Since President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office, there have been visible developments in cross-strait relations — direct transport links, Chinese tourists, and soon, students, and a number of agreements leading toward a planned economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA).
An ECFA is widely viewed as a big move toward cross-strait economic integration. There are many views about what political effects these developments will have. One assumption shared by both supporters and opponents of the government’s course is that cross-strait economic integration establishes the conditions for future political integration and, in particular, political identification, as there are now voices calling for “re-sinicization.” In other words, the process is expected to develop from the economic to the political sphere, with people identifying themselves less as Taiwanese and “learning to be Chinese.” That would comply with Ma’s stated intention to create conditions for unification.
This has happened before in Taiwan’s history. Before the Japanese army occupied Taipei in 1895 there was a short-lived Republic of Formosa, but everyone involved, from the republic’s president Tang Ching-sung (唐景崧) down to its common soldiers, saw themselves as abandoned subjects of the Qing empire. Until the end of World War II, Taiwanese were busy learning to be Japanese.
Although Taiwan-centric consciousness burgeoned during the terms of former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party view things in terms of economic determinism. If Taiwan’s economy becomes more dependent on China, the country will have nowhere to run, they think, and they assume a wave of “re-sinicization” will be inevitable.
Despite all kinds of appeals to Chinese nationalism, from the Beijing Olympics to the Shanghai World Expo, and with Chinese nationalist sympathies broadcast everywhere, Ma’s public approval ratings have not improved.
Why does the number of people identifying themselves as Taiwanese and support for independence keep going up? Even after the ECFA debate between Ma and DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), support for an ECFA referendum has not fallen. Setting aside doubts some may have as to the accuracy of such survey results, what scientific explanation can there be?
Could it be a time lag between cause and effect? Or maybe the political effects of cross-strait economic integration have been misconstrued. Instead of boosting the number of people identifying with China, it has divided attitudes toward cross-strait relations along class lines, even bringing about a major change in the social basis of Taiwan’s political parties. The most obvious expression of this trend is when KMT bigwigs fall over themselves to treat visiting senior Chinese officials to banquets. Many of the seats at these dinners are occupied by the heads of major corporations. Few outside these circles are seen and positive comments are limited to economic benefits, much of which the media cheerfully reports when covering the winners of economic integration.
Meanwhile, there are also many potential losers: The middle and lower classes; central and southern Taiwan; and small and medium-sized enterprises. When the risks and opportunities arising from cross-strait integration are so unevenly distributed, when all the opportunities are monopolized by a minority group of princelings in Taiwan, the question of independence versus unification is no longer one of political demands for the future, but of a threatened loss of livelihoods — it has become an historic class struggle.