation in China is
unstable, then more Taiwanese people would support independence."
Analysts said regardless of which candidate wins, it may not necessarily bring
about a warming of relations between Beijing and Taipei, although it will
likely ease tensions between the two sides.
Both Ma and Hsieh have called for closer economic ties with China, but both
candidates have also criticized Beijing in recent days for its Tibet crackdown
and objections to two referendums seeking United Nations membership for Taiwan.
Ma, who is seen as more pro-China than Hsieh, has also vowed to not engage in
unification talks with China. Taiwan has been ruled separately from mainland
China since the end of a civil war in 1949. However, Beijing sees the island as
part of its territory and has threatened to reunify by force if Taiwan formally
"I think cross-strait relations will improve under either Ma or Hsieh, but they
are more likely to improve faster under Ma," said Joseph Fewsmith, a political
science professor and China expert at Boston University. "But the People's
Republic of China [PRC] has its concerns about Ma. They think he is very smart
and will push them hard on human rights and other issues. The PRC could deal
with Hsieh too, though they would have to get around the 'One China' issue
which can be done if both sides are willing ... From the PRC's point of view,
the worst is over."
In perhaps one of the most unique aspects of Taiwan's election, Ma has
repeatedly said in presidential debates and other occasions that he is
Taiwanese - something unusual for a president candidate from any country to
have to do.
"I grew up eating Taiwanese food, drinking Taiwanese water ... I am Taiwanese,"
Ma said in a nationally televised debate with Hsieh. "I'm willing to sacrifice
all for this land and its people."
If Ma is elected, he will be the first KMT president since the DPP ended a
half-century of rule by the KMT by winning the 2000 presidential election. And
it would be the first time the majority longtime Taiwanese had elected a
president who is not a native Taiwanese, but from the waishenren or
immigrant minority. To political analysts like Kou, it would be a sign of
progress in Taiwan's march towards democracy.
"The biggest problem with Taiwan's democracy is the problem of ethnicity - the
fact that some voters are concerned more with a candidate's ethnicity, not
whether he has done a good job or not," Kou said. "If Ma is elected, it means
voters don't care where you're from anymore - you still have an opportunity, as
long as you do well. If not, you will be voted down in four years. That's an
But some ordinary people are less optimistic.
"If Ma is elected, there will still be corruption among the KMT lawmakers. Ma
can't control that," said Hsu Wen-Shan, a Taipei resident.
Another was equally cynical about the political system: "What Taiwan has is not
yet a mature democracy. We don't have an independent, high quality judicial
Cindy Sui is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.