Tsai Ing-Wen

Ripple effects

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 January, 2012, 12:00am


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What happens in Taiwan is of great national and international significance. On Saturday, its18 million eligible voters will elect their next president. Moreover, legislative elections are being held concurrently for the first time.

As usual in Taiwan politics, the most mud-slinging and finger-pointing among the candidates is over how to deal with the mainland.

In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang had nearly 59 per cent of the votes, while the Democratic Progressive Party candidate won just over 41 per cent. The KMT also won a majority in the legislature and has been able to push through legislation with relative ease in the past term.

This time, Ma faces Tsai Ing-wen, who has clawed back much of the DPP's sagging popularity and poses a real threat. Their fight is expected to be the main show but James Soong Chu-yu of the People First Party is also a candidate.

The KMT's mainland policy is to deepen economic ties. Since 2008, co-operation agreements have been signed, tariffs on goods have been removed, the number of cross-strait flights has risen substantially and individual mainland tourists have been able travel to Taiwan for the first time.

Hong Kong's experience shows how travel liberalisation can open the door to a thriving tourism and hospitality industry, with a potentially endless stream of mainland tourists. Moreover, many of them now have plenty of cash to spend.

If Ma wins and the KMT holds onto its legislative majority, this policy is expected to continue at a good pace. Naturally, Beijing prefers to see this outcome than a new government headed by Tsai, especially if the DPP also dominates the legislature.

Tsai has not compromised on her stand of 'protecting the independence of our sovereignty' although she said she would pursue a 'balanced, stable and moderate' policy towards the mainland. If elected, she promises to appoint a cross-strait dialogue team to negotiate further economic links with the mainland on a pragmatic basis.

Despite the growing cross-strait economic ties, Beijing's goal of reunification remains elusive. Surveys show that most people in Taiwan now identify themselves as 'Taiwanese'. Two decades ago, the majority saw themselves as 'Chinese' but today that share is about 5 per cent, even though millions of people from Taiwan travel to and work on the mainland.

Last month, in Hong Kong, a mainland official criticised a local pollster for using a dichotomy of 'Hong Kong citizens' versus 'Chinese citizens' to measure Hong Kong people's identities. The poll found those identifying themselves as 'Chinese citizens' had reached a 10-year low of 17 per cent.

The rise of Taiwanese identity is either due to a desire to assert native or status quo identities; for Hong Kong, it has to do with a desire to exercise autonomy. Mainland economic largesse can't wipe out those desires.

Some elections are more important than others. Saturday's outcome will determine cross-strait relations that affect not only Chinese politics but also regional stability.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think tank Civic Exchange. cloh@civic-exchange.org