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    Greater China
     Mar 21, 2008
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 born here..

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 Shui-bian.

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 and products.

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 presidential race.

"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 unreliable.

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 point is.

"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 time?"

Most surveys show a majority of Taiwanese people want to maintain the status quo.

"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 declares independence.

"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 improvement."

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 system."

Cindy Sui is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.

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