Asia Pacific / Politics

Ahead of Taiwan's January election, China tries to offer up a softer touch

Reuters, Kyodo

China is stepping up efforts to be nice to Taiwan ahead of key elections on Jan. 11, offering better treatment to Taiwanese in China and urging the democratic island to “come home,” but many there only see Beijing wielding a threatening stick.

China denies interfering in elections in Taiwan, which it claims as sacred territory, but it traditionally tries various means to influence their result, hoping politicians with a more positive view of Chinese ties get into office.

These can range from military intimidation — China fired missiles into the Taiwan Strait before the 1996 election — to what Taiwan’s government calls Beijing’s manipulation of China-friendly Taiwanese media.

China also wants to ensure that Taiwan’s huge business community in the country is happy, hoping businesspeople will go home to vote for China-friendly politicians.

In November, China unveiled 26 measures to further open its economy to Taiwanese investors and said Taiwanese abroad could turn to Chinese embassies for consular help.

Dovetailing with those steps has been an unusual Chinese effort at soft power to speak directly to people in Taiwan, a gentler approach after some hostile moves this year, such as a threat of force by President Xi Jinping in January.

Commenting on the 26 measures, Hai Xia, one of the highest-profile news presenters on Chinese state television, appealed for Taiwan to return “home.”

“Taiwan’s fate is connected with the motherland. Wan Wan, come home,” she said on the air, using a diminutive for Taiwan.

Not only has China been using Mandarin, the official tongue on both sides of the strait, but it has also deployed Hokkien and Hakka, two languages spoken on the island whose formal use is not encouraged in China.

On Wednesday, it introduced Zhu Fenglian, a new spokeswoman for its policymaking Taiwan Affairs Office, who voiced warm greetings in both languages at her first news conference.

“I am a Hakka from Guangdong. I’d like first here to say hello to folks in Taiwan,” she said in Hokkien, generally known in Taiwan as Taiwanese.

Many politicians in Taiwan, a rambunctious democracy, have responded vigorously to China’s gestures.

Beijing should focus on “giving its own people a bit more freedom,” Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said on Twitter in response to China’s 26 measures, writing in the simplified kanji used in China but not Taiwan.

The Chinese state television comment on “coming home” also triggered a backlash.

“Thank you for your concern; the people of Taiwan are already in their own home,” independent legislator Hung Tzu-yung wrote on her Facebook page.

Cho Jung-tai, chairman of the ruling pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, which has repeatedly warned of the threat China poses, said last week that China is the “enemy of democracy.”

Even Taiwan’s main opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), which favors closer ties, has been cautious of being too closely associated with Beijing in an election year.

Polls show President Tsai Ing-wen, a DPP member, leading KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu by over 10 points, and most indicate that, barring a major scandal or economic downturn, Taiwan’s first female president is headed for a second term.

Tsai’s rebound is widely attributed to two main causes, both involving China.

The first is the pro-democracy unrest in Hong Kong, which has filled local media with the kind of news guaranteed to increase support for the DPP among voters wary of China and the Kuomintang.

The second is Taiwan’s economic health, which the U.S.-China trade war boosted in recent months as foreign businesses seek alternate sources for goods that once were manufactured on the mainland.

The Kuomintang, commenting recently on China’s new measures for Taiwanese in China, welcomed their beneficial content.

“But if any of these actions belittle the sovereignty of the Republic of China, it must be firmly opposed,” it warned, using Taiwan’s official name.

“The Kuomintang hopes both sides of the Taiwan Strait will give priority to each other’s livelihoods and not hurt the rights and interests of the people on both sides for momentary election considerations.”