In Taiwan 2020 election race, the influence of mainland-based voters may be waning

Sarah Zheng

As Taiwan’s 2020 presidential race approaches, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party will be counting on the support of one of its most loyal constituencies – the Taiwanese business community living and working on the mainland. But some analysts believe their influence is a diminishing force in the self-ruled island’s politics.

One of these businessmen, surnamed Lin, who has lived in mainland China for more than a decade, identifies politically as someone who leans blue – the colour associated with the Beijing-friendly KMT – rather than green, which is linked to the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

But Lin, who declined to be identified by his full name so he could speak freely, said he was thinking of sitting out next year’s election after his preferred candidate, Taiwanese billionaire tycoon Terry Gou Tai-min, lost out on the KMT nomination in favour of Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu.

Han will be facing off against current President Tsai Ing-wen who will be seeking a second term on the strength of her stance against pressure from Beijing which claims self-governed Taiwan as its own, to be reunited with the mainland by force if necessary.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen is seeking a second term on the strength of her stance against Beijing. Photo: Facebook

“My wife and I are both more blue, or rather, anti-green,” Lin said, from a Taipei cafe while visiting family back home. “But I am worried now that the Kuomintang is too close to China, although the DPP is too dumb and incapable,” he said.

“I don’t think I will come back to vote this time. Anyway, no matter if it is the KMT or the DPP that wins, Beijing’s ambitions on Taiwan will not change.”

Lin, 55, is among an estimated one million Taiwanese businesspeople who live and work in mainland China. Collectively they are known as Taishang and the majority are likely to cast their votes for pan-blue candidates, unshaken by Beijing’s pressure on the island, because of their vested interests in friendlier cross-strait ties between Beijing and Taipei.

But analysts say that, as the Taishang community’s influence has waned in recent years, its strength as a voting bloc has also diminished, with a significant minority of voters like Lin believing their votes may not matter in this election. Some may even prefer pan-green policies.

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Chun-Yi Lee, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham who has researched relations between Taiwanese businesspeople and the Chinese government, said the Taishang would be less critical to the election than in previous years.

Their role as a linking community between Taiwan and the mainland had waned as their numbers had fallen, with supply chains shifting to places such as Southeast Asia, she said. Official statistics showed investments from Taiwan to the mainland in the first nine months of this year reached US$2.8 billion, a far cry from the US$6.5 billion in the same period last year.

“In my view, they would still be supporters of the KMT or wish to push more China-friendly policies, but the scale can’t compare to before,” she said. “But for many, it’s for economic reasons, it’s not ideological. If their investment transferred or withdrew from China, the fundamental supporting ideology [for the KMT] would be gone.”

Back home, the KMT has struggled with cross-strait issues in the run-up to the January poll, particularly as ongoing anti-government protests in Hong Kong have heightened awareness in Taiwan of the threat behind Beijing’s ramped-up pressure against the island.

Grafitti in Hong Kong, where anti-government protests have hardened Taiwan’s attitude to the “one country, two systems” framework for reunification with the mainland. Photo: Warton Li

Both major parties have rejected the “one country, two systems” framework in Hong Kong that Beijing has proposed for Taiwan, but Tsai has capitalised on her efforts to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty while the KMT has slammed her administration for the resulting deterioration in cross-strait relations.

But for mainland-based Taishang, voting will be primarily based on protecting their economic and investment interests on the mainland, analysts say.

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Timothy Rich, who researches Taiwan’s electoral politics at Western Kentucky University, said the Taishang voting bloc’s consistency may “weaken slightly” with rising concerns about Chinese encroachment in Taiwanese politics and economics, along with generational changes, but that the community would still be expected to lean KMT.

“Old habits die slowly,” he said. “It is not clear to me that the DPP is seen as a viable alternative for these traditionally blue voters, who would prefer economic opportunities in China without the political baggage if possible.”

