A test for Taiwan and China

It has been a rough year for Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou. His popularity ratings have been falling, dragged down by sluggish economic growth and doubts about his commitment to the protection of Taiwan’s sovereignty. Concern about his policy toward the mainland prompted a student seizure of Parliament last spring.

Those worries have been magnified in recent weeks in the wake of the unrest in Hong Kong, and they crystallized last month in a stunning defeat for the ruling party in local elections held throughout Taiwan. More than 11,000 positions were up for grabs in local elections where positions ranging from village chiefs to mayors were at stake.

Going into the ballot, Ma’s Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), held 15 of Taiwan’s 22 cities and counties; it won just six in the Nov. 29 vote, and even lost control of Taipei, the island’s capital and largest city, and a KMT stronghold for the last 16 years. Every president since 1996 has been a former Taipei leader.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party is now in charge of 13 cities, including four of Taiwan’s six special municipalities, the island’s largest cities. Three cities went to independents.

The results amount to a vote of no confidence in the Ma government, generated by concern among youths about their economic prospects and mounting worry among all Taiwanese about Taiwan’s increasingly close relationship with China.

Economic issues hung over the election. Throughout his administration, Ma has pushed for closer ties with China to boost the island’s economic prospects.

That strategy has paid off: Ma has concluded several trade and investment agreements, most of them with China, that have created nearly 10,000 jobs and bumped cross-strait trade to a record high $124 billion.

Although Taiwan’s economy registered 3.8 percent growth in the third quarter and gross domestic product is projected to increase 3.4 percent for the year, Taiwanese voters are expressing their discomfort as electricity and gas prices increase, and as the government reintroduces the capital gains tax.

Students see a gross mismatch between their starting salaries upon entering the workforce after university and the price of real estate. Social mobility has been diminishing and the outlook of a dimming future is a powerful tool for the opposition.

One element of that future is especially worrying for young Taiwanese voters: While closer cross-strait ties will boost Taiwan’s economy, growing numbers of Taiwanese fear that the mainland is exerting too much influence over the island, and that the Ma agenda compromises and ultimately undermines Taiwan’s sovereignty. That prospect drove students to occupy the legislature last spring for three weeks in an attempt to halt discussion (and eventual ratification) of a trade services agreement with the mainland. The government ground to a halt and the students won widespread sympathy throughout the island.

Doubts about the wisdom of closer ties with China have only grown in recent weeks as Taiwanese watched the Occupy Central movement play out in Hong Kong. The administration of Hong Kong was intended to demonstrate how reunification with Taiwan would work, with the “one country, two systems” approach serving as a model for Taiwan.

The refusal to honor the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong is especially galling for Taiwanese, who have — justifiably — great pride in their political system, its tolerance for a range of political views and the successful alternation of power among parties.

The DPP success will be unnerving for leaders in Beijing. The party remains committed to Taiwan’s independence, and the election results are likely to stiffen the spines of DPP hardliners who will view them as vindication of their policies. Taiwan’s independence is anathema to Beijing, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shows little tolerance for indulging the DPP.

At a minimum, KMT initiatives to strengthen ties with the mainland will encounter more resistance that will test the patience of a Chinese leadership that has indicated in the past that it expects measurable progress toward the consolidation of the cross-strait relationship.

These local results are a test run for the 2016 presidential ballot. Yet, while buoyed by the outcome, the DPP cannot take their win for granted. Taiwanese may be skeptical about ties with the mainland, but they are not stupid. China is a geographic reality and it will cast a long shadow over the island’s economic and political prospects.

The DPP must develop a policy that recognizes that reality, without alienating its core supporters. The failure to do so is widely believed to have cost it the presidency in 2012.

Meanwhile, the KMT must be seen as more trustworthy at safeguarding Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Ironically Beijing can help by offering Taipei more “diplomatic space” — opportunities to engage in international diplomacy without legitimizing thoughts of Taiwan’s independence.

Such policies would go a long way toward winning the hearts and minds of Taiwan’s voters. The Ma government must also move forward with reforms that restore hopes for a better future —both political and economic — among young Taiwanese.