Despite warming relations between the mainland and Taiwan under seven years of Ma Ying-jeou’s administration, around the corner, the cross-straits relationship could be in for a period of deep freeze. Ma’s ineffective leadership is one obvious reason but there are many other contributory causes for the gloomy overcast on the Taiwan Straits.
When Ma won the presidential election in 2008 by a landslide, Taiwan was a mess. Eight years under Chen Shui-bian saw Taiwan’s economy stagnating and news of scandal and accusation of wrongdoing pelted one after another.
Chen Shui-bian established many firsts in Taiwan’s history. He was the first from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to wrestle the presidency from the then ruling Kuomintang (KMT), and he was the first to win the seat with less than 40% of the popular vote. He was the first to “survive” a last minute assassination attempt of doubtful authenticity but garnered enough voter sympathy to be re-elected by the thinnest of margins. He was also the first to go directly to prison for corruption after he left office.
Over a million of Taiwan’s best and brightest left Taiwan to establish residence on the mainland, to invest and begin their businesses and to make their fortunes there. Chen did not stop the investments across the straits but he also did not take advantage of economic synergy with the mainland.
So long as the Taishang (Taiwan businessmen) going back and forth did not try to influence the politics on Taiwan, i.e., did not publicly extoll the virtues of cooperating with the mainland, Chen left them alone. Instead Chen concentrated on every opportunity to line his pockets.
When he was finally put on trial for massive corruption, he blamed the wrongdoings on his wife. And then, in exchange for dismissing all the charges against him, he offered to repatriate millions from off shore bank accounts back to Taiwan. The court merely sent him to prison.
While being president, Chen promoted his predecessor’s (Lee Teng-hui) policy of moving the people’s sentiments away from China toward a native Taiwan identity. The textbooks deleted mention of Taiwan’s common root in history and culture with China and emphasized the Taiwan dialect as if it sprang from native soil, ignoring its origin from southern Fujian. Chen even issued a new Taiwan passport without any reference to “Republic of China.”
When Ma won the election and returned the KMT to power, he promptly reversed many of Chen’s policy. He began the cross-straits dialogue in earnest, leading to the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and 23 agreements related to economic cooperation.
Ma began to welcome tourists from the mainland. Today, Taiwan is becoming one of the more popular destinations for China’s outbound tourists and China’s tourist spending represents roughly a ten billion dollar benefit to Taiwan’s annual economy.
Despite Ma having won terms favorable to Taiwan under ECFA and returned Taiwan to economic health, he failed to influence the attitudes of the people on Taiwan that ranged from being skeptical to hostile to the mainland. He was timid and unwilling to emphasize the obvious to the Taiwan public, namely Taiwan’s economy was going to be better off tied to China than not.
In 2013, Ma accused Wang Jin-pyng of influence peddling and stripped Wang of his membership in the KMT. Wang sued and regained his membership. Without his KMT membership, Wang would no longer remain the speaker of the Legislative Yuan. The end result was an irrevocably divided KMT.
Led by students, the Sunflower movement in 2014 seemed to have discombobulated the KMT and exposed Ma as a weak and indecisive leader. The efficient and highly organized protesters stormed and occupied the Legislative Yuan and then the Executive Yuan. They energetically objected to the passing of additional trade agreements with China.
The student ideologues claimed to worry more about losing their native identity because of closer integration with China than jobs and economic wellbeing that the trade accord promised. Wang promptly and unilaterally declared the intention not to act on the pending trade pact and Ma was sidelined and remained silent.
Later in the year, the KMT lost major municipal elections and Ma resigned his chairmanship of KMT. Eric Chu, mayor of New Taipei City, was elected to replace Ma as the new chairman.
Out of the disarray emerged an old face, Tsai Ing-wen, from the DPP to become the new favorite to win the presidential election in 2016. Tsai ran for the mayor of New Taipei City and lost to Chu in 2010 and ran for president in 2012 and lost to Ma. But thanks to KMT’s implosion, Tsai suddenly became the odds on favorite.
Self-inflicted damage is nothing new to the KMT. The party split into two camps in the run up for the 2000 election, which enabled Chen Shui-bian to eke out a win with barely 39% of the votes.
KMT’s proclivity for self-destruction continues. First they nominated Hung Hsiu-chu to run against Tsai because no one else wanted the nomination. Now the KMT is about to de-nominate Hung and put Chu in her place because the party leaders suddenly realized that they couldn’t afford to be routed by the DPP.
For obvious reasons, Beijing can do even less to influence Taiwan’s drift away from unification than they can with Hong Kong. To complicate matters further and not often discussed is the presence of ethnic Japanese living in Taiwan but identified as Taiwanese.
As Taiwan’s first elected president, Lee Teng-hui, has proudly proclaimed, he prefers to be known by his Japanese name, Iwasato Masao, and his first language is Japanese. He has even stated that Japan is Taiwan’s motherland.
Lee could be a tip of the iceberg that could seed the coming freeze. After WWII, faced with returning to an uncertain future in a devastated Japan, around 300,000 Japanese elected to remain in Taiwan. They took on Chinese surnames and merged into the local community.
My friend in Taiwan tells me that this group of ethnic Japanese has multiplied into an estimated group of 2 million descendants. It would be natural to assume that most of the nearly 10% of Taiwan’s population would not share any feeling of fealty to being a Chinese. Harder to know is the actual fraction that has actually become anti China/ pro Japan/ pro Taiwan independence agitators following Lee’s lead.
Early this month, Tsai made a visit to Japan to meet with cabinet members and other leaders of Japan’s LDP. She and Japan’s Prime Minister Abe are old friends and around lunchtime they were seen entering and leaving the same Tokyo hotel separately. When questioned by the media, they both denied that a clandestine meeting took place.
Assuming that Tsai wins the expected landslide election and sweep the DPP into majority control of the legislature, she is likely to take more independent actions, including meeting openly with Japan’s Abe. Her mentor, Chen, has been released from prison earlier this year. He was given a medical parole based on his being mentally unbalanced. With a warm DPP embrace, I wouldn’t be surprised if Chen is suddenly no longer psychologically disturbed and become active in politics again.
Beijing could be facing a Taiwan with fewer options. Military threats have not had the desired effect and economic incentives have not made many friends, especially among the youth. Japan could join the U.S. and decide to actively interfere with the cross-straits relationship.
Sadly, a long winter of discontent looms ahead. The one glimmer of light is that the vast majority in Taiwan still prefers the “status quo,” meaning no unification and no independence. As is usually the case, the voice of the silent majority cannot rise above the din of a noisy minority. But, if this majority understands the implications of letting the protesters have their way, perhaps they will vote against ice in favor of sunshine.