The ruling Nationalist Party, or KMT, of Taiwan, was delivered a crushing defeat in local elections across the country recently. The gripes of the average Taiwanese against the KMT are many—a perception that it is elitist, out of touch, and not responsive to the public—but for many, a major message of the election loss was that many Taiwanese are not happy with how close the country has been steered to China.
Closer ties with the People’s Republic of China have been a cornerstone of President Ma Ying-jeou’s government; the election defeat—of 22 counties, the KMT won 6, lost 13 to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, and 3 to independents—has thus been seen as a response to those policies, and an expression of public concern.
Crucially, this was the first election in Taiwan after the Sunflower Movement, where thousands of young people overran the country’s legislature in March and April, demanding that a trade deal with China be given more scrutiny. A KMT legislator had attempted to ram it through the assembly, circumventing due process, many thought.
“The result of this election is the whole of Taiwan saying to both the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Party: ‘No!'” said Chinese columnist and author Cao Changqing, in an interview with Sound of Hope Radio.
Cao referred to a common phrase among politicians in Taiwan recently, which said that if the KMT continues to dominate politics, “Taiwan will become another Hong Kong.”
“This phrase is absolutely precise,” Cao said in the interview. Hong Kong is nominally autonomous, but exists under a One Country, Two Systems model, where it is ultimately beholden to the Chinese Communist Party. It was the exercise of the Party’s control over Hong Kong’s electoral process that drove tens of thousands of students to the streets in September, boycotting class and then occupying main roads to make their demands for free elections heard.
Chen Weijian, a scholar writing in the pro-democracy political journal Beijing Spring, remarked that the family members of many KMT officials are doing business in China. “They’ve already become a powerful interest group,” he wrote. “They’ve been bought off.”
“Taiwanese people aren’t idiots,” Chen writes. “When the Chinese communists confer benefits on Taiwan, they know that it’s a case of ‘the weasel coming to wish happy New Year.’ The purpose is to integrate Taiwan into the Chinese dictatorship.” (Chen shortened the traditional Chinese saying, “when the weasel goes to wish the chicken Happy New Year, it’s not from the kindness of his heart,” meaning the weasel’s intention is to eat the chicken.)
He added that continued KMT rule would eventually result in that outcome. Indeed, many in Taiwan have for a long time feared not so much the military threat posed by China—there are still over 1,000 ballistic missiles on China’s coast, pointed at the tiny island—but the vast economic power that the Party is able to bring to bear.
By making Taiwan’s economy dependent on that of China, for example, or managing to control important parts of Taiwan’s own economy, a de facto form of political control could be achieved, many in Taiwan have feared.
“This election wasn’t just a defeat for the Nationalist Party,” Cao Changqing said in the interview, “it was a huge defeat for the Communist Party as well.”
Gerrit van der Wees, editor of Taiwan Communiqué, published by the pro-independence Formosan Association for Public Affairs, said in a telephone interview that the “the election results are to quite an extent a repudiation of Ma’s China policies.”
He added that what he sees as poor governance in general, as well as what he described as President Ma’s attempts to turn the legislature into a “‘Yes man’ operation,” also contributed to the defeat.
Ma Ying-jeou appears to be aware of the concerns about his policies toward China. In a surprising public display in October, he expressed support for Hong Kong’s proper democratization in a public address.
“China would simply be making good on a pledge made 17 years ago, when they said that for 50 years they would allow rule of Hong Kong by the people of Hong Kong, a high degree of autonomy, and election of the chief executive through universal suffrage,” he said in the speech.
“Now that the 1.3 billion people on the mainland have become moderately wealthy, they will of course wish to enjoy greater democracy and rule of law,” he continued.
This apparently more enlightened attitude to the matter had not yet manifested in a major policy shift by his government on the Chinese question. Whether it will be enough to salvage the fortunes of the KMT in the 2016 elections is unclear.
Van Der Wees called Ma’s gesture “too little, too late.”
He continued: “By the time he said that he had already been going on and on and on about good relations with China, and totally overlooking a number of things that China was doing that was aggravating the situation in Asia… adding up to a very pro-China posture, by the time he got around to raising his finger about Hong Kong.”