TAIPEI – To all the Taiwanese who wondered what to expect of their country’s political landscape in 2011, the days before Christmas yielded puzzling clues. When Chen Yunlin – chairman of the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), Beijing’s organ responsible for negotiations with Taiwan – met with his Taiwanese counterpart for the sixth round of high-level cross-strait talks in Taipei, what was seen on the island’s TV screens were never-ending loops of barricades and walls of police keeping back all those who did not wish that Taiwan warmly welcome the envoy.
There were staunch advocates of Taiwanese independence, university students demanding that China release Nobel Peace
Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, and, as usual, a few dozen Falun Gong practitioners who held silent sit-in protests. Yet striking was what wasn’t there, and that was demonstrators mobilized by Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). For DPP members and supporters had explicitly been told not to come by chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen.
But it’s not only the DPP’s Tsai who surprised people by a move that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Taiwanese who flipped their morning paper open during Chen’s visit were greeted by a political advertisement promoting the Republic of China (ROC) flag, which, as it implies Taiwanese statehood, is such anathema to China that Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) government ordered police to forcefully confiscate ROC flags from protesters on earlier visits by Chen Yunlin. Nonetheless, the ad – an outright affront towards the distinguished Chinese guest – wasn’t paid for by Taiwan’s opposition but by the KMT government itself. More precisely, it was financed by the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC), a cabinet-level agency responsible for the planning and implementation of policies linking Taiwan and mainland China.
So what does one make of a DPP that refrains from protesting the arrival of Beijing’s top negotiator, given that the party has been avoiding cross-strait rapprochement like a plague ever since its founding? And of a KMT that all of the sudden paints itself like an organization promoting Taiwanese independence? The answer that suggests itself is that in 2011, the story of how Taiwan’s political parties present themselves vis-a-vis cross-strait relations is to take on a curious twist.
On November 27, Taiwanese voters elected the leaders of the island’s five biggest municipalities. Although local polls, they were seen by all sides involved – including Beijing – as a precursor to legislative elections later this year and presidential elections in 2012. The result was quite surprising. Whereas the KMT against high hopes harbored by the opposition held steady in its strongholds Taipei, Xinbei and Taichung, the DPP clearly won the overall vote, a circumstance that proves the party has what it takes to counterbalance the KMT in the coming elections.
Through the November elections’ failure to produce a clear winner, both sides understood that it’s not the time to rest on one’s laurels. To win in 2011 and 2012, neither the KMT nor DPP can solely rely on their traditional voter bases, but must instead take on the political moderates. And if it’s not that easy to grasp what those moderates want of Taiwan’s future leaders, it’s certain what they don’t want: on the one hand, no declaration of Taiwanese independence and on the other, no integration into China. Therefore, the party that is seen as steering straight towards unification will likely not be elected; and the party that functions as a stumbling block to the extension of lucrative cross-strait trade ties won’t either.
Soon after the municipal elections were concluded, senior DPP members who played prominent roles under former pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian launched a campaign to oust chairwoman Tsai, blaming her for having failed to beat the KMT decisively. Even the imprisoned Chen added his own two cents, but to no avail. Chairwoman Tsai and her young pragmatists within the DPP not only survived the coup but came out significantly strengthened. In a survey conducted after the polls, 71.4% of the respondents voiced support for Tsai to remain in her post, and her approval rating as DPP chairwoman reached 67.3%. In view of these figures, for the DPP to get rid of Tsai – perhaps replacing her with someone closer to the old-guard pro-independence faction – would amount to political stupidity.
“In the DPP, there is currently no one who can replace Tsai,” says Chou Ying-lung, a lecturer at National Chengchi University’s Department of Political Science. “There’s no doubt that her position has been strengthened since the elections, and the party is now trying to show that it’s moderate about cross-strait relations.”
If the DPP fails to come up with a cross-strait policy that caters to all those Taiwanese who benefit from ties to Beijing, which have been built up during KMT President Ma Ying-jeou’s term, it’s almost beyond imagination how it could win the coming elections. An estimated 800,000 Taiwanese work on the mainland, and a deterioration of cross-strait ties through a stubborn pro-independence party coming into power in 2012 would negatively affect their livelihoods, as well as that of their dependents. This would possibly account for a few million Taiwanese out of the island’s total population of 23 million.
And also to those without personal links to the mainland, President Ma’s being on good terms with Beijing has been producing some convincing incentives: Close to 2 million mainland tourists visited Taiwan in the first eleven months of 2010, creating business opportunities for many Taiwanese and foreign exchange amounting to US$3 billion.
