Taiwan Election: The Strait is Wide but the Emperor is Still too Close

Taiwan Election: The Strait is Wide but the Emperor is Still too Close

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Voters say no to greater dependence on Beijing


The sweeping victory of Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan’s Jan. 16 elections was far more than just a rejection of a divided Kuomintang and an indictment of the recent performance of the luckless outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou.

The election of Taiwan’s first female president was a reaction against the aggressive nationalism and authoritarian posturings of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. It was a rebuff to the naïve mainland belief that Taiwan could be regained through further increasing dependence of China via free trade, tourism and ethno-cultural exchanges.  It has been described as a sea change in Taiwan’s posture towards the mainland, with the possibility that there is no going back.

The depth of the loss extended deep into Taiwan’s body politic. While the presidency has changed parties before, the KMT has always controlled Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, but this time it did not even get one third of the legislative seats. In power politics that means the party does not have enough seats (one-third) to resist any motions to recall current president Ma Ying-jeou. By a quirk of arrangements, this new legislature takes its seats on February 1, whereas Ma won’t step down until May 20.   

On other fronts, James Soong, the presidential candidate of the People’s First Party (PFP), failed in his 3rd bid for the presidency since 2000 but his candidacy did serve the purpose of gaining 3 at-large seats for his party in the legislature, where the new kid on the block is the New Power Party (NPP), an activist party that sprung from the recent Sunflower Movement of 2014 and has a lot of new blood including colorful heavy metal rock performer Freddy Lim. That party gained three district seats and two at-large seats.

Eighteen parties had been in the running for the 34 at-large seats in the legislature, but only four passed the high bar of 5 percent needed to gain seats. In descending order, they are the DPP 18, the KMT 11, the PFP 3, and the NPP 2. That high bar may be a factor Taiwan needs to consider lowering in the future for greater participation, but the fact that 14 additional parties had a message that they felt was different from the mainstream is a plus for a democratic state.

Export dependency hasn’t changed

Amid all of Ma’s efforts to deepen economic ties and even meet with Xi in Singapore, one fact has gone largely unnoticed. Despite the KMT’s honeymoon with Beijing, and the very rapid growth until quite recently, of the mainland economy, Taiwan’s export dependence on it has been virtually unchanged for more than a decade.

Fluctuating around 38-40 percent, it is still about the highest in the world and long a cause for unease among Taiwanese. But even that level in practice overstates dependence given that a high proportion of those exports have been high-tech components for products such as iPhones that are subsequently exported from China. Indeed, while assembly operations in China have hurt low-end manufacturing in Taiwan, Taiwanese firms have been major beneficiaries of the relatively cheap land and labor on the mainland. Taiwan’s manufacturing expertise has helped drive China’s exports but provided big profits for Taiwan firms, much of which has been kept offshore rather than either re-invested or repatriated.

The current contraction in Taiwan’s exports is as much due to global demand as China’s domestic demand. That the sharpest fall has been in sales to China is probably due to relocation of plants from China to Vietnam and elsewhere as manufacturers have sought cheaper locations.

No love for ‘Mother Country’

Twenty years now of Taiwan-mainland economic interaction and the presence of hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese on the mainland have done little to make them love the “mother country.” Commercial opportunities are many but a presence on the mainland is a constant reminder of the superiority of Taiwan whether in terms of pollution, political freedom, cultural activity or the rule of law.

The partial opening of Taiwan to mainland tourism has also made the latter aware of the differences between the two.

More recently still, Beijing’s sustained undermining of Hong Kong’s autonomy has added to wariness of too close dependence and scepticism of any mainland promises of complete autonomy in return for acceptance of Beijing’s version of the One China principle. Tough talk from Beijing always has negative impact on Taiwan.

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