In an article titled First Year of the China Factor published on Christmas day in a Chinese-language publication, Academia Sinica research fellow Wu Jieh-min (吳介民) said that China has been using a “cross-strait political-commercial alliance” comprised of financial groups and pro-China organizations to interfere in Taiwan’s elections, and in doing so, influencing policymaking, public discourse and political order. The article garnered quite a bit of attention, but there was also quite a lot of confusion in the subsequent debate, which descended into so much noise with the sheer plethora of different opinions being voiced. Unfortunately, this was a lost opportunity to reflect on this idea of the “China factor” and its repercussions.
The ensuing debate not only had various different foci, it also approached the question from many different perspectives. Some took a moralistic approach, categorizing the issue as concerning the machinations of a malevolent power, while others looked at China’s influence on Taiwan over the course of the last century.
There was also some slightly more in-depth analysis, considering both the positive and negative aspects of the China factor, with some distinguishing between the “China factor” (中國因素) and the “Beijing factor” (北京因素). There were also those who took a comparative approach by looking at the experience of Hong Kong society over the past decade or so.
In fact, if one proceeds from a preliminary lexical analysis for “China factor” in the news archives over the past 10 years, one discovers that the term has, indeed, become increasingly common since 2000, but that its actual meaning has changed. Some people think that the term has only really become quantitatively significant recently, as a result of last year’s presidential election, and that the present preoccupation with the idea is misplaced.
However, this is not the case. The China factor has been consistently present in public discourse in Taiwan for the past 12 years, and it has gradually been assuming a more important place within that discourse, although it is true that it was discussed more in the run-up to, and immediate aftermath of, presidential elections.
As we have said, the actual nature of the debate has morphed in that time, too. Earlier on, the focus had been on the “external” influence of China, concentrating on Beijing’s application of pressure on Taiwan internationally, and Taiwan’s opportunities and pitfalls as a result of China’s economic progress. More recently, the debate on the China factor has turned to the “internal” aspects, to how it is directly influencing Taiwan’s broadcast media, human rights and consolidation of democracy.
We can say, then, that the influence of the China factor on Taiwan during the past decade or so has been a process — at least in terms of public debate — of moving from external to internal influence, and from less to more.
If we agree to use Wu’s definition of the China factor, and take it as Beijing’s ability to encroach upon Taiwan’s democracy, then, according to the trends mentioned above, there are justifiable concerns that China is trying to make Taiwan another Hong Kong. It is true that, since the 1980s, the progress of democratization in Hong Kong has sustained some serious body blows from Beijing’s interference and obstructive behavior. Economically speaking, the former British territory has also had concerns over whether it will lose some of its strong position, and come to be seen as a secondary Chinese city. The people of Hong Kong have seen fit to take to the streets to safeguard their core values of freedom and the rule of law.