Many are also concerned that a draft foreign influence transparency act supported by DPP lawmakers could target Taishang and other Taiwanese on the mainland as “agents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).” The proposed legislation stemmed partly from concerns about Beijing’s influence in Taiwan, notably accusations that organisations with financial interests on the mainland were spreading China-friendly narratives in media outlets they owned in Taiwan.

Lin Ruihua, a Taiwanese researcher at the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, said general sentiment from Taishang circles showed many would support the KMT, but a close election could see Gou supporters hesitant to turn out and vote for Han to ensure a KMT administration.

Taiwanese on the mainland tended to hold more nuanced views of cross-strait relations, with many rejecting Tsai’s efforts to link the 1992 consensus – or the understanding that there is “one China” – to one country, two systems, she said.

“People seem quite keen to vote in this election and many will vote blue, although those who would vote green would not be speaking out,” she said. “The ‘CCP agents’ bill has stirred up emotions for those of us on the mainland, whether you identify as blue or green. Some may be more resolved to vote, even if they cast their votes [for Han] with tears in their eyes.”

Supporters of Opposition Nationalist Kuomintang Party (KMT). Photo: Reuters

Despite their diminished influence, Beijing has sought to mobilise the Taishang vote for the KMT, this month announcing “26 measures” to provide greater access to the mainland for people from Taiwan. The latest incentives were on top of last year’s “31 measures”. As in past elections, airlines are offering cheaper packages to Taiwan for election day on January 11, with some mainland carriers slashing their normal prices nearly in half, according to Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA).

Lin Ching-fa, former chairman of the Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the mainland, said he would fly home from Beijing, where he has been based since 1994, to vote for Han to improve the state of cross-strait relations.

“We [Taishang] will not let Tsai win another term, this is our consensus. If we have another term under Tsai, what business can we expect to do? We always joke that Tsai is actually the peace ambassador for cross-strait relations because she helps accelerate unification,” he said.

Supporters of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) wave to candidates during a campaign rally for the local elections. Photo: Reuters

Lin, who is in the bicycle manufacturing business, said he did not understand why people were more worried about one country, two systems for Taiwan than the island’s economic growth. Taiwan’s official trade data showed mainland China was Taiwan’s top trading partner, accounting for 24 per cent of total trade in the first nine months of 2019, worth around US$107 billion.

“If all this trade did not exist any more, then would Taiwan still be there?” Lin said. “What we should be worried about is free trade agreements with the mainland – this is where the real risk lies for us.”

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But Chen, who worked for two years at a Taiwanese company in Shenzhen, disagreed. The 24-year-old said his salary on the mainland was double what it would be in Taiwan, but that he would vote for Tsai because he believed in her cross-strait approach, as well as his own avowed dislike of Han.

“Tsai’s approach towards Beijing is not as soft as the former president, Ma Ying-jeou, but is not as strong as [Ma’s predecessor] Chen Shui-bian,” said Chen, who voted for independent Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je in the November election last year. “Her attitude will make Beijing understand that Taiwan cannot be so easily bullied, but it’s also not so strong that Beijing will brazenly suppress us.”

Ma Ying-jeou (centre) was president of Taiwan from 2008 to 2016. Photo: Department of Information Services, Executive Yuan

Chen, who plans to leave the mainland for graduate school, said he would never accept one country, two systems for Taiwan, branding Beijing’s efforts to win over young Taiwanese as a “complete failure.”

Back in the Taipei cafe, Lin – the businessman who preferred billionaire Gou to Han, the KMT’s nominated candidate – dropped his voice to a whisper as he revealed one of his greatest concerns for the future: Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s tightening control over Chinese society.

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Lin said he distrusted the Chinese Communist Party and was wary of its creeping interference in Taiwan’s media and society.

“I feel this lack of freedom on the mainland, mostly in terms of speech, because we are afraid to say anything on WeChat,” he said, adding he would stay on the mainland only for the vast business opportunities.

“I think it would be a tragedy if Taiwan became part of China because a country that is not free is like hell. I would leave for sure. We would rather be poorer, as long as we are free,” he said.

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