Taiwan and China: an electoral prelude

Kerry Brown
3 July 2008

The reaction of the People's Republic of China (PRC) to events that touch on its sense of sovereignty and territoriality has long been predictable. An election in what Beijing regards as its renegade province of Taiwan, for example, would be greeted by a familiar combination of bloodcurdling rhetoric and threatening action: orchestrated denunciation from the central government, endless broadcasts on the main TV stations of rockets being fired somewhere (with the implication that they were being trained on the small island off mainland China's southeast coast), and statements by army and government leaders refusing any suggestion of political compromise on what they regarded as a fundamental issue. The message to the world as well as Taiwan itself was clear: there is only one China; Taiwan is part of China; and Beijing will resolutely oppose any attempts to sunder the motherland.

Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House, and director of Strategic China Ltd. His most recent book is Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007)

Also by Kerry Brown on openDemocracy:

"China's top fifty: the China power list" (2 April 2007)

"China goes global" (2 August 2007)

"China's party congress: getting serious" (5 October 2007)

"Shanghai: Formula One's last ride" (15 October 2007)

"Beijing's political tightrope-walk" (12 March 2008)

In 1996, I was based in China during the first elections in Taiwan (formally the "Republic of China") that could be called genuinely democratic, when the four-decades-long authoritarian rule by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) over the island was challenged by the emergence of an opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The KMT's official candidate for the presidency was the incumbent Lee Teng-Hui (who had been president since the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in January 1988, and was regarded with suspicion by Beijing as a - in one of the key weapons in its rhetorical armoury - "splittist").

The Chinese government indeed mobilised against Lee in dramatic fashion by undertaking military manoeuvres in the South China Sea, which made the prospect of actual confrontation appear so likely that the United States was induced to deploy two aircraft-carriers in defence of its Taiwanese mini-ally. The effort was (again, predictably) counterproductive: a thumping majority for Lee - followed by four years of arguments, as the new president manipulated tensions with the mainland to gain domestic support.

By 2000, the DPP had developed enough - and was able to benefit from a split in the ruling KMT - to see its own candidate Chen Shui-bian mount a serious challenge to the presidency. During the campaign he too was the object of a series of vitriolic attacks from China - which, as with Lee Teng-hui in 1996 - was notably unsuccessful in achieving its apparent objective. In 2004, Taiwan's election was again conducted against the background noise of mainland Chinese government apoplexy: it even called Chen and his government (which supported Taiwan's independence) "criminals for 10,000 years".

Chen's four years in office had been marked by economic under-performance and dissatisfaction amongst the Taiwanese electorate, yet he was re-elected on the slenderest of margins (30,000 votes). This result may have been influenced by a dramatic shooting incident on the eve of the poll, but Chen Shui-bian's second term extended the pattern of China helping those it sought to harm into (or back into) power (see Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, "Taiwan's dual election: democracy and national identity" [19 March 2004]).

Chen's skill in provoking the mainland government and using it for his own political purposes in Taiwan is legendary. Even as his mandatory departure from office at the end of his second term approached, he could not resist offering "parting gifts" to the PRC: impromptu visits to contested small islands (under Taiwan's jurisdiction) close to the mainland, and the holding of a referendum alongside the presidential election of 22 March 2008 asking voters whether Taiwan should apply to join the United Nations as "Taiwan", rather than as the "Republic of China".

(In Taiwan for the election, I heard a rumour that during his farewell visit to the United States representative's residence in Taipei - the de facto embassy - he wrote in the visitor's book, "I promise no more surprises." But few believe that Chen - who hands over the presidential baton to his KMT successor Ma Ying-jeou on 20 May - will remain out of politics for long.)

