TAIWAN: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Divisive politics alienate Taiwanese
, July 21, 2007
Many Taiwanese would willingly accept boring politics in exchange for an expanding economic pie and reduced tension with China, reports Jeffry Babb.The people of Taiwan will go to the polls to elect a new president early next year, probably in March. For many, it will be a great relief to see the end of President Chen Shui-bian, who has based his policies on creating a division between the Taiwanese - those who settled on the island from mainland China's Fujian Province, beginning in the 16th century - and the later arrivals, the Mainlanders, who arrived from China after the 1949 communist expulsion from the mainland of the Kuomintang, led by Chiang Kai-shek.
President Chen has been leading a campaign to overturn the legacy of Chiang Kai-shek, and also his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who followed his father as president. The aim is to "de-sinicise" Taiwan - to get "China" out of the Taiwan equation. Chen and his Democratic Progressive Party have been waging this campaign relentlessly, described as a "Cultural Revolution" in the island's most prominent English-language newspaper, The China Post
. Chen has removed the name of the elder Chiang from Taipei's international airport, and also from the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, among other things.External shocks
The truth is, local politics in Taiwan under the two Chiangs was very boring. Nothing much happened. The shocks were almost all external, as Taiwan lost one diplomatic battle after another to Mao's China, culminating in the loss of recognition as the government of China by the United States during the Carter Administration.
But if local politics under the Chiangs was boring, the economy was booming. Taiwan regularly posted double-digit economic growth in the 1970s and '80s, as its manufacturing sector swung into high gear.
Initially, exports were low-skilled manufactures like clothing and "junk", such as toys and stationery, but Taiwan steadily upgraded its skills and economy, soon becoming the world's most prolific producer of high-tech goods such as computers and other consumer electronics.
The rise of China as the world's leading manufacturing power was facilitated by Taiwan's entrepreneurs, who poured vast quantities of capital into the mainland, estimated to be in excess of US$100 billion.
Their expertise was just as important as their money. Taiwan's entrepreneurs have a world-renowned skill at managing manufacturing enterprises. Many Taiwan firms were irresistibly drawn to mainland China, where land and labour are plentiful, unlike Taiwan, which is less than half the size of Tasmania.
Coupled with the rise of China - simultaneously a competitor and an opportunity for Taiwan - was the election of President Chen. Then politics became really
Chen made a series of undertakings to Taiwan's major ally, the United States, the gist of which was that Taiwan would not seek independence from China. Experts generally agree a declaration of independence would inevitably provoke a military response from Beijing. The United States would be drawn into such a conflict.
Under Washington's Taiwan Relations Act, which governs the interaction of the two nations, the US has no treaty obligation to defend Taiwan from mainland attack, although it is required to provide weapons for Taiwan to defend itself. Even so, a Chinese attack would force the US to respond militarily. Taiwan has many friends in the US Congress, who have shown themselves to be a powerful group when Taiwan's interests are threatened.
Under President Chen, Taiwan politics became interesting. Chen won the presidency in 2000 through a split in the anti-Chen vote, and won again in 2004 by a narrow margin, attributed by many to a mysterious botched assassination attempt on the eve of the presidential poll.
For many, Chen's election recalled the ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." As Chen rolled out his anti-Chinese program, he leapfrogged from one shock to another. The economy slowed dramatically. Although its economy showed respectable figures, Taiwan was left in the dust of Singapore and South Korea, and even a resurgent Hong Kong, the other members of the "Four Dragons".
Chen cannot run again, due to a two-term limit for the presidency. His Democratic Progressive Party has selected Frank Hsieh as its candidate. Hsieh is playing Bob Hawke to Chen's Gough Whitlam, but so far, the electorate is unenthusiastic.
The opposition Kuomintang has selected former Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou as its candidate. Ma, who is the most popular political figure on the island, will be joined by former Premier Vincent Siew as his running-mate. Siew is not only a well-regarded economic expert; he also has the advantage of being a Taiwanese.
Ma was born in Hong Kong. Apart from the rock-solid pro-independence supporters, who constitute some 30 per cent of the electorate, most of Taiwan's people want a return to Taiwan's key competence - economic development.
Most people would willingly accept boring politics in exchange for an expanding economic pie and reduced tensions with its allies - and mainland China.- Jeffry Babb was until recently a Taipei-based journalist.