BEIJING - When Taiwan voters go to the polls to elect their new president and
vice president next January, they may once again prove Beijing's efforts to
leverage Taiwan's domestic politics are in vain, a development that could
affect Chinese President Hu Jintao's political legacy, analysts suggested.
As part of efforts to win support from the Taiwanese people since President Ma
Ying-jeou was elected in March 2008, Beijing has green-lighted direct flights,
sent tens thousands of tourists and
senior government officials to the island and signed a free trade agreement to
help boost Taiwan's economy.
With all the soft and friendly gestures backed by policy decisions, Beijing
hoped Ma would return the favor by agreeing on political negotiations with the
mainland before Hu steps down in the autumn of 2012. But that plan could be
derailed if Ma fails to win re-election early next year, a distinct possibility
with polls showing support more or less split between him and opposition
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai King-wen.
"The election will definitely be a test of Hu's Taiwan policy," said Chang
Wu-uh, professor of the Graduate Institute of China Studies at Taiwan's Tamkang
University, "Beijing definitely prefers the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, but
they don't know how to help the party win again."
According to a US Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks allegedly issued on
February 27, 2009, the US has learned from at least two sources that Hu
believed his Taiwan policy should be his primary political legacy. Hu
established a "research team" to develop a "new way forward" on Taiwan as early
as 2006, hoping "to do something big" on Taiwan, the cable said.
On December 31, 2008, the Chinese president introduced "six points" toward
Taiwan, including firm adherence to the "one China" principle, strengthening of
commercial ties, promotion of personnel exchanges, stressing of common cultural
links, allowing Taiwan's "reasonable" participation in international
organizations and negotiating a peace agreement.
Since then, the "six points" has served as Beijing's blueprint for cross-strait
relations. In June 2010, Beijing and Taipei signed a historical free trade
agreement, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, to bind the island's
economy closer to China's.
The efforts, however, haven't been as fruitful as Beijing hoped. Some analysts
suggested that Beijing is now concerned the pro-independence DPP's return could
lead to criticisms of Hu's blueprint and make it impossible to add his Taiwan
policy to his political legacy.
According to China-based diplomats, as part of Beijing's efforts to intervene
in Taiwan's presidential election, Chinese officials and academics have been
smearing Tsai as irrational by connecting her with former DPP President Chen
Shui-bian's confrontational polities. Washington-based analysts have also
suggested China's Taiwan affairs officials have privately expressed hope for
intervention by the Obama administration to help boost Ma's popularity.
"If the opposition party candidate wins, Beijing will find it tough to explain
to the public why Taiwanese people failed to vote in its favor," said a former
senior cross-Strait policy official in Taipei who spoke under the condition of
anonymity, "That's why they are so anxious."
According to the latest poll conducted by Taiwan's Global Views Survey Research
Center in mid-September, DPP chairwoman Tsai has a very slight lead on Ma, by
36% to 35.8%. However, this survey was based on the scenario of another pro-KMT
candidate James Soong Chu-yu, also joining the race.
Without Soong, Tsai's support rate is one percentage point lower than Ma, at
38.3% to 39.2%. However, Soong, chairman of the People First Party (PFP), has
already announced he would run, a factor complicating the neck-and-neck race.
Public satisfaction rates over Ma's performance have remained under 35% in the
past six months, the center's polls showed. Ma, who received 58% of the votes
when winning the presidential election in 2008, has been under criticism for
failing to fulfill his economic promises, which include reaching 6% annual
gross domestic product (GDP) growth and keeping unemployment rate under 3%.
Last week, domestic think tank the Polaris Research Institute lowered its
forecast of the island's growth for 2011 to 4.73%. Meanwhile, the
Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics announced on September
22 that the current unemployment rate was 4.45%.
Beijing saw the KMT's return to power in 2008 as a crucial chance to promote
unification. In 2009 and 2010 alone, Beijing sent 1.7 million Chinese tourists
and 13 senior provincial officials on high-profile visits to Taiwan, hoping to
help boost the island's lackluster economy. In May 2010, Fujian provincial
governor Huang Xiaojing led a 3,000-member delegation to Taiwan, claiming he
had procured $24 billion Taiwan dollars (US$783 million) worth of orders from
Taiwanese companies, shortly after Shanghai mayor Han Zeng led a delegation
that granted $1.8 billion Taiwan dollars in businesses to Taiwan.
But statistics show Taiwan's contributions to China's economy might have been
more significant. By the end of August, Taiwan had approved US$163 million
investments from China, compared with Taiwan's $107 billion total investment to
China, according to Taiwan's Investment Commission. From 2009 to the end of
April 2011, the total number of Chinese tourist visiting Taiwan reached 2.2
million, while 11.2 million Taiwanese tourists visited China in the same period
China's rapprochement policies also haven't won much praise from the Taiwanese
people, and Beijing has called off high-profile visits by senior officials this
year. Some analysts in Beijing acknowledge that China's approach has been too
"Beijing has got the framework right, not the details," said Liu Zhen,
professor of Tsinghua University's School of Marxism, "Winning the hearts and
minds of Taiwanese requires emotional involvement, not just political
China has tried to influence Taiwan's presidential elections since its first in
1996, when it launched missile-tests to intimidate voters choosing from
President Lee Teng-hui, who was seen as moving foreign policy away from the
One-China policy. In 2000, China's prime minister Zhou Rongji warned Taiwanese
voters not to make any impulsive decisions.
Two decades later, Beijing faces a dilemma. Douglas Paal, vice president for
studies at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
argued in an article published by the institute last month that " if it [China]
chooses to speak up forcefully and threateningly against the DPP in the run-up
to the election, experience indicates - and Chinese leaders know - it will
provoke a negative reaction among Taiwan’s voters and could drive them to
support the DPP."
However, political analysts in Taiwan stress that cross-Strait relations are
only one element of Taiwan's democracy, with voters possibly not considering
Beijing's behavior as an issue when they vote. According to polls and studies,
domestic affairs and economic issues dominate Taiwan's electoral landscape.
DPP's Tsai, who was in charge of the DPP government's China policy from 2000 to
2004, has tried to appeal to as many voters as possible, declining to
acknowledge Beijing's "One China" principle. This has concerned Beijing and
"Tsai Ing-wen's priority is to get elected now, not to get cross-Strait
relations right," said Chang Wu-ueh at Tamkang University.
Meanwhile, Washington want to see the current Taiwan-China engagement remain
strong, and has raised concerns about DPP's China policy.
Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at Washington based Center for Strategic and
International Studies, said that China's bottom line is "one China" - the
Chinese are willing to be somewhat flexible on how it is defined - they
understand that the DPP views this as a KMT-CCP consensus.
"There might be other ways that 'one China' could be defined that could be
acceptable to the mainland. The question is whether any definition of 'one
China' would be acceptable to Tsai. And that question remains unanswered," she
But analysts in Taipei said what Beijing needs to do now is withdraw itself
from Taiwan's elections, saving space to deal with either of the elected
candidates next January. By doing so Hu could have a chance to rescue his
legacy on Taiwan.
Nonetheless, China analysts still believe a thorough policy review should
follow the election. "No matter who wins the election, we would need to
re-evaluate our Taiwan policy as the gap between our expectations and reality
remains far too wide," said Liu Zhen at Beijing's Tsinghua.
Yvonne Su is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.
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