By Adam Connors
It is the final week of typically boisterous campaigning leading to Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections on Saturday, where the embattled ruling Kuomintang is expected to be defeated in both, sparking its third democratic handover of power.
Tsai Ing-wen of the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is forecast by every poll and pundit to take the leadership, as the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), struggles for numbers from its aging voting bloc and anger at the island’s stagnating economy.
Ms Tsai has only been required to stay on-message in concentrating on domestic issues, not even positing a position through the entire campaign addressing the elephant in the room, “the third hand” of China.
As a former minister of the Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) which oversees Taiwan’s relations with China, as well a former fair trade commissioner, Ms Tsai undoubtedly has a strategy. But she has simply not been required to disclose it due to her competitors’ malaise.
The belated presidential run of KMT candidate Eric Chu, who replaced the deeply unpopular KMT candidate Hung Hsiu-chu in October, has done little to reverse perceptions of the party’s conservative pro-China views, which fly in the face of voter sentiment.
“I support Tsai Ing-wen because she brings fresh ideas,” said service industry worker Gladys Cheng, 27, at a DPP rally on the weekend that it said hosted 100,000 supporters.
“Even if cross-strait relations aren’t good, I don’t think it matters so much. The focus should be global, not just on China.”
Under a Tsai administration, analysts agree a deterioration of ties is inevitable — even though the DPP has been clinical in keeping the China angle out of campaigning.
“Relations will cool,” said Steve Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies at the University of Nottingham.
“Tsai is unlikely to take actions or say things to provoke Beijing. But Beijing does not trust her.”
In comparison, Mr Chu has emphasised the importance of the KMT’s ties and peaceful relations with China throughout his campaign.
“We are marching together for Taiwan’s stability,” he told an equally large crowd in Taipei on Saturday.
“No matter how much dissatisfaction you felt in the past, be brave, stand out and vote for our next generation.”
What is ‘generation Taiwan?’
Taiwan’s voters, closer to home, are angry at low salaries, unaffordable housing, an ageing population and low birth-rate.
University graduates, some 39 per cent of the population in 2009 — and around 25 per cent of that figure with engineering degrees — are finding it increasingly difficult to find well-paid employment in their field.
An explosive demographic change in Taiwanese identity has also occurred since “the old soldiers” fled China in 1949, with 93 per cent considering themselves nominally Taiwanese-Chinese compared to 64 per cent in 1992, according to the Election Studies Centre at National Chengchi University.
Protests in August against revisions to textbooks that students said aimed to brainwash them into accepting a “one China” view of history further reflect a surge of nationalism among Taiwan’s youth.
They are far more likely than their elders to identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
“We are Taiwan. China is China,” Liu Tzuhao, 18, said at August’s protest site.
It is these highly-educated youth that will likely help sweep the DPP into power — a party which traditionally favours distancing the Taiwan from the mainland.
“Most people around me are living harder lives,” said Kelly Chang, a 23-year-old former administrative assistant in Taipei who lost her job three months ago at a land development company that went bankrupt.
“I think the new DPP government can do better. I hope it can improve the economy and raise salaries. Cross-strait ties are important, but the benefits from better ties should be shared by all.”
Perceived as its antithesis, Mr Chu is struggling to win inter-generational support as the new face of the old KMT, its China-friendly policies, and its failure to deliver the prosperity promised by Taiwan’s incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou.
Prosperity with strings attached
The generation gap between 2016’s Taiwanese and the fleeing China civil war KMT armies of 1949 was perhaps on best display at the much vaunted meeting of the KMT’s Mr Ma and Chinese president and the Communist Party’s Xi Jinping in November.
Mr Xi told Mr Ma that the two sides are “one family” as they began their landmark summit in Singapore, the first between leaders of both warring factions of China’s civil war for 70 years.
“No force can pull us apart,” China’s Xi told Taiwan’s Ma, who met on a party-to-party basis and not as presidents of their respective governments.
“Both sides should respect each other’s values and way of life,” Mr Ma told Mr Xi, continuing the ambiguity of their competing definitions of the “one China, respective interpretations” principle.
Mr Ma’s rapprochement with China since he took power in 2008 has lead to 23 trade deals and a tourist boom, culminating in the historic summit at the end of his tenure.
The Taiwan president’s new year’s message proudly stated that tourist arrivals, largely its newly-permitted mainland tourism, now totalled over 10.4 million visits per year, up from 3.71 million in 2007.
China, including Hong Kong, is Taiwan’s top trading partner, with trade totalling just over $244 billion in 2014, official data from Taiwan shows. About 40 per cent of Taiwan’s exports, such as tech components and chemicals, go to China.
With its 1.3 billion people, China is also Taiwan’s favourite investment destination, with Taiwan companies investing over $143 billion there, private estimates show.
But many voters feel it is big business that has reaped the benefits, not ordinary people, and there are growing concerns over Beijing’s money influence.
There are jitters in the business community that relations with China will deteriorate under the DPP, largely due to the DPP’s refusal to recognise the “one China” principle or the consensus.
The tourism sector is particularly nervous. China has reportedly restricted visits to Taiwan during past political turbulence.
“Some local travel agents focused on Chinese tourists coming to Taiwan have prepared for the worst,” said Ringo Lee, spokesman for the Travel Agent Association of Taiwan.
“Mainland authorities have been known to use their out-bound tourists as bargaining chips in practising diplomacy,” Lee said.
Perhaps in a sign of things to come, or simply a part of last minute campaigning, a press release by the KMT on Monday detailed a sharp drop of mainland tour groups in Taiwan hotels in the run up to Saturday’s election, marking declines in occupancy of 40 to 50 per cent.
Original story at ABC News