When the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) so vigorously campaigned for Taiwan to sign the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China two years ago, it not only viewed it as a way to improve economic and political ties across the Taiwan Strait, but also as a major political achievement.
The KMT thought the ECFA would boost its votes in last year’s special municipality elections and January’s presidential and legislative elections. However, the results of the elections in New Taipei City (新北市) and Taipei City at the end of last year suggest the ECFA had no apparent effect, especially when compared with the lively debates concerning the Taipei International Flora Expo: Local administrative issues completely marginalized the far more national concern of cross-strait relations.
In the past, political views regarding cross-strait relations, unification and independence were a dividing factor and a major source of competition in domestic politics. However, the Taiwanese-versus-Chinese identity debate has not been the only wellspring of political momentum. Nevertheless, at the national level the issue of unification or independence has restructured the party-political spectrum.
Now that cross-strait relations are ostensibly warmer, why isn’t it being discussed in election campaigns? What seemed to be a thriving KMT is now dancing to a new tune. Do the difficulties the KMT faced during last year’s municipality elections herald any significant shift in the public’s understanding or opinion of cross-strait relations?
The issue of cross-strait relations under the KMT is no longer simply an issue of unification versus independence, but rather a relationship dealing with special interests and material gains. Although the ECFA has a tinge of political opacity, it is basically an agreement about China cutting import tariffs for Taiwan.
However, the fact that the ECFA blatantly favors Taiwan should be an omen of how we are being forced to see only the benefits of more intimate cross-strait relations, instead of what it means further down the line. Whether it is high-level Chinese officials leading purchase groups visiting Taiwan — such as the governor of Shandong Province last month, the deputy chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits the month before or the Chinese Minister of Culture, who advocated a cultural version of the ECFA — it all boils down to economic determinism. The more Taiwan relies on China economically, the easier political integration becomes.
The problem is that if economic ties are reduced to a relationship purely about material gains, then the previously dichotomous pan-blue pro-unification and pan-green pro-independence political structure becomes useless in explaining the effect of cross-strait relations on Taiwan. Moreover, this newly formed relationship will become a critically important element in the restructuring of the pan-blue and pan-green political terrain.
The redistribution of wealth and the more apparent distinctions among social classes that the ECFA ushers in will not simply develop according to society’s current ethno-linguistic groups, pan-blue versus pan-green or even north versus south.
The newly polarized demographics of an exploitative existence expressed in the binary advantaged--disadvantaged system might very well replace our conventional notions of national identity and independence---unification politics, eventually causing progress in cross-strait relations to backfire. This explains why the issue of the ECFA lost its appeal in the special municipality elections last year, and why it is still not clear how it will affect the presidential and legislative elections at the beginning of next year.