The complex implications of Taiwan general election 2012

By He Qinglian on January 18, 2012
(Translated by kRiZcPEc)
Ma Ying-jeou won in 2012 Taiwan general election, a result that the Blue camp and the business sector of the Island cheered for, and China and the United States felt relieved with.

This time, Ma Ying-jeou got 6,872,524 votes, making up 51.6% of the ballots; Tsai Ing-wen got 6,083,443 votes, or 45.7%; the two sides differed by about six percentage points. This surely wasn't a result of Tsai not having enough charisma. To be fair, no other person from the Green camp could have done a better job than she did. After Chen Shui-bian imprisoned for corruption, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), with its reputation severely tarnished, didn't quite have the strength to restart. At such a time, Tsai Ing-wen was the only opponent who, with her clean image, would make the Blue camp and Beijing pull out every stop to secure victory in the election. The real issue reflected by the election result is: Taiwan is too far away from the United States and too close to China. This conclusion is backed by the evaluation result from the International Committee for Fair Elections in Taiwan, which comprised twenty-one observers from eight countries. The Committee said that in this round of presidential and legislative elections, the public of Taiwan has by and large exhibited the free will in casting their votes. But during the election campaign there was still unfairness, in particular these two issues: influence of past authoritarian rule and foreign intervention.

One of the influence of past authoritarian rule referred to campaign funds. There has been a huge gap between what different political parties have in their assets and resources; little attention has been paid to the issue of election spending control, which gave rise to frequent non-observation and repeated breaking of election rules, resulting in election fairness being undermined.

The so-called “foreign intervention” referred to the 2012 election that was carried out with the Taiwanese voters under immense pressure, against the backdrop of the ever strengthening infiltration in Taiwan's politics and economy from China. In the election, Ma played two cards, one was economy—Taiwan tops the world in economic dependence on mainland China—and the other being relations with mainland China. Nearly half of the Island's population was influenced by these, and then there are over half a million Taiwanese businesspeople and nearly 100,000 mainland brides on whom the mainland authorities could exert direct influence. Before the election, an opinion poll showed that between the support ratio of Ma and Tsai there was a gap of only three-percentage point, which usually are within the error. But after I looked closely at the scope of the poll, I realized the thing was not so simple. In this poll two sizable groups of people were left out: the 500,000-plus Taiwanese businesspeople with investment in mainland China and the nearly 100,000 mainland brides. For these two groups of people, mainland China is what they rely on for protection of their status. Reportedly this time 140,000 persons made up a difference of one percentage point, these people, and the families under their influence, numbered more than two million, large enough to produce a significant impact on Taiwan election outcome. Several years back, an intellectual with a deep understanding of Taiwan's politics and society once said to me, Taiwan is a small place, sometimes a trivial factor could overturn the entire situation.
In this election, mainland China exerted its influence with means that were softer than before, or with a better strategy. Because in the past Beijing intervened too directly in Taiwan's election—apart from methods there were used in this election, it also resorted to verbal and military threats. For example, when Chen Shui-bian ran for re-election, Beijing vowed it would do so and so if Chen won, that resulted in stirring up resentment in the Taiwanese people and reversed the election outcome. This time the Beijing government was more subtle in its approach and ceased using military threat; instead, it made use of the human nature of seeking gains and avoiding losses and offered subtle assistance to Ma's campaign, giving extra points to his cards of economy and “cross-strait relations”. And as some mainland Chinese might have noticed, the Chinese authorities provided Taiwan businesspeople with air ticket concession or free ship tickets for them to go back to Taiwan to vote, these were just some unimportant things really. Rather than saying the Taiwanese businesspeople were moved by these gestures, it would be more accurate to say that they could gauge the intention of Beijing behind all this: go home, vote, and help Ma Ying-jeou get re-elected. With such a strong signal, how would those Taiwanese businesspeople dare not comply?

