On November 29, voters in Taiwan go to the polls to choose their mayors, county magistrates and ward chiefs in the most important election outside the presidential and parliamentary vote.
The protests in Hong Kong are an important factor in the election. Support for the students and dismay at Beijing’s refusal to allow the level democracy Taiwan has enjoyed for 20 years has pushed people away from the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and toward the opposition Democratic Progressive Party.
Of the island’s six municipalities, the DPP holds two – Greater Tainan and Greater Kaohsiung – and is seeking to capture the other four from the KMT. Sean Lien, son of former KMT Vice President Lien Chan, is likely to lose Taipei against Ko Wen-je, an independent supported by the DPP.
Taiwan people consider the residents of Hong Kong similar to themselves, in terms of education, living standards and sophistication, and entitled to the same democratic rights they enjoy. So they were shocked by the NPC decision in July to limit narrowly the terms of the vote for Chief Executive in 2017.
“Beijing has shown itself to be colonialist and manipulative in its handling of Hong Kong,” said an editorial in the pro-DPP Liberty Times. “This has shown its promises of ‘one country, two systems’ and a high degree of autonomy to be entirely empty.”
Taiwan people were also shocked when President Xi Jinping said on September 26 that the ‘one country, two systems’ model was correct for Taiwan. He said the problem of Taiwan should not be left for the next generation. But the model was rejected by then President Lee Teng-hui within days of Hong Kong’s handover in July 1997; Premier Jiang Yi-huah rejected it within hours of Xi’s speech.
Opinion polls over the last 10 years consistently show that more than 80 per cent of people support the status quo.
“What China has done to Hong Kong only proves that its so-called promise of ‘one-country, two systems’ is nothing but lies,” said Chen Wei-ting, a leader of the ‘Sunflower’ student movement in March that occupied the legislature for a month in March. It was a model for the students here.
On October 1, 5,000 people, including high-school students, took part in a rally in Taipei to show their support for the Hong Kong protests; they carried umbrellas instead of sunflowers.
Why the HK protests help the DPP is that they feed into its narrative of fear and suspicion of the mainland.
Since he took office in May 2008, Ma Ying-jeou has made improved relations with China the cornerstone of his presidency. Mainland tourists have become the biggest visitors to Taiwan; flows of trade and investment in both directions are at unprecented levels.
This has brought new prosperity to the big Taiwan firms that are the largest investors in the mainland and the shops, hotels and tour companies that handle the visitors. But it has not touched a large segment of the population. The average income has fallen over the last 12 years.
The average monthly salary of a university graduate in Taiwan is just NT$22,000-25,000. In 2012, the average non-farm worker in Taiwan had an income of US$1,550, a fall of an average 0.31 per cent a year since 2002.
Ma is also unpopular for other domestic reasons – the high cost of housing, four food scandals in three years, indecision and poor governance and frequent changes of ministers.
The Achilles heel of the DPP is its lack of a coherent China policy. That was the main reason why Ma defeated Tsai Ying-wen, the DPP candidate, in the 2012 election. She is likely to be the candidate again in 2016, while Ma cannot run for a third term.
The DPP has moderated its anti-China rhetoric, stopped calling for a formal declaration of independence and sent its leaders to the mainland; all this is designed to show voters in the middle of the political spectrum that it can successfully manage relations with China. But Beijing still regards it with suspicion and as disloyal and committed to independence.
So, in normal circumstances, the KMT has a more convincing and persuasive China policy. But the decision of the NPC, the Hong Kong protests and Beijing’s response to it have shown the ugly face of Beijing to the Taiwan electorate.