A Beijing silence

In any case, 2008 has marked a break in the consistent pattern of mainland Chinese intervention in Taiwan's electoral campaign. This time, Beijing kept its own counsel during the contest between Ma Ying-jeou and his DPP rival Frank Hsieh. This may have been from the principle of "better the devil you know", since the KMT's Ma - with his talk of a "greater China market" and of lifting some restrictions on investment from the mainland - was clearly the candidate more favourable to Beijing. It may be too that Beijing has genuinely learned that openly seeking to influence elections guarantees a popular counter-reaction. This time, the result clearly reflected China's preference.

The definitive shape of the final result in this island of 23 million people took only two hours to emerge after polling stations closed (a lesson for many other democracies or would-be democracies around the world): Ma Ying-jeou received a decisive 58% of the vote to Frank Hsieh's 42%. The sighs of relief to the north were almost audible - with Tibet inflamed and Beijing again drenched in international criticism for its policies there, with Olympic-related problems mounting, and with inflation creeping dangerously upwards, the last thing the PRC wanted was an inconvenient outcome in Taiwan.

Ma's support of more cross-strait links contributes to the positive mood-music: suggestions of a "peace deal" with the mainland, of more access for Chinese tourists, of direct air links (most flights between the two sides go via Hong Kong, making what should be a two-hour Shanghai-Taipei journey into a six-hour trek). But even the most superficial visitor to Taiwan appreciates that for the vast majority of the people - KMT or DPP supporters, or neither - their sense of identity is as Taiwanese, and the idea of a unification with the mainland (especially a non-democratic mainland) is nothing more than daylight fantasy. It is not clear how far Beijing understands this.

A Taipei chorus

There is one thing in Ma Ying-jeou's favour as he prepares for office. His counterpart Hu Jintao has, at least constitutionally, four more years in power after he was re-elected president by the national people's congress (NPC) on 15 March 2008. He is due to hand over to the next leadership in 2012, at the eighteenth party congress. Hu will thus, for the next few years, be a man in search of a legacy.

Also on Taiwan's politics in openDemocracy:

Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, "Taiwan's dual election: democracy and national identity" (19 March 2004)

Andrew Mueller, "Taiwan in a Chinese overture" (8 May 2005)

Lung Ying-tai, "A question of civility: an open letter to Hu Jintao" (15 February 2006)

Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, "Taiwan identity and China: 1987-2007" (20 March 2008)

Mao Zedong, founder of the People's Republic of China, was the nation's father; despite his disastrous closing years, his legacy is secure. Deng Xiao-ping will be remembered as the man who started the reform process in 1978. Jiang Zemin secured entry to the World Trade Organisation, let entrepreneurs back into the party, and won the competition to host the Olympics (though the success of this achievement remains in history's balance).

Hu may have presided over the "harmonious society" push, and got "scientific development" written into the constitution, but these are hardly landmarks that will be recalled in a hundred years' time. In their final years in office leaders often strive for one final thing that will make them remembered. Bill Clinton tried to reach out to North Korea; Tony Blair secured what looks like final peace in Northern Ireland; even George W Bush is exerting a semblance of pressure on the Israeli-Palestine conflict. This highly personal desire to "make a difference" shouldn't be underestimated. The government Hu Jintao leads will continue to insist that all discussions with Taiwan be conducted within the "one China" framework; but delivering a peace deal, even looking for mutual visits from presidents on either side of the straits - developments that would have tremendous symbolic as well as practical value - look less unimaginable with Ma Ying-jeou in office than they did with Chen Shui-bian.

Yet Taiwan, once one of the most dynamic economies in Asia, also faces the more immediate and mundane challenge of revivifying its faltering economy. A decade in the doldrums, like Japan, has diminished confidence. But Taiwan has all the right ingredients to boom again. While the world has applauded the mainland's rise, it has forgotten that Taiwan (again like Japan) - despite years of relative quietness - can only really go up. So my two tips for the next four years would be: a bold political move to finally resolve the cross-straits relationship, and the resurgence of the Taiwanese economy. As gloom and anxiety spreads across the world, both of these outcomes would be very good news.

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