SINOGRAPH Hu Jintao the real Taiwan election victor
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - Taxi drivers are divided between blue and green: if you are not the
correct political color, do not get on board. Even food vendors are split, and
people try to smell the political orientation of the host before sitting down.
Taiwan itself seems divided, with blue in the north and green in the south. The
atmosphere is frenzied on the eve of a seemingly momentous January 14
presidential election in the island that is de facto independent, but formally
part of one China.
The choice really comes down to incumbent Ma Ying-jiu, of the Nationalist Party
(the KMT), representing the blue; and the challenger Tsai Ying-wen, of the
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), green.
The KMT is officially for warmer ties with Taiwan's gigantic neighbor, the
Chinese Mainland. The DPP is in theory for a
unilateral declaration of independence from the mainland. Ma is ahead in the
opinion polls, but Tsai is following close behind, while newspapers debate
furiously who will win the vote.
Yet, it is almost sacrilegious to say it, but there is already a winner, even
before the first ballot is cast - China's President Hu Jintao.
In Taiwan, both the green and blue sides do not want to admit it because they
must downplay - each party for its own reasons - the already strong political
influence of the mainland on the island.
In Beijing, the establishment wants to hide at the moment this achievement in
reunification with the island while China is deep in preparation for the 18th
Communist Party congress next autumn. The congress will choose the new team
that will rule China in the coming decade.
Part of the debate in the congress will be about assessing Hu's performance
during his tenure: a small or great success in Taiwan could give Hu greater or
lesser power in selecting his successors. Moreover, boasting of this success
now could be mishandled and misconstrued in Taiwan's frenzied debate.
Hu is de facto the winner because no matter who is elected as Taiwan's
president, be it Ma or Tsai, it is impossible for Taiwan to move out from the
embrace of the mainland, a conceivable risk a decade ago.
A crowd of economic figures could be offered in support of the inescapability
of the embrace: the billions in Taiwanese investment in China (over US$100
billion, allegedly), the importance of Taiwan's trade surplus with the mainland
(about one-third of Taiwan's gross domestic product), and the millions of
Taiwanese living in the mainland (over 2 million).
Yet these numbers, to a certain extent, were also present 10 years ago. What is
totally new is the convenience of communications between Beijing, Shanghai and
Taiwan, with a score of flights per day and the massive presence on the island
of Chinese media and coverage of China in Taiwanese media.
News from China, Chinese tourists, and other visitors - while not yet hordes
(their numbers are still limited) - is marking a new presence in the island. Hu
has in fact obtained direct air links, naval communications, and
telecommunications between the mainland and Taiwan.
This has deepened contacts across the two sides of the Taiwan Strait to an
unprecedented level in the history of the island. This, in turn, has made life
easier and more practical for millions of Taiwanese. It is impossible to think
that Tsai - or whoever becomes the leader - would move back from the present
It is evident certainly that moves forward could be very difficult. A political
integration would mean answering very difficult questions: what will happen to
the free elections in Taiwan - or to the free press in the island? Do you
extend these institutions to China, and if so, when? What do you do with the
Taiwanese parties, and how can they talk with the Chinese Communist Party? What
role could Taiwan's leaders have in China?
Even if the Taiwanese president were offered the post of vice president of
China, as is rumored, the crucial issue would be, could he attend politburo
meetings, the real power center of China? If he doesn't, his position would be
empty, but if he does, the Communist Party will have to change its ways.
These questions are very hard to answer in Beijing, and therefore the best
thing at the moment would be to put them off. Therefore, Hu managed to put
Taiwan in an ideal position for Beijing: it is firmly within Beijing's grasp,
but nowhere near completing the sensitive political unification.
Hu achieved what was essential for the Chinese domestic agenda a decade ago:
halt Taiwan's drift toward independence, something that seemed unstoppable
then. Allowing the formal independence of Taiwan, populated by Han people (the
majority of the population in China), would have in fact rekindled independence
movements in regions of Chinese territories populated by non-Han people.
Hu's success is further proved by the fact that in the past two years, when
border incidents exasperated ties with many of China's sea neighbors (South
Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines), nothing happened with Taiwan,
formerly the major trouble spot for Beijing. Ties with Taiwan were safely
managed and are even weathering the simmering tension between China and the US,
Taiwan's main military partner for many decades.
Hu achieved all of this through a strategy of peaceful development and careful
diplomacy and without moving a single soldier or firing one shot. This model
then could be replicated and adapted on a larger scale, with all the neighbors
and the rest of the world, setting an important precedent for the future of
China's international policies.
This is a possible reason why Hu's detractors at home are keen on minimizing
his success on the Taiwan issue. If Hu's policy in Taiwan is successful, then
what is the use of increased military expenditures? The issue should be to find
a new broader political strategy.
The number of missiles pointed at Taiwan could be cut down, thus sending a very
significant message to the island and the rest of the world. But a decrease in
missiles could hit power bases in a way that would be very important to the
choices at the 18th congress.
Then paradoxically, despite Hu's real victory in Taiwan, controversies and
polemics in the island reflect back on Beijing. The green or blue anti-Chinese
rhetoric fuels the arguments of hawks in Beijing, who argue that peaceful
overtures to Taiwan are useless and tougher measures will be needed to confront
the island and the world.
The arguments are shortsighted but could gain weight in Beijing with the
frantic atmosphere before the congress. In the end, a victory for Tsai in
January would change nothing in Taipei, but could change a lot in Beijing by
giving more ammunition to the hawks the Taiwanese say they fear the most.
This ironically, proves the growing political interdependence between the two
sides of the Taiwan straits. The island political debate influences the
mainland in an unprecedented way and in a way unexpected by the Taiwan leaders.
This proves that political re-unification is already underway and that as
Beijing has cast its shadow on Taipei, also Taipei has cast its on Beijing.
Francesco Sisci is a columnist for the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore and
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org