The refrain has been heard time and again: Only a small minority of pro-independence “splittists” oppose the eventual “reunification” of Taiwan and China to reinvigorate the Great Chinese Race.
If that were indeed the case, then politicians in Beijing should be unhesitant to take up the following challenge: to field the best possible candidate they can come up with to run for president — OK, let us be fair to them, as “governor,” or “leader” — of Taiwan in the 2016 election.
Of course, this scenario would be contingent on a number of variables. Chief among them would be for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to abandon its opposition to universal suffrage and elections (loosely defined here) at more than just the village level.
Another would be for the vote to be restricted to people of voting age on all the territories controlled by Taiwan. After all, the object of this exercise is to determine the willingness of Taiwanese to join China, and not the desire among Chinese (ostensibly high) to unify with Taiwan.
For the sake of this little experiment, let us assume that Beijing chooses to play along and also agrees not to threaten military action should the elections fail to yield its desired outcome — a CCP win. “Free” and “fair” elections, inasmuch as those are possible in Taiwan.
To ensure a level playing field, let us even give the Chinese candidate campaign coffers equal to those of its principal opponents, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which would thus give rise to a three-way race.
Odd though this may seem, communist parties, as well as authoritarian regimes that seek to export their political systems abroad, have not always been opposed to political pluralism and democratic elections.
As Anne Applebaum notes in Iron Curtain, an important new work on the Soviet Union’s penetration of Eastern Europe following World War II, communists believe in their own doctrine and also believe that the majority will eventually acquire a consciousness, accept “historical destiny” and vote for a communist regime. Only after repeated failures at the polls did communist regimes, backed by Moscow, adopt more draconian measures to impose their will on the populace.
In that respect, it would be reasonable to ask if Beijing today might not be at the point where, like the Soviet Union through the 1950s, it is powerful enough and its politico-economic system attractive enough that it can persuade others to emulate it, if not join it, as it hopes Taiwan will do one day.
However, given the current trends in Taiwanese consciousness, self-identification and desire for independence, the “status quo” or unification, it is clear that a CCP candidate, even the best one, would face a formidable challenge.
In fact, the CCP would come in a very distant third and would probably succeed only in stealing a small number of votes from the extreme of the pan-blue camp that, for lack of alternatives, either votes for the KMT (far too conservative and “centrist” in their view) or marginal pro-unification parties that have exactly no chance of prevailing at the polls.
Granted, it could also attract votes from the business sector, especially firms that can make a profit in China, but those would be largely insufficient to have a serious impact on the outcome of the election.
Furthermore, one does not need the CCP to facilitate cross-strait trade, as the KMT has clearly demonstrated.
Were it allowed to proceed, this experiment would have the added advantage of forcing the KMT to further distance itself from the CCP, especially if it sought to attract votes from the DPP, the only party that stands to benefit from a split vote engendered by the participation of the CCP in the election.
While the KMT is often accused of being pro-China, the campaign would inevitably highlight the wide ideological chasm that exists between the indigenized KMT and the CCP.
In the end, the CCP opposes universal suffrage and refuses to participate in provincial, territorial (Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, Xinjiang) or nationwide elections because it knows the outcome would not play in its favor. In that respect, it is already more aware than its Soviet counterpart after World War II. That it has not had to use force — the Soviets’ ultimate move in Eastern Europe — is a function of its ability to preempt the emergence of political pluralism and democratic elections in the territories that it currently controls (Hong Kong, though “liberal,” was never a democracy).
There is no turning back the clock with Taiwan. The nation’s democratic way of life, which is much more consolidated than that of the East European countries the Soviets first tried to woo then overran, is here to stay.
It is also resilient enough and aware of its identity that its 23 million people could allow a CCP candidate to run in 2016, and do so without fear. Above all, that is why, despite closer ties across the Taiwan Strait since President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) election in 2008, the People’s Liberation Army has continued its military buildup across the Strait.
That is why Beijing never took the military option off the table. And that is why united front activities are intensifying. Like the Soviets after their series of electoral failures in Eastern Europe, Beijing is realizing that after several attempts at winning the “hearts” and “minds” of its coveted subjects, or at buying them outright, all this work is bound to fail.
In the end, Beijing does not believe its own rhetoric that “reunification” is being held up by a handful of “anti-China separatists.” Such falsehoods can only exist in the realms of propaganda and would not stand the test of reality as experienced at the voting booth.
Reality is the last thing Beijing wants to be made public. It does not want the world to know that, given the choice, an overwhelming majority of Taiwanese would not check the box next to a CCP candidate.
That is why this experiment will never take place.
J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.