Taipei as crucial as Beijing
Lately, the Chinese-speaking world has offered considerable resistance to the emergence of China. Democratization protests erupted in Hong Kong, and Taiwan’s China-friendly Kuomintang party suffered a crushing defeat in local election on Nov. 29. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party did well, winning a majority in five of the six districts. Meanwhile, the Kuomintang party is in its worst crisis since it dominated Taiwan in 1949. Prime Minister Jiang Yi-huah quit over the result, and President Ma Ying-jeou has resigned as party chairman.
As soon as Ma became president in 2008, he advocated “Three Links” to open up the postal service, transportation and trade between China and Taiwan. In 2010, a cross-strait free trade agreement of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was signed. In February, the first ministerial-level meeting with China in 65 years took place. There was a rumor among diplomats that President Ma would have an unprecedented summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, the election defeat put the brakes on that.
In East Asia, dictatorship and democracy are in confrontations as serious as the nationalistic feuds between China and Japan, and Korea and Japan. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula between South and North Korea and the cross-strait confrontation are examples. For national integration, a bigger country often is the catalyst. But when the smaller partner is a democratic state, it is likely to resist fiercely. Taiwan has been pursuing democracy since the 1980s, and it feels threatened by the possibility of being absorbed by China. Taiwan thinks its hard-earned democracy may be destroyed by Communist dictatorship.
The case of a smaller partner, like North Korea, being a dictatorial state is also problematic. National integration poses a direct threat to the existence of the system and the survival of the leadership. In Taiwan, the Kuomintang and the elite class are eager to improve relations with China, while average citizens feel scared and skeptical. They think that if their economy is combined with that of China, only the elite class would benefit. In the capital Taipei, the traditional stronghold of the Kuomintang, Sean Lien was defeated for exactly that reason. The son of Lien Chan, honorary chairman of the Kuomintang, is a typical politician from the privileged class. During the election campaign, protesters gathered in front of Dibao, the symbolic luxury apartment building in Taipei. The Liens own apartments here.
The Sunflower Student Movement in March opposing the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) reflects the public sentiment. College students occupied the legislative chamber for three weeks and protested the secret negotiations with China. They demanded more transparent and democratic talks. They suspected the Kuomintang government and businesses were trying to make a humiliating agreement with China that would sacrifice the interests of working-class citizens. The agreement has yet to be signed, and China is growing increasingly discontent.
Interestingly, Korea was mentioned in the election campaign. The Kuomintang argued that if the Democratic Progressive Party won, Korea would be thankful. Further delay of the trade agreement with China would only benefit Korea, they argued. Just as Korea’s progressive camp claims China would occupy the North Korean market if we don’t engage with Pyongyang, conservative Taiwanese insist Korea would take over the Chinese market if Taipei doesn’t deal with China.
Now, we need to observe what policies China would adopt on Taiwan. Xi Jinping has worked for 17 years in Fujian Province, right across the strait from Taiwan. Having realized that the power that moves Taiwan was economic strength, he aggressively pursued exchanges with the Ma Ying-jeou administration. The result was the first reciprocated ministerial visits in history.
In June, Zhang Zhijun, minister of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council visited Taiwan and contacted leaders of not just the Kuomintang, but also the Democratic Progressive Party. But now that Ma and the Kuomintang are lame ducks, they pose more losses than gains for Xi Jinping.
The election may be just another local election in a small country. However, it could be the eye of the coming storm in East Asia. If Ma and the Kuomintang lose the presidential election and the general election in January 2016, Taiwan would have an independence-driven Democratic Progressive government. Then we cannot rule out the possibility of the cross-strait tension, fanned by confrontation between the United States and China, amplifying uncontrollably. But China could show flexibility in order to curb the Democratic Progressive Party’s independence-oriented tendency.
That’s why we need to watch not just Beijing, but also Taipei when forecasting the future of East Asia.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Sunday, Dec. 7, Page 31
*The author is a professor at Soongsil University and director of the Institute of Social Science.
by Cho Hong-sik