President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) election and the return to power of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in 2008 opened the door for rapprochement with China and marked a significant change in the cross-strait dynamic. Equally important, the Chinese leadership has also changed its approach to Taiwan.
Former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) eschewed the threat of force and placed greater emphasis on other means of influence to avoid possible military confrontation with the US, which has maintained a protective security relationship with Taiwan as mandated by its Taiwan Relations Act.
Hu is said to have confided to his inner circles that it is both easier and less expensive to “buy” than to militarily conquer Taiwan. Hence Beijing has been steadily acting on this logic through economic means and a wily united front operation to make inroads into corporate Taiwan, the ruling and opposition parties’ media, and at the grassroots level to enhance Beijing’s outreach and control over the nation in order to bring about unification.
In 2009, China and Taiwan signed an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) including 18 specific agreements to normalize economic relations and liberalize Taiwan’s trade and investment with China. There have been 670 cross-strait flights weekly, and Taiwan’s sightseeing sites nowadays are crowded with Chinese tourists — 2.8 million visited Taiwan last year.
Reinforcing this gradual shift toward Beijing are Taiwan’s large enterprises and business leaders, who have benefited from the liberalization of cross-strait trade and investment made possible by the ECFA. Moreover, Beijing has skillfully utilized such economic gatherings as the Boao Forum and the Nanjing Forum to reach out and patronize Taiwan’s business leaders.
Most of the business elite have thus become staunch supporters of cross-strait rapprochement and Beijing’s cause. During the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012, for example, quite a few Taiwanese business tycoons campaigned for Ma’s re-election and tens of thousands of Taiwanese businesspeople chartered 375 special flights to return to Taiwan to cast their votes — presumably for Ma and the KMT’s legislative candidates.
As part of its political, information and united front operations in Taiwan, Beijing has worked through local merchants who have a business stake in China to acquire Taiwanese newspapers and TV stations. Beijing now can direct these media outlets and others that have received Chinese funding to propagate politically “correct” information.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), who succeeded Hu as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and national leader, has continued Hu’s overall approach toward Taiwan, except he is pushing harder and faster to implement Beijing’s policy agenda on the nation.
In politics, Beijing is exerting immense pressure on the Ma regime toward more cross-strait political dialogue that will lead to a peace agreement. Ma so far has put forth a formula of “economics first, politics later” to restrict cross-strait interaction to economic relations.
On Oct. 6 last year, Xi reportedly told Ma’s special envoy to the APEC summit: “The issue must step by step reach a final resolution and it cannot be passed on from generation to generation.”
These remarks to former Taiwanese vice president Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) are widely interpreted as an expression of Beijing’s impatience with Ma’s stonewalling against cross-strait political dialogue.