Taiwan faces historic decision in coming election

April 23, 2019 11:28
With Foxconn chief Terry Gou (pictured here offering prayers in a temple) jumping into the fray, Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election has become even more interesting. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan’s 23 million people may face a historic decision in the coming months as the island prepares for a fateful presidential election in which relations with mainland China will be the crucial issue.

Party leaders of all stripes were jockeying for position last week amid rising cross-strait tensions when the entire political establishment was suddenly shaken up after Foxconn chief Terry Gou, who counts both Donald Trump and Xi Jinping as his friends, announced that he is running for president.

Like Trump, Gou is a billionaire businessman with no experience in government. Foxconn, best known for making iPhones and other Apple devices, is mainland China’s largest private employer with over a million workers in factories across the country.

Gou’s candidacy may well change the nature of the campaign and the election next January may effectively become a referendum on Taiwan’s future: whether it is inexorably heading toward “peaceful reunification” with the mainland or whether war is rendered more likely by a defiant Taiwan insisting on independence.

While few in Taiwan want an immediate change in the status quo, the biggest political issue is whether the island should eventually unify with China or be permanently separate.

In the last 20 years, power has changed hands between the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, historically dominant in Taiwan and seen as friendly to China, and the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

In previous elections, candidates from both sides took moderate positions. Thus, Ma Ying-jeou, who led the KMT back to power in 2008, pledged a policy of “no unification, no independence and no war.” He reached many economic agreements with China while shunning political issues.

Of pivotal importance was Ma’s acceptance of the so-called 1992 consensus, which the KMT defined as “one China, separate interpretations.” The KMT accepted that Taiwan and the mainland are both part of one China, but differed as to which was the legitimate government.

However, when Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP gained power in 2016, she rejected the so-called consensus while accepting Taiwan’s existing laws and constitution, which treat Taiwan and the mainland as parts of China. Despite this, Xi ended official contact with Taiwan.

Instead, China stepped up pressure on Taiwan. It has poached five of the handful of countries that recognized Taipei, leaving only 17. Military pressure, too, has strengthened, with Chinese fighter jets crossing the center line in the waters that separate the island from the mainland earlier this month.

Tsai, who is running for re-election, is being challenged by the strongly pro-independence William Lai, who had served as her premier. A poll of DPP members showed him leading Tsai 55.1 to 26 percent.

On the KMT side, Wu Den-yih, party chairman and former New Taipei City mayor, and Wang Jin-pyng, former legislative speaker, have announced their candidacies. The party also wants to get Han Kuo-yu, newly elected mayor of Kaohsiung, to run but Han, only in office a few months, is reluctant to do so. Polls show Han substantially ahead of Tsai and, recently, leading Lai as well.

As things stand, Gou stands an excellent chance of winning the KMT nomination, especially if Han stays out. Thus, Taiwan’s voters may be faced with the choice of a strong pro-independence candidate and a clearly pro-unification one. This would be the closest Taiwan has ever come to a referendum.

If elected president, Gou is likely to move Taiwan much closer to China, unlike the DPP, which seeks better US ties.

Gou opposes arms purchases from the US. Instead, he thinks that Taiwan should maintain good relations with China to avoid forceful integration, and has called Xi “a great leader.”

Xi has called for “in-depth democratic consultations” on unification. If Taiwan under Gou accepts such talks, it would be tantamount to an agreement to seek political integration.

China has not commented officially on Gou’s candidacy but Global Times, published by the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, said in an editorial, “If Gou becomes Taiwan regional leader, cross-straits tensions would be eased.”

But, the editorial suggested, it makes little difference who wins the election because “the mainland is committed to reunification.” It concluded: “If Taiwan authorities are moderate, the mainland can execute the task in an unhurried manner. If Taiwan authorities are radical, the task will be more urgent. But the task will eventually be carried out in any case.”

Gou’s deep economic involvement in the mainland makes him vulnerable to Chinese pressure. If he were to become president, how would he position Taiwan and where would he take the island in the long term? The voters in Taiwan deserve to know the answers to those questions before they cast their ballots in January.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.