Taiwan Perspective

Institute for National Policy Research
The China Factor in Taiwan¡¦s Presidential Election

By Chih-cheng Lo

As the countdown for the presidential election narrows, the competition between the pan-blue and pan-green camps is reaching boiling point. As if to top things off, on February 28, there is to be a peace rally to form a human chain ¡§hand in hand across Taiwan,¡¨ and of course, then there is also the forthcoming public referendum. So how is Beijing likely to view all of this? Well as is clearly evident, we have already seen a range of more flexible tactics coming out of Beijing, be it the explosive disclosure of the so-called Taiwanese ¡§spies,¡¨ the subtle, and indirect pressuring of Taiwan through other countries, such as the US, Japan and others, and last though not least, the establishment of the pan-blue support group in Mainland China. So how exactly does the other side of the Strait view Taiwan¡¦s forthcoming election? Will Beijing once again, attempt to interfere in Taiwan¡¦s presidential election, and if so in what manner? This is surely a question on everyone¡¦s mind, and is not only of concern to those within Taiwan. Certainly, Beijing¡¦s response to all the recent developments in Taiwan is not only likely to affect cross-strait relations but also, it will have a significant impact upon the direction of Taiwan¡¦s presidential election.

In actual fact, this time around, there has been some reluctance to show it, but China does have its preferences over the result of the elections. Of course, Beijing has come to realize that the policy differences between the pan-blue and pan-green camps may not be so huge after all ¡V especially once that party has become the ruling party. Nonetheless, from an ideological point of view, China clearly prefers the pan-blue ticket. Interestingly enough, leaders in Beijing have so far refrained from doing those things they did during Taiwan¡¦s past elections, and thus harsh words, saber rattling and military intimidation have been largely left by the wayside. This is only because these very actions have proven to be counterproductive measures that only help elect the candidate that they do not like. So it is not to say that China does not intend and has not already tried to influence the election outcomes in Taiwan. As a matter of fact, China¡¦s attempts to sway the election in Taiwan are so evident that it has already caused them some trouble.

In a nutshell, China¡¦s policy towards Taiwan over the period leading up to and during the presidential elections has become that much more sophisticated, subtle, and at times, also somewhat more flexible. First and foremost, one of the most obvious changes is the shift in strategy. In the past, China has chosen to take a direct approach, as was seen in 1996 with the missile tests, and also in the year 2000, in the lead up to the last presidential election, with the various military exercises. Nowadays however, China is seen to be taking a much more indirect approach.

How exactly is this indirect approach manifesting? Well firstly, it is apparent that China is employing a tactic of pressuring other actors to carry out its wishes. Particularly in recent weeks, the US has quite effectively been pushed to the forefront in pressuring Taiwan on the referendum issue, while China itself quite contentedly takes a backseat. In fact, it would seem that the criticism directed towards Chen by President Bush, hit the mark quite nicely and it must have pleased China to see that President Chen was left feeling hurt by these remarks. Then, much to China¡¦s delight, French President, Jacques Chirac went on to attack Taiwan¡¦s proposal to hold the public referendum, going so far as to employ strong wording such as ¡§grave mistake¡¨ and ¡§provocation.¡¨

Yet another area in which China prefers to take an indirect approach is with respect to the united front strategy. By pandering to Taiwanese business people living in China that are even slightly open to the notion of unification, or even to those who are presently dissatisfied with cross-Straits policy, China has managed to find an avenue through which to exert influence upon Taiwan¡¦s domestic politics. Even more recently, the establishment of the pan-blue support group in Mainland China is living proof of the continuance of such tactics, since it is obvious that without the approval of China, there is no way that this could have eventuated. But in fact, since it has become apparent to all that China is not the detached observer here, the united front strategy has begun to backfire in Taiwan. Thus it would seem that by taking the steps to outlaw the support group, Beijing has extricated itself to some degree, but the fact of the matter is that these pan-blue support groups are still active in the mainland.

A second aspect to China¡¦s policy towards Taiwan is the effective freeze on cross-Strait relations. The overall aim of this strategy is to try not to give the incumbent Chen any credit at all, even when and if, there does happen to be some progress in cross-Strait relations. Beijing¡¦s rejection of Taiwan¡¦s proposal for direct charter planes between the two sides is a good case in point. Yet another example is the influx of illegal immigrants into Taiwan from the mainland ¡V if China wanted to it could control this but instead it has allowed this development to get increasingly worse. Both of these examples reflect a strategy of creating situations that give the appearance of President Chen being unable to handle cross-Strait relations.

Over and above these two, China has also relied on a combination of other similar tactics to compliment its overall approach. Most notably, there is the ploy of generating insecurity and a sense of threat amongst Taiwanese business people in the mainland. It is increasingly apparent that Taiwanese business people needing to file claims to the Mainland Affairs Council are often left feeling dissatisfied and that even where lawsuits are won this does not mean that the courts in China will execute the judgment. Similarly, many commentators in Taiwan have come to the conclusion that the past arrests of the so-called 24 Taiwanese ¡§spies¡¨ in December and the recent charging of the two Taiwanese ¡§spies¡¨ in Nanjing is meant to further discredit Chen, and that the latter is Beijing¡¦s response to President Chen¡¦s having pinpointed with some accuracy, ¡§there are 496 missiles targeting Taiwan.¡¨

Finally, it almost goes without saying that the newspapers and radio stations in China continue to go all out in criticizing Chen and the proposed referendum. This is done in as harsh a manner as it was in the year 2000, and yet, there is a subtle difference, since it is carried out in a more low profile way.

In sum, the leaders in Beijing have paid close attention to the campaigning and events leading up to the elections in Taiwan. The bottom line is they do have their preferences and they have tried to sway the election. On the surface Beijing has demonstrated a take ¡§no-action¡¨ and ¡§wait and see¡¨ policy. However, once we look a little farther, and scratch beneath the surface it is obvious that they have tried everything they can to influence the outcome in their favor.

Chih-cheng Lo
Associate professor
Dept. of Political Science
Soochow University.