How Beijing is helping Taiwanese to choose their leader

January 08, 2016 15:38
Beijing's tough line is making opposition presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen even more popular among Taiwanese. Photo: Reuters

Taiwan's people will go to the polling stations Jan. 16 to select their president and members of the legislature.

The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party's candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is the clear front-runner against the ruling Kuomintang's Eric Chu Li-luan and the People First Party's James Soong Chu-yu.

There is no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party has played a significant role in driving the people of Taiwan to make a choice to maintain the island's distance from the mainland in their own interest.

The elections are an internal affair of the island's 23 million people, but since Taiwan is the only fully democratic political entity in Greater China, the polls can be seen as a gauge of the effectiveness of Beijing's Taiwan policy.

The leaders of the mainland and Taiwan met in Singapore late last year for the first time in the six decades to prepare for closer ties in future, in an attempt to limit the room for the incoming leader to fine-tune the island's cross-strait policy.

However, what Taiwan's people want is the opposite.

They want to maintain their own identity, their own culture and their own economic structure, as well as to be able to say no to the People's Republic of China.

Most of the people on the island have failed to benefit from escalating economic and political cooperation with China.

In contrast, they have merely felt efforts from Beijing to push the government in Taipei into unification talks.

Taiwan's people want to distance themselves from the communist regime.

Growing anti-Beijing sentiment in Taiwan has helped Tsai to maintain her high support rate of more than 40 percent, compared with Chu's 20 percent and Soong's roughly 15 percent.

Taiwan's people do not appreciate the growing cross-straits ties in the past eight years under President Ma Ying-jeou.

Instead, they want their leader to cement a unique Taiwanese identity when facing the much stronger People's Republic, rather than merely being a diminutive disciple.

The ongoing case of Lee Bo and the four other missing Hong Kong men involved in publishing and selling books critical of China's leaders provides a clear picture for Taiwan's people of how the mainland is watering down the implementation of the "one country, two systems" principle as regards the city.

What Beijing is doing is no doubt adding fuel to the burning desire of Taiwan's people to defend their own interests and to keep their distance from the leviathan to their west.

On Wednesday, Tsai voiced her concern about the five missing men.

She urged the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing to give a clear explanation of the disappearance of the men, who are widely understood to have been detained by mainland Chinese authorities.

"Taiwanese people care deeply about freedom of speech, because Taiwan after all went through a very difficult period to win our freedom of speech," Tsai said, referring to the struggle by the island's people just a few decades ago against martial law.

Hong Kong and Taiwan share similar core values, such as the importance of press freedom, justice and democracy.

And they are also under massive pressure from the People's Republic as it aims to tighten its control of the two places to achieve its goal of ultimate unification of China.

The case of Hong Kong's missing booksellers has alarmed Taiwan's people, especially book publishers, as it has driven home the truth that the closer the ties with mainland China, the less the freedom they have in the choice of what to publish and the greater the risk they personally face.

Owing to pressure from the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, officially named the Republic of China, has formal diplomatic relations with fewer than 30 countries, mostly in Africa and Latin America.

Taiwan's national flag cannot be shown publicly at events attended by mainland delegations.

When Taiwanese waved their flag to support their athletes at sporting events, it triggered quarrels with Beijing, which regards the island as a renegade province and claims there is no such thing as a Republic of China flag.

The hard line taken by Beijing officials in the past decades has deeply affected how Taiwan's people view their biggest enemy (the mainland still has thousands of missiles aimed across the strait at the island), especially the younger generation who will cast their votes for the first time next week.

Many Taiwanese feel uncomfortable with the fact that the ruling Kuomintang supports the notion that Taiwan and the mainland are part of "one China" and continue to negotiate deals and develop the island's relations with Beijing.

That unease triggered the Sunflower movement in March 2014.

The massive protests by students, who succeeded in occupying the legislature, forced Taiwan's government to shelve its attempt to turn a cross-strait services pact into law.

The movement also motivated many new activists to stand in the upcoming elections as a significant third power after the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party.

One of the most high-profile of them is Freddy Lim, a singer with the black-metal group Chthonic who is challenging a Kuomintang candidate in the Legislative Yuan elections.

Two months ago, Beijing and Taipei praised their leaders' meeting as "historic" and good for both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Now, Beijing is trying to force Tsai, the likely winner of the presidential election, to accept the "one China" policy.

That has no doubt triggered more anger among Taiwan's people, who recall that at his summit with President Xi Jinping, Ma failed to show the courage to assert Taiwan's identity as the Republic of China.

Ongoing pressure from Beijing to push Taiwan to reach a political deal is backfiring, because it is spurring Taiwan's people to pick a leader to stand for themselves and not be a puppet of China.

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EJ Insight writer