A total of 62 mainland trade groups have been sent to Taiwan since August, 2008, signing more than US$1.62 billion worth of letters of intent with Taiwanese businesses, many of which are medium-sized. And Beijing has all along been targeting the areas in Taiwan where the population traditionally doesn’t want to have anything to do with the other side of the Taiwan Strait.
Whether it’s where mangoes are picked or fish like grouper are raised for Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong dinner tables, Chinese delegations have been there, placing significant orders that guarantee sustained profits as long as the tap isn’t turned off. But that is exactly what could happen if the DPP regains power in 2012 and continues its pro-independence course.
Apart from not endorsing protests against Chen’s visit, Tsai came up with another move that signals a DPP rethink of its cross-strait stance. At long last, the DPP decided to establish a think tank for research on how the party should engage with the other side of the Taiwan Strait.
But whether this will be enough to convince voters that cross-strait negotiations would be in good hands with the DPP is questionable. A recent survey found that 49.8% of respondents believed it’s the KMT and not the DPP that can ensure the development of peaceful relations between Taiwan and the mainland without compromising the national interest.
The DPP only got 26.4%. Asked if the DPP should adjust its policies toward the mainland, 53.7% said its policy should be more open, and 54.5% said it would benefit Taiwan if the DPP interacted more regularly with China. These figures likely give DPP strategists some food for thought.
“The DPP is still finalizing new ideas about cross-strait relations. Chairwoman Tsai has a draft of a ten-year policy plan, but it still requires some revision,” says Tsai Chia-hung of the Election Study Center at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. “Moreover, the DPP does not want to show its plan too soon, but instead chooses to let the KMT single-handedly handle cross-strait relations.”
According to Tsai Chia-hung, the DPP will put its platform cautiously and gradually on the table before the legislative election, trying to force the KMT to skate alone on the thin ice of cross-strait relations for the time being.
And while the DPP under Tsai Ing-wen begins going to great lengths to paint itself as a party that won’t cut off lucrative relations with China, the KMT also has work to do. To grab the much-needed share of moderate voters, it must counter the opposition’s nagging accusations that it “sells out Taiwan”. The printing of the ROC flag in newspapers coinciding with Chen’s visit was just one of a series of maneuvers to reach this objective.
President Ma has also on numerous occasions demanded that Beijing remove the missiles it aims at Taiwan, in spite of both the incumbent and former defense ministers having told the legislature that those missiles are “of no substantial military significance.”
And seemingly every time he comes across US officials or western reporters, Ma has been asking the US to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan, but intriguingly the weapons he persistently asks for are mostly the ones he knows that Washington won’t sell, such as F-16C/Ds and larger submarines. Some of the weapons he realistically could obtain aren’t on his wish list.
On the occasion of a visit to the US, MAC Minister Lai Shin-yuan significantly – and certainly deliberately – irked Beijing by describing its Anti-Secession Law targeting Taiwan as “something unnecessary”.
And National Security Bureau (NSB) director Tsai Der-sheng, in strikingly strong wording, referred to Chinese business groups visiting Taiwan as part of a “Chinese Communist Party (CCP) plot to launch a unification campaign”. He further branded all mainland leaders, including the heir apparent, Xi Jinping, as stubborn nationalists about the Taiwan issue. When Ma had MAC minister Lai say that Taiwan’s future should be decided by its 23 million people – as opposed to the people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait – Beijing immediately announced that “Taiwan is China’s core interest”. Ma nonetheless repeated Lai’s statement in his own recent New Year’s speech.
While this kind of provocation from Ma and officials doing his bidding may sound a lot like DPP-style pro-independence talk to Beijing’s ears, it would surely bring him votes from politically moderate, mainland-skeptical Taiwanese if deployed shortly before the elections. And anyway, in case the situation should tilt too much in the DPP’s favor, the CCP is very likely able to pull a rabbit out of the hat right in time. It has allegedly already laid the groundwork for a stratagem of its own.
According to Chen Yaw-shyang, an assistant professor of public policy at National Taipei University, this was Chen Yunlin’s real objective in his recent visit. Professor Chen says that officially, Chen Yunlin came to sign a few agreements, but his actual purpose was to bring some information regarding last-minute support Ma can expect from Beijing before the legislative and presidential elections. “Chen Yunlin was in reality the disguised Santa Claus from Beijing, carrying secret gifts for the Ma government”, the professor said.