TAIPEI, Taiwan — Can China extend its control over Taiwan as it has over Hong Kong? Beijing certainly wants to, judging by its many and varied efforts to influence the course of Taiwan’s politics, but the people of Taiwan won’t let it, apparently. Taiwan’s presidential election on Saturday, which essentially pits the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen (who has stood up to China) against Han Kuo-yu (who promotes close ties with the mainland), is also a proxy contest about Taiwan’s identity.
The recent assertion of the people of Taiwan’s sense of being Taiwanese has been spectacular. Liao Mei, an economist at National Sun Yat-sen University, and I analyzed unpublished data from surveys conducted in March and April 2019 by my colleagues at the China Impact Studies group at Academia Sinica, and according to those, more than 73 percent of respondents did not want Taiwan to “unify with the mainland China even if it arrives at the same level of economic and political development as Taiwan.” Among respondents ages 20 to 34, the figure exceeded 93 percent.
Beijing has long tried to win the hearts of the Taiwanese politically thanks to economic incentives. But in doing so it misread their priorities. When the Academia Sinica pollsters asked respondents whether economic interest or national security was, to them, the more important issue in relations across the Taiwan Strait, about 62 percent answered national security and only about 32 percent, economic interest. (The remainder chose both.)
Since the outbreak of the Sunflower Movement in 2014 — a series of student and civic protests against a proposed free trade deal between Taiwan and the mainland — Beijing has spent lavishly on Taiwan’s young people, offering them scholarships, preferential treatment and the lure of start-up incubators. But these measures have proved ineffective so far: Ms. Tsai appears to have garnered considerable support from young voters in the current presidential race.
Some of the Chinese government’s efforts became mired in red tape, were exposed as veiled indoctrination efforts or were hijacked by people in Taiwan who collaborated only out of opportunism. But also, Beijing itself has unwittingly forged a new brand of patriotism in Taiwan — to an extent that even the poll data I have cited cannot fully capture.
In 2015, President Xi Jinping of China told then-President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan: “No forces could separate us despite gusts of wind and rain and longtime isolation from each other, because we are brothers whose bones are broken but tendons are still connected, and we are a family whose blood is thicker than water.” The florid rhetoric could not mask the fact that the Chinese Communist Party’s so-called One China policy — generously backed by information warfare, a diplomatic campaign against Taiwan, the cultivation of a local pro-China lobby — is in fact an aggressive annexation policy. Beijing, despite itself, is only giving the people of Taiwan a raison d’être and a common cause to rally against its attempt to conquer them.
The people of Taiwan don’t just have more and more reason to keep their distance from China; now, they also have more opportunity to. This is partly because of the growing rivalry between the United States and China, which has prompted Washington to increase its support of Taiwan in various fields, from the military to the economy.
Taiwanese investment in mainland China, especially in traditional industries such as footwear manufacturing, had dropped after the global financial crisis in 2008. But the trade war waged by President Trump has caused global supply chains to reorganize and relocate, especially assembly lines for information and communications technologies.
During Mr. Ma’s tenure (2008–16), nearly 70 percent of Taiwan’s global foreign direct investment was in China; under the Tsai government, the figure has dropped to 43 percent. (These are my estimates, calculated from statistics from the two administrations’ official websites.) With the United States–China trade war, the reshoring of Taiwanese investment in Taiwan has hit a record. For the first 11 months of 2019, Taiwanese companies with business operations on both the island and the mainland invested $4.1 billion in China and $23.2 billion in Taiwan. This evolution doesn’t only mean that Taiwan’s economic dependence on China is decreasing; it means that this dependence is decreasing in favor of Taiwan’s growing economic investment back home.
As Taiwan’s indigenous identity is strengthening, in other words, Taiwan is also reinvesting in its economy.
This twin evolution has great implications for cross-strait relations, and it may heighten Beijing’s impatience toward Taiwan. But that, in turn, may only push Taiwan further away from the mainland. Can Beijing still hope to buy Taiwan, or do the Taiwanese now feel too Taiwanese to allow that? This is one of the major questions this weekend’s election will answer.
Wu Jieh-min is a research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, in Taipei.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].