There is no surprise that the United States and China felt satisfied with the election result. Former director of the American Institute in Taiwan, Douglas H. Paal, told Taiwan media on the eve of the polling day that both the United States and China prefer to see Ma re-elected. Let's not discuss whether that statement was appropriate, or if that had any impact on the election outcome, that saying should probably have reflected the real attitude of China and the United States. Beijing was pleased with the result because reunification with Taiwan has become the crucial basis of its ruling legitimacy. More importantly, the closer ties across the Taiwan Straits are the result of hard efforts CPC has made for years. The United States felt happy with the result because, as the China-US relations became increasingly strained and the South China Sea disputes escalated, it would rather not see another variable. In their interaction under the scope of “international relations”, both sides need to play their cards with caution. The United States seems to be high-profile since the APEC summit in November 2011, but look closely and you would notice that Taiwan was not one of the US allies as the country returned to the Pacific. That was a twofold consideration. One being economic reasons: for instance, it did not include Taiwan as a TPP member as there were worries that goods made in China would be labeled as “made in Taiwan”. In so doing, China, a non-member of the TPP agreement, could sell its products to other TPP member states with the help of Taiwan. China had played a similar trick before, when its textile export quota was limited. And the other was military: right now in South China Sea, Japan and South Korea are shaping their military layout. For example, Japan's stepping up the defense of its west was an action with the premise that Taiwan was no longer its ally.

To what extent has mainland China infiltrated in Taiwan? Regarding media, I wrote an article before, “The Penetration of Red Capitals and 'side-choosing' of Taiwan's media”, describing in detail the situation. And there have been close interactions in academic and cultural sectors of both sides; retired officers of Taiwan military have, in particular, become important targets of Beijing's “united front”. After Hau Pei-tsun, former Minister of National Defense ROC, visited his ancestral village ten-odd years ago, mainland China had sent out visit invitations heartily to many retired generals of Taiwan. This interaction on all front, from political, economic, to cultural and military sectors, does indeed have the effect of “boiling frogs”, numbing the Taiwanese vigilance against the powerful force of erosion that the authoritarian politics of mainland China has. Regarding the impacts “Red Penetration” might have on Taiwan's democratic politics, Yuan Hongbing had made detailed analysis in his book Taiwan Disaster. In May last year I went to Taiwan, met with people from the Blue Camp, the Green Camp, Military and intellectuals, and listened to various viewpoints. In sum, when it comes to mainland China, the Taiwanese people are with mixed feelings: they could not reject the fetter of interests at present, and yet they are worried that over time Taiwan would lose its hard-won democracy. Regarding cross-strait relations, they wishfully hope that the status quo could be maintained in the long run—to work closely with mainland China on economy, and keep a distance in politics. This thinking is no difference from the mindset of “Relying on the Chinese dragon for economy, and counting on the American eagle for security” of Southeast Asian countries a few years back.

When in conversation with these Taiwanese, I always had this opinion: I sympathize with Hong Kong in its becoming more like mainland China, because the people there have nothing to rely on in resisting red penetration from the mainland; but if Taiwan ends up that way, then you could only blame yourselves for willingly become “boiling frogs”; you have a democratic system to rely on in resisting “mainlandization”. In recent years, some of those pursuing democracy in mainland China have been paying special attention to Taiwan, one of the key reasons for this was: with the establishment of democratic politics in the Island, the assumption that the quality of Chinese people are unfit for democracy was broken. They hoped that with the model of Taiwan, people in mainland China could get on the path of fighting against autocracy and establishing democratic politics.

In the 2012 election there is another thing worth mentioning: the change of attitude the Chinese people have toward the DPP. Contrary to how things were a few years back, the Chinese people have stopped lashing out whenever they hear the Green camp, quite a few wished that Tsai could win the election. Through observation and chatting on Weibo, I found that this change was not due to their understanding of Taiwan's politics or of Kuomintang under Ma. This change of attitude was in fact a result of the following antagonistic mentality: the Communist Party opposes a candidate must be because that person is not conducive to its authoritarian rule, then that person has our support.