It is fascinating how an otherwise sophisticated united front campaign initiated by Beijing to win the “hearts and minds” of Taiwanese can, in some instances, descend into a crude and self-defeating tirade — and nothing draws the worst out of Chinese officials like the idea that democracy could generate outcomes that depart from Beijing’s plans.
The latest instance came over the weekend, when Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin (賈慶林) told Taiwanese during a cross-strait forum that they should “choose the right person” and “vote for the right people” in next year’s presidential and legislative elections.
There is little doubt that by “right person,” Jia meant President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and that the “right people” are Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidates.
Of course, it is beyond Jia’s comprehension, along with that of his political masters, that he has no right to decide for Taiwanese who the “right” person to represent them might be. It is also ironic that an official operating in an authoritarian system where the party, then the state, dictates what is “best” for its citizens, would presume to educate a polity that has cultivated democracy — and used it as an instrument of empowerment — for 15 years.
Farce aside, the remark, which could not have been made without official approval from Zhongnanhai, highlights what can only be interpreted as a growing sense of insecurity in Beijing. With Ma’s re-election far from being a foregone conclusion, Beijing is aware that despite warmer ties, tour groups and spending sprees, it has fallen well short of converting Taiwanese to the idea that China is a friend. In fact, the closer contacts that have resulted from Ma’s cross-strait policies have in several ways merely highlighted the myriad little ways, some trivial, others less so, in which Taiwan and China differ.
It is the right of every Taiwanese to use his or her vote to calibrate government behavior, from the minutiae of everyday life all the way to interactions with authoritarian Beijing. For people like Jia, only the “right person” can ensure continuity in cross-strait exchanges, which underpins Beijing’s plans for eventual unification. However, to Jia’s chagrin, Taiwanese may see things otherwise.
His warning also contains a reminder that in the lead-up to the elections on Jan. 14, the Chinese Communist Party will do its utmost to assist its friends in the KMT, which is likely to translate into wide-ranging political interference in the nation’s domestic affairs. It remains to be seen whether KMT officials, fearing for their political survival, will give in to the allure of Chinese assistance. One test will be whether the Government Information Office, which went on the offensive last week over the light-hearted designation of Taipei as a city of gluttony, will react with similar energy to the naked attempt by another country to influence Taiwan’s democratic system.
Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has a gargantuan challenge on its hands. Not only must it prevail in an electoral system that already favors the KMT and an elite bureaucracy that is largely beholden to the KMT, it will also have to do so in an environment that is increasingly being shaped by Beijing.
Nevertheless, Jia may have unwittingly given the DPP a boost, as warnings and scare tactics have time and again backfired with Taiwanese voters. While more diplomatic than the lobbing of ballistic missiles into the waters off Taiwan in the run-up to the presidential election in 1996, the result of Jia’s ill-veiled threat is likely to be the same: Taiwanese do not like to be told what to think or how to vote.