27 June 2019
Tsai Ing-wen is on course to become Taiwan's next leader after Saturday's devastating election defeat by the Kuomintang. Photo: AFP
Tsai Ing-wen is on course to become Taiwan's next leader after Saturday's devastating election defeat by the Kuomintang. Photo: AFP

How Tsai Ing-wen will shape cross-strait politics

Saturday’s elections in Taiwan were the worst electoral result for the Kuomintang since it arrived on the island in 1949.

They were also a heavy defeat for Beijing and its strategy for reunification.

Since he took power in May 2008, President Ma Ying-jeou has brought Taiwan closer to the mainland than at any time since the end of the civil war; Beijing has built a substantial and powerful constituency of business leaders who favour reunification.

But Saturday’s vote has blown a big hole in that strategy.

In the election, the KMT won only six of the 22 cities and counties compared with 14 it held before. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gained control of seven from the KMT while independent Ko Wen-je, supported by the DPP, won the Taipei mayoral seat.

The loss of Taipei, traditionally a KMT stronghold, was the bitterest blow. The KMT candidate, Sean Lian, was son of Lian Chan, a former vice-president and a very wealthy man.

The result means that DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen is almost certain to become president in 2016.

Domestic reasons played an important part in the vote – the high cost of housing in major cities, no increase in the average wage for 10 years, falling living standards and incompetent administration by Ma and his government, such as the food safety scandals which badly hit the women’s vote.

China was also an important factor. The KMT is a party which came from the mainland; Ma’s proudest achievement since 2008 has been better cross-strait relations – direct sea and air flights, millions of mainland tourists and the start of significant investment by Chinese companies.

But the wealth this has brought into the economy has not been felt by the majority of people but gone to a small number of conglomerates who runs the airlines, tour companies, hotels, restaurants and shops the visitors use.

Instead, the public has seen their favorite destinations crowded with mainlanders, some of them behaving in ways not acceptable in an island with a high standard of public manners.

This experience of six years convinced students that a proposed free trade agreement on services with China would also bring them no more benefit but would lead to mainland firms entering the Taiwan market and taking over less competitive and financially weaker local firms.

So, in March this year, they occupied the Legislative Yuan and forced a line-by-line reading of the agreement; this has succeeded in stalling it.

Suspicion of China further deepened after President Xi Jinping said in September that the “one country, two systems” of Hong Kong was the only formula for a reunited country.

This has long been rejected by the Taiwan public and all its major political parties.

Then came the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong in which the protesters are asking for the political rights which Taiwan people have enjoyed since 1988.

Beijing’s refusal to discuss any revision of the NPC decision of August shocked the Taiwan public.

If Taiwan reunited with China, would it keep the political system? If Beijing judges Hong Kong people not fit for genuine democracy, why should it allow Taiwan to retain its system?

Beijing is angry and surprised by the vote. Since 1949, its preference has always been to negotiate the return of Taiwan with a single entity, like the family of Chiang Kai-shek or the British government over Hong Kong.

It loathes Lee Teng-hui not only because he advocates Taiwan independence but because he has transferred power to decide reunification from the KMT into the hands of its 22 million people.

For the past 15 years, Beijing has cultivated the leaders of the KMT, like Lien Chan, who feel a strong emotional link to the mainland, and heads of companies like Hon Hai/Foxconn, Want Want Holdings, Ting Hsin and President Foods, who have invested heavily in the mainland.

This strategy has succeeded in creating a rich and powerful constituency who argue for economic integration with the mainland and removal of most barriers to free movement of capital, goods and people between the two sides. Beijing believes this would lead inevitably to political integration.

Saturday’s vote has blown this strategy out of the water.

For the next two and possibly the next six years, Beijing will have to deal with a much larger and more representative constituency in Taiwan.

Beijing has never admitted the legitimacy of Taiwan’s democracy, saying that its future should not be decided by its 22 million people but all the people of China, for whom the Communist government speaks.

Therefore it is unwilling to negotiate with the Taiwan people as a whole but only with the government.

Before Saturday’s vote, it said that if they wanted to deal with Beijing, anyone elected would have to accept the “9-2″ consensus; this says there is only one China but each side may have a different interpretation of what this means.

The KMT accepts this. Mayor Ko has not given his opinion on this while the DPP does not accept the concept.

So Beijing’s strategy until the 2016 election will be to put pressure on Tsai and the DPP leadership to accept the consensus in the interests of economic pragmatism and the need to engage with the mainland on a range of issues, such as protecting its investors and citizens in China, extraditing criminals and settling commercial and personal disputes and having diplomatic space in the world.

Beijing will work through its allies in Taiwan – the big conglomerates –and the 700,000 Taiwan people who work in the mainland and their business associations.

It is betting economics will trump politics, that the dependency on the mainland market, capital and tourists will outweigh the desire for a green island in the Pacific free of the Communist shadow.

So don’t expect officials of the Taiwan Affairs Office to address mass rallies of students in the Taipei Dome.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe