Bridge exposes DPP Achilles heel

By Julian Kuo 郭正亮  / 

Mon, Feb 27, 2012 - Page 8

After three failed attempts at tendering out the construction of a bridge connecting Greater Kinmen and Lesser Kinmen the government has interceded, allowing the use of Chinese engineering ships and technicians in what will be the first instance of a cross-strait joint construction project. Expected to cost NT$7.5 billion (US$254 million) and slated for completion in 2016, it will become the world’s longest-span extradosed bridge.

The Kinmen Bridge has also spanned three administrations, beginning with former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and continuing into that of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). It has been a feature of each presidential election, only to disappear when the election is over, and has hence come to be known as the “election pontoon bridge.”

After more than a decade of talk and no action, it looks like construction of the bridge is finally going to happen, which is great news for Kinmen residents. However, as the project allows Taiwanese contractors to rent Chinese equipment and use Chinese technicians, some pan-green legislators have raised objections about “national security concerns.”

Why? Because its construction paves the way for a future cross-strait effort to build another bridge from Kinmen to China’s Xiamen, a trial run for subsequent joint projects to connect other remote islands.

What are these “national security concerns?” If they do exist, the first to be affected would be Kinmen residents, but they are desperate for things to get started as soon as possible, and also construction of the bridge to Xiamen. They have been waiting for this for more than a decade. Do Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators and the pro-green press understand how the locals feel?

The “concerns” that DPP legislators cannot vocalize are that the Kinmen bridge will make it easier for China to occupy both Greater and Lesser Kinmen should war break out, but they do not articulate their worries because they know how ridiculous it would sound.

Last week, the DPP finally published the initial draft of its report on why it lost the election, confirming a “lack of trust in its readiness to govern” as the main reason. They admit the party needs to demonstrate an ability to deal with cross-strait affairs before it can reassure “economic voters” (those who place economic issues at the forefront). No sooner had the party admitted this than it rushed to conclusions about cross-strait cooperation over the Kinmen Bridge and the consequent “national security concerns,” unintentionally revealing precisely the sort of politicization of an issue economic voters detest.

Cross-strait joint projects like the construction of the Kinmen Bridge are likely to become increasingly common. The government is deregulating Chinese investment in Taiwan, allowing Chinese investment in public construction projects, and even in build-operate-transfer (BOT) projects. This will also mean more Chinese investment in financial institutions and in the high-tech industry. One assumes the DPP will object to most of this.

The problem is the DPP is also opposed to capital flowing overseas. If they do not want more Chinese investment here, how do they envisage balancing out the current one-way traffic of Taiwanese investment flowing to China?

Perhaps DPP legislators are unaware that by objecting to Chinese investment in the high-tech industry and complaining about national security concerns they could also be harming their own interests. The most significant example of Chinese investment here recently concerns Chimei Innolux which, with debts of about NT$240 billion, is on the verge of bankruptcy. A certain Chinese corporation is apparently considering taking a 20 percent stake in Chimei, but with present legal restrictions this would be very difficult. Chimei employs thousands of people in southern Taiwan and its founder, Hsu Wen-lung (許文龍), is a pan-green supporter. How can the DPP help Chimei if the Chinese are not allowed to invest?

DPP legislators’ Pavlovian objections to cross-strait cooperation could also cause them to unwittingly harm their constituencies. With the central government tightening the purse strings, certain DPP-controlled local governments sought to attract Chinese investment last year to help fund construction of local ports from which farm produce could be shipped to China, only to be frustrated by legal restrictions and protestations from within the party.

In the next four years cross-strait finance and trade is set to enter a new, normalized stage. If the DPP is not careful, if it fails to clarify what its own political objectives are and continues to put national security above all else, following the same overly-politicized agenda as before, come the next election economic voters will almost certainly remain unconvinced the DPP is fit to govern, or that it can be trusted with cross-strait affairs.

Julian Kuo is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator currently studying for a doctorate in political science at Yale University.

Translated by Paul Cooper