It was a scene that stunned millions in front of Taiwan’s TV screens in late 2008. Broadcasted in a never-ending loop, visiting Chinese official Zhang Mingqing was pushed to the ground by a furious mob on the parking lot of a temple in southern Taiwan. Onlookers cheered when Zhang’s vehicle’s roof became a trampoline for anti-China protesters.
One month later after Zhang’s superior Chen Yunlin, Beijing’s top negotiator for Taiwan affairs, arrived in Taipei, brutal clashes shocked a city that has hardly ever witnessed riots.
Anti-China emotions have never since run that high in Taiwan. During the past two months delegations representing Chinese provinces and municipalities have been visiting Taiwan almost on a weekly basis. Large groups of mainland officials travel the island without being hassled. Hundreds of agreements are signed that bring Taiwan’s economy ever closer to mainland China’s, yet unlike two years ago demonstrations are far from drawing significant crowds.
The mainland’s envoys place huge orders of a wide variety of Taiwanese products. Even in southern Taiwan, the Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) stronghold, local governments and businessmen have been welcoming the spending power from across the Taiwan Straits with open arms.
Taiwan’s opposition cries foul play. It claims that the nature of the visits isn’t purely economical. According to the DPP, by sending envoys that represent provinces rather than China as a nation, Beijing manifests its claim that Taiwan is not more or less than a province of China.
“The Chinese government wants to create itself an image as the helper and the savior of the Taiwanese people through these procurement sprees”, says Hsieh Huai-hui, Deputy Director of the DPP’s Department for International Affairs, in an interview given to Asia Times Online. “Unfortunately, I am afraid that behind the visits lies a hidden political agenda.”
Every provincial and municipal delegation that has been touring Taiwan during the past two months signed dozens of purchase agreements. Since there’s a wide variety of Taiwanese industries involved, the orders are believed to bring benefits to large parts of the Taiwanese population. The envoys promised to buy everything from biotech medicine to flat panels, from food products to automotive parts. If there’s something that all agreements have in common is that they are likely to be to Taiwan’s immediate economical advantage.
Faced with millions of dollars worth of Chinese direct investment, Taiwan’s opposition naturally is having a hard time warning the public to be cautious. According to Ms. Hsieh Huai-hui, China’s supposed philanthropy raises wrong expectations among the Taiwanese. Businessmen and farmers alike are blended by the prospects of profiting by trading with China’s provinces directly, so Ms. Hsieh.
That Beijing’s attempt to conduct a change of image bears fruit is proven by the fact that Chinese provincial and municipal delegations, unlike their national-level predecessors in 2008, travel Taiwan without encountering significant protests. Early in April, Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng mingled with the crowd on Taipei’s subway trains and put himself in a favorable light by distributing toys of Haibao, the official mascot of the Shanghai 2010 World Expo, to children receiving treatment for hearing difficulties.
Apart from these PR-stunts, Mayor Han signed as many as 28 exchange and purchase agreements.
Two weeks later, Luo Qingquan, secretary of the Hubei Provincial Committee of the Communist Party of China, who led a handsome delegation of 1,000, opened the Taiwan-Hubei Week in Taipei. Hubei’s delegation is said to have ordered Taiwanese products for at least US$25 million.
A female representative of a Hubei company described in a way that likely led to a mouth-watering effect among Taiwan’s producers of cosmetics that millions of Chinese consumers are eager to see Taiwanese crèmes, shampoo and face masks on the mainland market.
Then, in the beginning of May came the governor of Fujian Province Huang Xiaojing. According to the Chinese media, direct exchanges were established between not fewer than 100 villages and towns from each side. The province governed by Huang is of particular relevance since it lies just on the opposite side of the Taiwan Straits. A forum was held were there was much talk about the cultural and ethnic connections Fujian and Taiwan have since many Taiwanese have ancestors who emigrated hundreds of years ago from Fujian Province. The forum was ended with a contract signing ceremony for Fujian companies investing in Taiwan.
Governor Huang also visited Kaohsiung, but even in this traditional DPP stronghold, nothing happened that would have shown serious public resentments.
The largest orders were planned to be placed by a delegation from Shandong Province that arrived in mid-May. Purchase agreements for NT$20 billion (US$620 million) worth of Taiwan’s agricultural, chemical, textile and food products, electronic and machinery were expected to be inked.
Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou’s government says it will sign an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in June. The plan which has cost him considerable political capital earlier this year seems to gradually be seen by the Taiwanese public in a more favorable light. Whereas Ma Ying-jeou’s approval ratings hovered around 25% in February and March, his party, the KMT, now claims them to be as high as 39%. It can safely be assumed that China’s provinces’ procurement trips have been playing a role in the improvement of Ma’s standing.
That a moderate China-stance goes down well with the majority of the Taiwanese is something also the DPP has noticed. The party’s hallmark aggressive tone towards China that was used during the Chen Shui-bian area has significantly softened. Although current chairwoman Tsai Ying-wen has been criticized by opponents within the party for abandoning the DPP’s ‘Taiwan Independence Clause’, most DPP members seemed to have realized that a strict anti-China policy will never get the support by the majority of the Taiwanese electorate.
According to Ms. Hsieh Huai-hui of the DPP’s Department of International Affairs, there’s nothing wrong with delegations from China’s provinces visiting Taiwan. What she finds alarming is what the DPP calls a total lack of transparency. As the names and backgrounds of the delegates aren’t being made public, nobody knows for sure who comes to engage in direct exchanges with Taiwan’s local government officials and the business world. Ms. Hsieh can’t believe that it’s all people who have nothing but trade in mind as it is claimed. She worries that the delegations are infiltrated with China’s political agents.
Ms. Hsieh expresses an opinion that is likely to be shared with many Taiwanese. She says: “China is so close to Taiwan and so huge. We want Taiwan and China to have very good relations, and we want to extend cross-straits trade. However, things would be much easier if China was a democracy.”