China’s influence on Taiwanese politics

In a democracy, every election has the feel of a possible revolution. The commanding heights of power can be transferred from one group to another. Incumbents feel threatened. There is invariably a temptation to use or abuse the levers of power so as not to lose power to a group of challengers, which ruling groups feel or fear are ignorant of how the world works and what one’s own nation needs. These generalizations hold true for Taiwan as they do for other democracies. The ruling KMT sincerely feels it would be a disaster if it fell from power.

What makes Taiwan different is the role played by an outside force, an authoritarian China, or, more accurately, the ruling CCP, on and in Taiwan’s domestic affairs. Authoritarian ruling groups in China use their superpower clout not only to threaten, with economic retaliation, any government which carries out normal relations with the government of the independent nation of  Taiwan but also uses resources to try to influence the outcome of the vote by Taiwanese. This foreign government on the continental land mass of Asia make deals with interests in southern Taiwan, the base of the challenger party, the DPP, implicitly threatening that voting for the DPP could cost local people, citizens on the island of Taiwan, where it hurts, their wallets and pocket books.

The power-holders in China also threaten the challenger party on Taiwan that if it does not accede to China’s one-China principle, the expansionist claim that the country of Taiwan is actually a local part of a China ruled by Beijing, then the CCP government will not cooperate with a DPP government. Instead, the Taiwanese people will be punished for voting contrary to the will of world power China.

To this Chinese ruling group, one that is increasingly repressive, chauvinistic and assertive, it does not seem to matter that the challenger party on Taiwan is in no way a threat to China and is committed to continuing intense economic relations with China as in fact actually occurred the last time that a DPP member was President of Taiwan. The present DPP candidate has made clear that she would not pursue the policies of the previous DPP government whose leader tried to mobilize support on Taiwan by putting a thumb in Beijing’s eye. The Taiwanese people rejected those silly games as proof that that DPP president had taken his eye off the ball, that he did not devote himself to improving the lives of the Taiwanese people. For that reason, the DPP was punished in the 2008 election. It learned an expensive lesson which it does not want to pay again. The present DPP candidate will not play games on the China issue. She will focus on the real problems of the Taiwanese people. She will try her best to work with China based on common interests.

The real question then  is, can the CCP take yes for an answer or is there, inside of the mind-set and politics of ruling groups in China a possibility that the CCP regime would act toward Taiwan in nasty ways, as has been recently the case with Chinese policies toward Vietnam. That is, there could be a China problem which is too frequently made invisible by the mistaken view that there is a Taiwan problem, when Taiwanese of both political parties want the warmest relations possible with their neighbors in China.

It is often said that Taiwanese vote largely on the basis of local economic concerns. But China has been inserting itself into those local economic matters with a desire to influence electoral outcomes. Among other things, the January 2012 elections in democratic Taiwan will reflect how successfully or poorly this Chinese interference in Taiwan affairs has been.

Edward Friedman is a politics Professor and East Asia expert at the University of Wisconsin at Madison