Now that Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) has won the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) nomination and Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT), one has to wonder what preference China has for one or the other.
China’s pick would seem obvious. The DPP is the party of independence, anathema to Beijing’s leaders. Ma calls for unification — China’s declared policy. Chinese officials have applauded Ma’s positions on a host of issues. China has even published a complimentary biography of Ma.
But talk in some quarters in Washington has it that, strangely, Chinese leaders would rather Hsieh win next year’s election and become Taiwan’s next president.
At first glance this seems ridiculous, but it is not. China has been very successful at isolating Taiwan under President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) rule. Taiwan has fewer and fewer diplomatic friends and diminishing global support for anything it wants to do, including highly sensible efforts to participate in the WHO and other international bodies.
Even in Asia Taiwan has few backers. China is dominating regional economic and other organizations and has demanded that Taiwan be excluded. Taiwan’s status in the region has declined fast.
Meanwhile, under the DPP, Taiwan has become dependent upon China economically. More of its exports go to China than anywhere else. More than a million Taiwanese have gone to China, almost all to do business. Chen has overseen Taiwan’s integration with China commercially.
Taiwan’s relations with the US under Chen’s governance have deteriorated markedly. US officials have questioned whether the US should defend Taiwan. They have even denied Taiwan’s sovereignty (though that was no doubt to send a signal to Chen to stop provoking China, which the US needs to maintain stability in East Asia and for other reasons).
Beijing’s leaders thus feel time is on their side and they would like to continue with what they are doing — since they have been so successful at it.
If Ma were to become president next year Chinese leaders would have some compunctions about continuing their isolation of Taiwan and other hostile, but highly productive, policies.
Hsieh is known to be a moderate and will probably try to foster better cross-strait relations. He also is known to dislike Chen, Beijing’s supposed nemesis. But will his policies be different?
Hsieh needs Chen’s help to win the election. He must also use the issue of Taiwan’s national identity and even independence to win votes. How can he, in view of that, pursue better relations with China? Beijing knows this.
Also, Ma is not as good a choice as he may seem. He has been more critical of China’s human-rights abuses (which Chinese leaders don’t like to hear about). He is even known to have some sympathy for the Falun Gong, seen by Beijing as a conspiratorial and dangerous reactionary sect.
Ma talks as if he favors unification. But he has been at odds with party members who really support that policy. He says it is up to the people, knowing numerous polls show there is very little support for unification among Taiwanese, at least in the short term. This means he is unlikely to do anything about it.
Ma is certainly unlikely to live up to China’s expectations and Chinese leaders would be in the awkward position of dealing with their so-called favorite if he were elected.
Thus, ironically, it makes sense that China wants Hsieh to be Taiwan’s next president.
John Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
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