Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 10

By Willy Wo-Lap Lam

As with Taiwan elections for the past several years, President Jiang Zemin has set up a special task force of civilian and military aides to monitor developments in the run-up to the December 1 parliamentary polls on the island.

Jiang, who also heads the Chinese Communist Party’s Leading Group on Taiwan Affairs, has also been demanding regular updates of the electoral campaign from officials such as the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office, Chen Yunlin. While the state media as well as semi-official websites have run a slew of news reports and comments on the forthcoming balloting, senior cadres have avoided giving their views in public. This reticence, however, hardly masks the fact that Beijing has adopted a multipronged strategy to ensure that it will derive maximum benefits from the first island-wide polls after the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) replaced the Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalists, as Taiwan’s ruling party in March 2000.

Beijing’s best-case scenario is that the pro-independence DPP’s tenuous grip on the Legislative Yuan will slip further. The DPP holds only sixty-six out of 225 legislative seats, meaning that most of President Chen Shui-bian’s policies are routinely blocked. Chen has vowed to boost his party’s legislative positions to at least eighty-seven. And a Chen ally, former President Lee Teng-hui, has formed a Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) which, in Beijing’s view, is also gunning for covert independence. The mainland leadership hopes to prevent the TSU from gaining enough seats so that it can join forces with DPP politicians, independents and “rebel” KMT lawmakers to control the legislature. At the same time, the Jiang administration has quietly thrown its support behind the two major opposition parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the People’s First Party (PCP), many of whose politicians have visited Beijing the past year. In closed-door meetings with KMT stalwarts, Beijing cadres have pledged to give them political and other kinds of support to ensure the DPP’s defeat at the polls.


Beijing’s Taiwan gameplan has been summed up by a Communist party Politburo member in a terse dictum: “Be as tough–or as conciliatory–as the situation requires.” For the past year, Beijing has been ruthlessly wielding the “business card” against the DPP. The mainland leadership’s strategy is simple. First, roll out the red carpet to Taiwan companies, particularly hi-tech firms. As Taiwan’s economy becomes more reliant upon the mainland, not only businessmen but professionals and fresh college graduates see their future well-being in Shanghai, Xiamen or Dongguan, Guangdong Province. Second, establish the linkage between Taiwan’s economic woes and the sorry state of its relations with the mainland. Third, continue the policy of snubbing President Chen–and laying the blame for mainland-Taiwan tension squarely on Chen and his DPP colleagues.

So far, things seem to be going Beijing’s way. Unlike predecessor Lee, Chen has been unable to prevent the flow of capital–and talents–to coastal China. Latest statistics–the island’s GDP shrunk by 4 percent in the third quarter of the year and unemployment shot to 5.3 percent–have raised the specter of long-term hardship. While a major cause of the recession has been the downturn in the American and world economy, it is easy for anti-DPP forces to play up Chen’s failings. Since early this year, the KMT and PFP have trained their firepower on Chen’s apparent failure to open a dialogue with Beijing–and presumably to get enough mainland business to resuscitate Taiwan.

The Jiang leadership’s business card has become more effective after both the mainland and Taiwan have entered the World Trade Organization. A number of Taiwan transportation firms, including four aviation companies, have already committed sizeable investments in the mainland in anticipation of direct air and shipping links. And Beijing doesn’t need to do much to persuade Taiwan businesses to put pressure on Chen to make concessions on the Cross-Strait front, such as recognizing the one China principle. A source close to Beijing’s Taiwan policy establishment said that the Jiang administration had earmarked billions of yuan for investments in Taiwan should the three direct links be established.

As more Taiwan businessmen and workers become dependent on the mainland, Taipei’s economic sovereignty–and ability to determine its own destiny–may be dealt a body blow. “Since multiparty elections began in Taiwan in the mid-1980s, this is the first time that economics has become a dominant issue,” the source said. “Beijing is confident that the momentum is going its way because the mainland economy is thriving while that of Taiwan is deteriorating.”

Diplomatic analysts say that Beijing has encountered more difficulties in efforts to woo the Taiwan public through assuming an open and flexible posture on the reunification issue. In the run-up to Taiwan’s presidential elections in 1996 and 2000, Beijing hurt its own cause–and indirectly helped its foes, Lee and Chen–by issuing dire threats to the island’s electorate. Witness the war games off the Taiwan coast in 1996 and Premier Zhu Rongji’s tough message in March 2000 that a vote for the DPP was the moral equivalent of a ballot for war. This time around, Beijing has exercised relative restraint and focused on waging some form of smile diplomacy. For example, both Jiang and Vice Premier Qian Qichen have emphasized that as long as Taipei recognizes the one China principle, anything–including the title, flag and anthem of the new, reunited China–is negotiable. Officers of the People’s Liberation Army have also been told not to make provocative remarks about the “renegade province.” There was, however, a major mishap last month, when the hardline Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, almost repeated the errors of 1996 and 2000. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Shanghai, Tang caused widespread indignation in Taiwan by refusing to let Taipei’s representative, Economics Minister Lin Hsin-yi, reply to a reporter’s question at a press conference.


Tang also alienated a good chunk of Taiwan’s voters by delivering an ad hominem attack on Chen in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month. “I despise Chen Shui-bian because all he says are lies,” Tang said. Chinese sources in Beijing said Tang received an indirect reprimand from Qian for his impolite–and totally undiplomatic–treatment of Lin in Shanghai. At a high-level internal meeting to reassess APEC, Qian told Tang it was essential to follow the policy of being tough when toughness is required–and being conciliatory when the situation so demands. And the part of Tang’s UN speech that savaged Chen was not reported in the official Chinese media. The big question: Will Beijing’s elaborate strategies pay off on December 1?

Taiwan analysts say much depends on whether the DPP can hold on to the loyalty of the 30 percent or so of the electorate that has always cast their ballots for pro-independence, native-Taiwanese candidates. Chen and his colleagues are facing a tough test because the majority of long-standing DPP supporters live in southern Taiwan, which is hardest hit by unemployment and other woes.

Chen’s strategists, however, have claimed that economics will not triumph over politics–at least not in the case of proud native-Taiwanese residents who have over the decades valiantly battled alien powers ranging from the Japanese to the mainlanders. The chances of Chen and Lee retaining the backing of native-Taiwanese voters may rise if cadres such as Tang were to let their desire to gloat over the mainland’s growing prowess get in the way of efforts to reassure Taiwan that it will not be swallowed up in the wake of the tricky business of reunification.

Willy Wo-Lap Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.

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