Rebranding Taiwan

By Andrej Mrevlje |

While the United States is trying hard to get their first woman president elected, Taiwan – that little island of 20 million people that lies just a few hundred miles off the coast of China’s humongous mainland – elected one overnight. Last week, Tsai Ing-wen became not only the first female president-elect of the Republic of China, which Beijing continues to consider part of its own national territory, but the first president-elect of Hakka and aboriginal descent. Which, in the language of Beijing, means a triple threat. First, because a woman politician makes the mainland’s predominantly male leaders very uncomfortable. Secondly, in Beijing’s mind, a Hakka person is less trustworthy than a Han, who is ethnically pure Chinese, even if the Han are on the “wrong” side of the history, having fled mainland China in 1949 after they lost the civil war against Maoist forces. Thirdly, the political change in Taiwan came with the popular vote, with the victory of fresh political forces, demonstrating that Taiwan enjoys a vibrant democracy compared to the People’s Republic. For Beijing, this means more democracy and political discussion that echoes on the mainland across the Taiwan Strait, coming at a bad time due to China’s ongoing process of consolidating power into the hands of Xi Jinping. Since China is facing a very delicate period of economic crisis, slightly more centralized power in this period is not necessarily a bad thing. It is actually  pretty good for containing Chinese military hawks. But as we know, it is bad news for democracy.

Three months ago, I wrote about the surprising meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore. In wondering what on Earth could be the purpose of this meeting, I concluded that:

The meeting between Xi and Ma can go either way – or no way at all, simply remembered as a weird and unique political gesture in the midst of an Indian summer. We do not know and we cannot tell whether the meeting will be used as proof that Taiwan belongs to China, or if it will prove to be the first step to do something more serious. I personally do not think that resolving the Taiwan issue is in Beijing’s interest. Besides, there is nothing much to be resolved. Will Beijing care if next year Taiwan elects a government that is more hostile to China? I really do not thinks so. The memory of Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, a pro-independence president (2000-2008), is still fresh.  

It’s more likely that the meeting was meant to charm and reassure countries in the region of the peaceful intentions of the rising Chinese dragon. This is possible but not certain, since one who knows China  should understand that Taiwan’s issue is a family matter and not some geopolitical chess game.

To continue along these lines, Beijing should be pleased with the change in Taiwan. It gives Chinese leaders a chance to export domestic problems into international waters, much the same way as Beijing leadership is trying to occupy the minds of its own citizens with the ridiculous story of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea – a game that Beijing and Washington seem to be playing together. So everything is ok – no worries, right? Not really. What seems to be happening in Taiwan is more radical. It is also about economy, as the Asian Sentinel says:

Amid all of Ma’s efforts to deepen economic ties and even meet with Xi in Singapore, one fact has gone largely unnoticed. Despite the KMT’s [the Kuomintang’s] honeymoon with Beijing, and the very rapid growth until quite recently, of the mainland economy, Taiwan’s export dependence on it has been virtually unchanged for more than a decade.

Fluctuating around 38-40 percent, it is still about the highest in the world and long a cause for unease among Taiwanese. But even that level in practice overstates dependence given that a high proportion of those exports have been high-tech components for products such as iPhones that are subsequently imported to Taiwan from China. Indeed, while assembly operations in China have hurt low-end manufacturing in Taiwan, Taiwanese firms have been major beneficiaries of the relatively cheap land and labor on the mainland. Taiwan’s manufacturing expertise has helped drive China’s exports, but provided big profits for Taiwan firms, much of which has been kept offshore rather than either re-invested or repatriated.

The current contraction in Taiwan’s exports is as much due to global demand to China’s domestic demand. That the sharpest fall has been in sales to China is probably as much due to relocation of plants from China to places like Vietnam and elsewhere as manufacturers have sought cheaper locations.

Will Taiwan follow suit and start looking for different regional partners like Vietnam and the Philippines?

What seems to be happening is that Tsai Ing-wen is not a simple “agent provocateur,” as Chen Shui-bian was. She will move slower, the reports say. She will avoid challenging Beijing directly, but at the same time, she is also more determined than Chen was. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) not only elected her as president, but also has a majority in the parliament – something that Chen Shui-bian, who was also elected by the DPP, did not have.

However, it is important to note that the DPP’s landslide victory was boosted by the reaction of the local voters, who were enraged when the mainland media humiliated a local teenage pop singer. The young Chou Tzu-yu waved a Taiwanese flag during a performance with her band – a sin, and an offense to nationalistic sentiment, according to the mainland media. The reaction was similar to another uproar a couple of weeks ago, when the Chinese media wanted to ban and punish a German writer because he jokingly compared Mao to Hitler. These two manifestation  nationalism overspill seems to recall the famous Danish cartoon that offended many Muslims by depicting Muhammad.

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