Livelihood issues set the tone for Taiwan’s presidential election, not its ‘sovereignty’ tussle with China

Jonathan Sullivan says setting aside the China question is likely to help Tsai Ing-wen win Taiwan’s election race, but learning how to work with China will determine the success of her presidency

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 December, 2015, 5:40pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 December, 2015, 9:24am

It is not news that, in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, is heading for victory on January 16. She has enjoyed a double-digit lead across all polls throughout the year, and recently crossed the psychological 50-point mark, ahead of her rivals, Eric Chu of the Kuomintang and James Soong of the People First Party. Seasoned Taiwan watchers know to take media polls with a pinch of salt. But the consensus across the political spectrum is that Tsai is a lock, barring something unforeseen.

Taiwan’s famously even distribution of wealth has gone to the winds, and social mobility is no longer something that Taiwanese can take for granted

Unexpected things do happen in Taiwanese elections. In 2000, the then independent Soong was ahead in the polls until the KMT broke a corruption scandal about him. Chen Shui-bian sustained gunshot wounds while campaigning on the eve of his re-election in 2004, which might have swung the vote in his favour. More recently, no one foresaw that Ma Ying-jeou would have a face-to-face meeting with President Xi Jinping (習近平).

If the latter surprise was intended to give the KMT’s election chances a boost, it didn’t work, despite the appealing optics of “the handshake” for the world’s media and the boost it might provide for perceptions outside Taiwan of Ma’s “legacy”. (In Taiwan, the meeting was greeted with anger or apathy.)

The 2016 presidential election is all about Ma and the KMT; Tsai’s big lead does not necessarily reflect huge enthusiasm for the DPP. The KMT’s expected loss in the coming election would reflect widespread discontent with Ma and his party, particularly the outcomes and trajectory of his economic policies. In the past 7½ years that Ma has been in power, the cost of living in Taiwan has steadily risen while wages have barely moved. House prices have increased by 45 per cent, and the price of a Taipei home is now about 16 times the average annual income (it is 7.5 times in Taiwan as a whole).

READ MORE: Taiwan narrowly avoids recession as exports slump to mainland China’s slowing economy

Taiwan’s famously even distribution of wealth has gone to the winds, and social mobility is no longer something that Taiwanese can take for granted. Education in particular is no longer the passport to mobility it once was, with many graduates earning a desultory NT$24,000 (HK$5,600) starting monthly salary.

As widespread feelings of relative deprivation have taken hold, corporations and individuals with political connections have profited from the opening of Taiwan’s economy to mainland China. Squandering their long-held reputation as stewards of the “economic miracle” in the 1960s and 1970s, Ma and the KMT have come to represent the 1 per cent in society. That Ma, a self-styled Confucian elite, has demonstrated contempt for colleagues in his own party and adopts a personal style that combines aloofness with indecision and authoritarian decision-making, compounds the feeling that he does not serve the best interests of regular Taiwanese.

As in Hong Kong, an influx of Chinese tourists has exacerbated the sense of difference and antipathy towards Chinese people

Ma’s China policy is one factor, of course. Economic integration has implications for many sectors in Taiwan, including housing and jobs. Taiwanese companies have long swapped investment in Taiwan for mainland China, even moving out research and development operations, further depressing the domestic job market.

On top of that, Chinese investment in real estate has caused bubbles and made housing unaffordable for ordinary Taiwanese. As in Hong Kong, an influx of Chinese tourists has exacerbated the sense of difference and antipathy towards Chinese people, and has no doubt contributed to an unequivocal trend in public opinion.

During Ma’s reign, the proportion of people who identify themselves as Taiwanese has increased from 45 per cent to 60 per cent, at the same time that Ma has espoused Taiwan’s commitment to being part of the imagined Chinese nation, contrary to the lived experience of Taiwanese who identify with the experience of a liberal democracy.

READ MORE: One year on: impact of ‘sunflower’ movement protests in Taiwan continues to blossom

Taiwan under Ma has become overly reliant on mainland China; one third of Taiwan’s total trade volume is with mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, while Beijing makes no secret of its intention to leverage this dependence. And despite the superficial entente cordiale on show in Singapore, the underlying military threat posed by the mainland is undiminished, while Ma has flubbed professionalisation of the army and steadfastly refused to increase defence spending.

China’s impact on Taiwan is inescapable, but relations with China in the abstract sense of sovereignty and Taiwan’s future status are not the major preoccupation of Taiwanese voters. There is huge controversy around the so-called “1992 consensus”, and resentment at Ma’s attempts to lock Taiwan into a narrowing range of future options. Yet, my sense is that Taiwanese are focused on more tangible issues.

In this respect, Tsai has cleverly put cross-strait relations to one side, emphasising time and again her adherence to the “status quo”. The fact that the status quo is a nebulous concept – does it refer to “one China” or Taiwan’s functional autonomy? – is to everyone’s advantage.

The DPP is vulnerable on its China policy, and going into too many specifics is not to the party’s advantage during the campaign. But since 90 per cent of Taiwanese citizens over many years have evinced favour for some version of the “status quo” (“leading to independence”, “leading to unification”, “indefinitely”), it has become an “easy issue”, inoculating the DPP from attacks on its China position and helping voters set China policy to one side – for the time being at least.

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Although she has rightly focused her campaign on social and economic justice, if and when Tsai becomes president, relations with China will inevitably return to prominence. Beijing views Tsai with deep suspicion, including her ability to rein in the more independence-minded factions of a party it regards as “secessionist”. Officially, Beijing will adopt a wait-and-see attitude, while preparing to put the squeeze on Taiwan in the absence of demonstrations of “sincerity” from Tsai.

Tsai has intimated that she will put the brakes on Ma’s rapid embrace of China, but in reality she won’t have a choice if Beijing refuses to play ball

A major stumbling block will be the “1992 consensus” that Ma has enthusiastically promoted as the “status quo”. Tsai, consistent with many Taiwanese, rejects the notion that an ad hoc agreement between the Chinese Communist Party and a then unelected KMT should dictate democratic Taiwan’s options. As Xi has taken charge of the mainland’s Taiwan policy, marginalising the Taiwan Affairs Office, Beijing’s position on acceptance of “one China”, even in the guise of “one China, respective interpretations”, has hardened. Absent conciliatory noises from Tsai, Beijing will go after Taiwan’s handful of diplomatic allies, increase pressure on the large community of Taiwanese businesspeople living in mainland China and work to support the KMT and marginalise the DPP.

Tsai has intimated that she will put the brakes on Ma’s rapid embrace of China, but in reality she won’t have a choice if Beijing refuses to play ball. Tsai’s plans to reduce inequality, increase provision of social housing, and raise wages are what will get her elected, but developing a framework to manage relations with China is what will make her presidency a success.

Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and director of research in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham