Politics seen in cheap China-Taiwan flights

For Asia Times Onine www.atimes.com

TAIPEI – A deal Taiwan’s Ministry of Transportation and Communications recently brokered between business associations and five major air carriers seems laudable at first glance. Just on time for the Chinese, or Lunar, New Year – when ticket prices are traditionally sky-high – discounts of nearly 50% on cross-Taiwan-Strait direct flights are to be offered.

However, Taiwan’s main opposition party, the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has cried foul. They say the timing off the festive deal – new year falls on January 23, 2012 – is suspiciously near presidential and legislative elections to be held on January 14.

The DPP say the discounts are aimed at luring mainland China-based Taiwanese businesspeople back to cast their votes,

potentially tipping a tight race towards the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party.

Estimates on the number of taishang, as Taiwanese businesspeople and their families living on the other side of the Taiwan Strait are called, range from 1 million to 3 million. There are no official statistics from Taipei, but it is fairly certain that at least 600,000 Taiwanese reside in Shanghai alone.

Analysts agree that this “constituency” tends to support the KMT.Taishang generally prefer the KMT over the DPP due to the former’s business-friendly approach to cross-strait relations.

As Taiwan doesn’t allow absentee voting, the more taishang that jump on planes to return home and cast their ballots, the better the chances of President Ma Ying-jeou’s re-election.

Statistics from past votes suggest the taishang’s numbers can make a difference. In 2004, then-president Chen Shui-bian was re-elected by a tiny margin of only 23,000 votes; in the municipal elections of 2010, the popular winning margin was about 5%. Opinion polls show the upcoming presidential election as a neck-and-neck race between Ma and Tsai Ing-wen, the DPP’s chairwoman and presidential candidate.

Direct cross-strait flights with cheaper fares will certainly encourage Taiwanese living in China to make a new year visit.

Legitimate expatriate voters in many other democracies, such as the United States, Japan and Britain, can vote by mail. Last year, the KMT government proposed plans to allow absentee voting, but these met fierce resistance from the DPP and civic groups in fear, who cited fears that elections in Taiwan could be easily manipulated by mainland Chinese.

It was argued that as China doesn’t recognize Taiwanese statehood, it doesn’t support the island’s democratic system. Hence it might prevent ballot papers from being delivered totaishang. It was further warned that as China’s entire postal system is closely monitored by the government, ballots mailed from China could easily be doctored, and also that authorities could pressure taishang to keep a copy of their ballot paper to demonstrate their political leaning.

If a taishang couldn’t prove that he or she voted for the KMT, his or her business in China could encounter “difficulties” in in one way or another, this school of thought held.

“There are millions of Taiwanese business people working in the PRC [People’s Republic of China], and absentee voting might be manipulated by the PRC,” said Central Election Commission vice chairman Liu I-chou on December 15, 2010, effectively bringing the discussion to an end.

In 1996, Beijing fired ballistic missiles into waters off Taiwan in an attempt to prevent an election win for pro-independence Lee Teng-hui. But the move backfired spectacularly as then-US president Bill Clinton ordered two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area and Lee won a landslide victory.

This time around, it’s Tsai whom Beijing wants to prevent winning, and according to some observers, the mainland leadership is again interfering but in a much less clumsy way. Analysts say Beijing has influenced the “business associations” organizing the cheap flights.

“Through pro-China groups in Taiwan, Beijing wants to make all 1 million China-based Taiwanese business people return home to vote in the elections,” wrote the Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s major newspapers. “Taiwanese businessmen have been told that ‘if you can mobilize more votes for Ma, you will find doing business in China far easier in the future’.”

In an interview with Asia Times Online, Chen In-chin, a professor at Taiwan’s National Central University’s Graduate Institute of Law and Government, gave support to such allegations. He argued that it’s likely such a Chinese approach made the airlines offer discount flights and even shuttle bus services from the airports to the taishang’s Taiwanese hometowns.

“Of course, the airlines reluctantly lose money on this. But they might have little choice as they are keen on continuing expanding their businesses in China,” Chen said. He then described how advertisements for the discount flights in question placed on the Internet by China-based Taiwanese business associations are presented.

“The ads urge the taishang to head back to cast their ballots. It isn’t explicitly said that they should vote for Ma Ying-jeou but instead they rather broadly hint that the cross-strait status-quo must be preserved for the sake of lucrative business ties,” Chen said.

He added that as the elections draw nearer with the outcome still far from certain, Beijing is busy calculating. According to Chen, the Chinese leadership has many means at hand but has to be extremely careful to intervene in a way that’s obvious.

“At present, Beijing is trying to influence opinion by making its voice heard in academic conferences. It is alleged that the discount flights are part of the story, as well as manipulation of the Taiwanese media. But there are also concerns over the possibility of assassination attempts carried out by the local mafia to influence the elections,” Chen said.

He emphasized that by no means would all China-based Taiwanese vote for Ma and his KMT.

“To some Taiwanese, the longer they have been living in China and the deeper their understanding of the economic, cultural and political differences between China and Taiwan, the less they support the idea of eventual unification. And 30% to 40% of Taiwanese entrepreneurs even support actual independence because they believe unification would be detrimental to their own businesses.”

Chen said if Taiwan became a mainland province, significant funds would have to be transferred into Beijing’s coffers, adding that in private consultations with academics from Guangdong province – China’s top GDP earner – they complained bitterly about being China’s money tree.

“Taiwan doesn’t want to become another Guangdong. But nonetheless, about 60% of Taiwanese expats in China will still support the KMT for the pursuit of their personal economic interests, and that’s why the DPP is extremely worried about these discount flights.”

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