25 October 2016
Chinese newspapers give prominence to the meeting between President Xi Jinping and Kuomintang leader Eric Chu in Beijing. Photo: AFP
Chinese newspapers give prominence to the meeting between President Xi Jinping and Kuomintang leader Eric Chu in Beijing. Photo: AFP

Beijing plan to set election agenda in Taiwan may backfire

The political reform package being considered by the Legislative Council was devised in Beijing and is being strongly promoted by its agents in Hong Kong.

The comments by President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Monday were the start of another political campaign — for the Taiwan presidential election of January 2016. There, too, Beijing wants to set the agenda.

He was talking to Eric Chu Li-luan, chairman of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). It was only the third meeting between the leaders of the two parties and the first in six years. The first two were talks (會談), but Beijing changed the definition of this one to meeting (會見).

This reflects the enormous gap in status between the two men. Xi, 61, is president of the world’s second biggest economic and military power and the power to fire more than 1,200 missiles in south and east China that would level the cities of Taiwan in a matter of hours.

Chu, 54, is only mayor of New Taipei City and became chairman of the KMT in January, the single candidate replacing President Ma Ying-jeou after the party’s calamitous defeat in local elections last November. It won only one of six mayoral seats — the one held by Chu.

All this makes Democratic Progress Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ying-wen the probable winner in the presidential elections next January. Chu has not said if he will be a candidate. Some advisers are telling him not to run and avoid a certain defeat and save himself for the next round in 2020.

In the light of all this, why should Xi talk to him at all?

He was talking not so much to Chu but to the voters of Taiwan. For Beijing, a KMT victory is of course preferable to a DPP one. It also prefers Chu to Wang Jin-pyng, who has been president of the Legislative Yuan since 1999; he also has not said if he will run.

Wang is a native Taiwanese who was recently endorsed as a candidate by former President Lee Teng-hui, whom Beijing regards as a “sinner for 1,000 years”. Chu’s family comes from Yiwu in Zhejiang.

Xi was setting out reasons for Taiwan’s people to vote for the KMT next January. We will give you economic benefits and “more international space” in the form of membership to regional bodies, like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road of Land and Sea, he said.

The condition is that you accept the “1992 consensus”, agreed by the Communist and KMT parties – but not the DPP – which says that there is only one China, of which each side has a different interpretation. Tsai does not accept it and calls it “wishful thinking” on the part of the KMT.

“If I win the 2016 election, my party will work to maintain the status quo between Taiwan and the mainland,” she said in March. “Cross-strait relations must remain peaceful and stable.”

But that is not good enough for Beijing. It does not want the status quo; it wants relations – including trade, investment, technological and personal – to become increasingly close. So the integration of the two sides becomes irreversible and unification is achieved without military force.

Since Ma came to power in 2008, this process has accelerated. China, including Hong Kong, accounts for 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports; China is its second largest supplier of imports and largest provider of tourists. Mainland firms are investing in many sectors on the island and their money is flowing rapidly into the property market, despite attempts to restrict it.

Vote for Tsai and the DPP and we can slow or turn off the tap of tourists, investment and students: this is the message from Xi. We can exclude Taiwan firms from the deals offered by the AIIB and the Silk Road.

Xi will win the votes of most of Taiwan’s business community, especially the conglomerates which earn a majority of their revenue and profits from operations on the mainland.

But his words may have the opposite effect on those who voted for the DPP last November. They believe the integration with the mainland is going too quickly; they have received no economic benefit from it anyway.

Last March, more than 100,000 protested against a trade agreement with China that would have opened many new sectors; the protest has stalled the deal.

Events in Hong Kong are not a good omen for Taiwan either. If the reform package is passed, it offers a level of democracy well below that which citizens of Taiwan now enjoy. If it is not passed, it will lead to a new era of social and political conflict.

Neither is the model of a Special Administrative Region that is designed to attract Taiwan’s people to “rejoin the motherland”.

Some Taiwanese say that, as Hong Kong is “mainlandized” (香港大陸化), so their country is being Hong Kong-ized (台灣香港化). Xi may have to find another campaign speech.

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Hong Kong-based journalist and author. He had worked as a correspondent for the South China Morning Post in Beijing and Shanghai.

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