The stunning defeat of Chinese Nationalist Party Taipei mayoral candidate (KMT) Sean Lien (連勝文) was shocking to his supporters. After all, he comes from a very wealthy and well-connected family who command enormous resources. His father, former vice president Lien Chan (連戰), has been Beijing’s principal interlocutor since 2005.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) met Sean Lien last year and appears to be fond of the tall young man, giving the impression that Xi had endorsed Sean’s candidacy.
It stands to reason that if Sean Lien were elected mayor of the nation’s capital, he would not only be Beijing’s direct link to the KMT’s leadership, but would also be in control of a strategic power base to counter-balance President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and to play a key role in Taiwan’s cross-strait policy, as well.
However, to many observers in and outside Taiwan, Sean Lien, a political novice, is not ready to govern and lead Taipei and his loss to Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a famed physician of the National Taiwan University Hospital, was a foregone conclusion.
While Ko is an independent candidate, he enjoys the full backing of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and most other anti-KMT political and civic groups, and led almost all local media polls in the past seven months.
Sean Lien’s campaign was hampered from the beginning by an internal KMT power struggle.It is no secret that Ma does not get along well with the Lien family, as his role in cross-strait affairs has been eclipsed by Lien Chan, who seems to have Beijing’s confidence and has met Xi and his predecessor, former Chinese president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), many times.
Sean Lien was not Ma’s first choice as the KMT’s Taipei candidate, as he had openly criticized Ma’s leadership and had to stage a bitter primary challenge to prevail over Ma’s choice.
Ma did campaign actively and assiduously for Sean Lien last month, but a highly unpopular president’s campaign appearances were not helpful — and some cynical campaign aides called Ma’s presence “a kiss of death.”
In addition to Ma’s problems, Sean Lien’s campaign was disorganized and poorly managed. He had too many campaign helpers — young staff members he recruited and the high-profile experienced senior cadres who worked for his father — and the two groups had divergent ideas and gave the candidate conflicting advice.
Ironically, his camp did not present a viable and attractive policy platform that would reflect the wisdom and experience of the high-powered advisers, nor did it focus on such issues as public housing and job opportunities, which are of great concern to most voters, especially younger generations.
Regrettably, Sean Lien camp’s negative campaign — which stoked social and ethnic cleavages and tensions — backfired badly.
When Lien Chan launched personal attacks on Ko, and former premier Hau Pai-tsun (郝柏村) accused Ko of being a descendent of Japanese imperial officials — because Ko’s father and grandfather were educated under the Japanese colonial system and served as teachers — there was a significant angry social uproar and backlash from voters.
Sean Lien was once popular in the polls, but as the campaign heated up, his good press evaporated and he bitterly complained about being treated unfairly by media outlets.
Sean Lien’s defeat is not merely a setback for his personal political career: It also severely tarnishes his father’s position and political stature in Taiwan — and in Beijing as well.
Likewise, the special privileges awarded by Chinese authorities to Lien family businesses could be revoked or reduced in due time.
The nine-in-one elections were local elections, but voters used their ballots to cast a vote of no confidence against Ma and his pro-China cross-strait policies.
Analysts expect the anti-Ma domino effect to extend to the presidential and legislative elections in 2016, which would drive the KMT out of national government and bring the DPP back to power.
Beijing has much at stake in the changes in Taiwan’s power structure and cross-strait policy, and is likely to reset its strategy to cope with contingencies in Taiwan.
Much to his chagrin, Xi discovered only belatedly that the protests of the Sunflower movement and other civic groups were directed at Ma’s tilt toward China and cross-strait economic cooperation programs.
Xi learned from his long talk with People First Party Chairman James Soong (宋楚瑜) in May that China’s strategy to “buy” Taiwan, which was initiated by Hu, helps enrich only Taiwan’s business tycoons while alienating the mainstream.
Reportedly, Xi angrily upbraided Taiwan Affairs Office Director Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) and other agencies that deal with Taiwan for their failure in intelligence-gathering, as they tend to depend on biased and one-sided information supplied by KMT interlocutors.
It is in this context that Zhang made a historic trip on June 25 to learn about the “real Taiwan.” He was instructed by Xi to broaden contact and engage with wide circles of Taiwanese, especially from ordinary residents in central and southern Taiwan and younger people.
Zhang also called on two major political leaders: Greater Kaohsiung Mayor Chen Chu (陳菊), an influential DPP member — as he sought to make friends among the higher echelons of the party — and KMT New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu (朱立倫).
As Sean Lien is out of Taiwan’s political landscape and Ma is a lost cause, Eric Chu — who barely won re-election — is one of the few remaining political stars in the party and a probable KMT candidate for president in 2016.
It is important for Beijing’s leaders to understand the true meaning of Taiwan’s election results and act accordingly.
If Beijing hopes to start a new phase in cross-strait relations, it must do away with its anachronistic “one China” principle and its so-called “one country, two systems” formula.
Instead, it must respect Taiwanese core values: democracy, freedom, human rights and sovereignty.
Parris Chang is professor emeritus of political science at Pennsylvania State University and president of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.
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