Beijing just can’t seem to get its strategy right vis-a-vis Taiwanese elections. From the earliest days of Taiwan’s democracy to the current presidential election, Chinese authorities have either put their feet in their mouths or made themselves look foolish with drastic actions that backfire, leaving them holding one end of an empty leash they had hoped would be around Taiwan’s neck.
If Beijing had its way, Taiwan would still be ruled by a right-wing dictatorship bent on retaking the “mainland.” Chinese nationalism in Taiwan would be easy for Beijing to deal with — the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would just wait until the People’s Liberation Army was strong enough, then take Taiwan militarily, because the Nationalists would never declare independence. Taiwanese democracy opened up a can of worms for China. Beijing now faces Taiwanese nationalism, which puts a lot more urgency on cross-strait politics: If China waits too long, Taiwan might just break away forever.
China’s strategy in Taiwan’s first direct presidential election in 1996 was predictable — firing missiles off the coast of Taiwan in an attempt to scare Taiwanese from voting for the candidate Beijing did not favor, former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). Any country that has faced a nationalistic challenge to its rule would know that a few missiles are not enough. The US dropped more bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia than were ever dropped anywhere else in history, but it failed to stop the nationalistic movements there. Taiwanese rejected Chinese bullying and overwhelmingly voted Lee in for another term.
After it seemed to have learned its lesson from 1996, Beijing more or less stayed out of Taiwan’s 2000 election. However, the result was upsetting to Chinese authorities — their nightmare candidate, former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), was voted into power on a split vote. In the waning years of Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s (江澤民) reign, Chinese officials were probably kicking themselves for not interfering in the 2000 election to prevent a split in the pan-blue vote.
Fast forward to 2004 and things finally seem to be going right for Beijing, this time controlled by a nominal technocrat, President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). Beijing kept its bellicosity to a minimum and mostly avoided meddling in the election, while the pan-blue camp was unified and many Taiwanese seemed fed up with the pan-green/pan-blue fighting that had deadlocked the government for four years. If only Chen had not won again, this time with a slim, though absolute, majority, Beijing would have counted itself fortunate.
Officials in China must have been wondering why they couldn’t get this democracy thing right. What were they doing wrong? Things wouldn’t go their way whether they rattled sabers or kept their mouths shut. It must have been frustrating for the leaders of an ever more powerful country with a massive Taiwan-shaped speed bump in its path.
Then, in 2008, everything seemed to go as Beijing planned, or did it? The pro-China candidate they wanted, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), was voted into power on a landslide, the Democratic Progressive Party was routed and Chen — China’s Taiwanese nationalist bogeyman — was thrown in jail on corruption charges. Things couldn’t have gone more in Beijing’s favor. However, Hu and the CCP missed one thing. Taiwanese did not vote Ma into power because of his pro-China stance. They voted him into power out of sheer disappointment in Chen, who had campaigned on cleaning up government, but looked just as corrupt as his predecessors.