As Taiwan prepares to vote, China peers closely over its shoulder

Gone are the days of bellicose speeches and saber-rattling by Beijing. Ahead of Taiwan's Nov. 29 local elections, China exerts influence through strategic spending, travel discounts for those returning to vote, and trade delegations.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters
Taiwan's envoy to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum Vincent Siew (l.) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony at the International Convention Center at Yanqi Lake, in Beijing, November 11, 2014.

When Taiwan became a democracy more than two decades ago, a disapproving China had few ways of making its voice heard.

Leaders in Beijing made verbal threats not to support certain candidates.  When Taiwan held its first presidential election in 1996, China angrily fired ballistic missiles into waters near the island – an act that enabled candidate Lee Teng-hui to win a substantially bigger victory as president.

But those were the simpler, good old days.

Now, as Taiwan readies for significant local elections across the island on Nov. 29, Beijing has more practical ways of manipulating the vote in Taiwan, or trying to do so. It quietly encourages support for China-friendly candidates, gives discounts on state-run air travel from China to Taiwan before elections, and attempts to sway public opinion.

To be sure, China’s efforts to influence does upset voters here, even supporters of the China-friendly Chinese National Party (KMT). “China has no right to interfere in our affairs,” said Feng Yi-chao, spokesperson for Sean Lien, the KMT's mayoral candidate in Taipei. “We are Taiwanese.”

On all sides of Taiwan's vibrant political scene, there is concern about the integrity of its hard-won democracy and that Chinese intervention will subvert popular sovereignty. 

Still, if the rest of the world pays little attention as Taiwan prepares to elect thousands of local officials, mayors, and county magistrates, Chinese leaders are watching closely. China's President Xi Jinping said last week his government is taking a hands-off approach to the elections, but few Taiwanese believe that.

One reason China cares is that Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou, Beijing’s dialogue partner and chief collaborator in cross-strait relations for six years, is at risk of losing control over key local posts. If voters show less confidence in Mr. Ma and the KMT, this could bring fewer opportunities for cooperation between the two sides and for a political breakthrough in one of East Asia's major conflict zones.

Analysts say that Beijing has found a number of ways to influence opinion and minimize the backlash from earlier, heavy-handed days. 

Before the 2012 presidential elections, for example, the Chinese State Council approved large trade delegations to visit rural areas. They promised to purchase vast quantities of local products such as fruit and pond-raised fish to ease farmers' fears of opening the doors widely to Chinese commerce, travel and investment.

Ma touted his opening to China as he easily won re-election, though it's not clear that China's tactics contributed much to the margin of victory.

Travel subsidies are a likely more effective tool for Beijing. Chinese airlines now offer heavily discounted tickets for Taiwanese expats to return from China to vote. Among more than 1 million Taiwanese living and working in China, analysts estimate that 210,000 did so in 2012. Most were business people who support the KMT, say observers.

Now, with Nov. 29 around the corner, the travel deals are back. Airfares between China and Taiwan for the week before the poll are discounted by as much as 50 percent, says Joseph Wu, secretary-general of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Mr. Wu points out that since most of these airlines are state-run, the cheap tickets are essentially Chinese government subsidies for Taiwanese to support the KMT. (Taiwan's Central Election Commission has ruled that they do not violate election laws).

“'We still see the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwanese business groups in China helping to consolidate support and mobilize votes for Sean Lien,” Wu said. He added, however, that there was less concern this year since, in local elections, ballots are scattered across many constituencies, unlike in a presidential race.

Yet China’s mobilization efforts signal that Beijing sees this vote as a precursor of the 2016 presidential and legislative contest, now barely a year away. Ma has encouraged the KMT to get out the vote among Taiwanese living in China as Taiwan's ruling party faces losing crucial mayoral races in cities like Taipei and Taichung.

Meanwhile, pro-opposition Taiwanese groups in North America are encouraging their members to return to vote, and also to help monitor the ballot counting on election day. But they enjoy no travel subsidies.

“We all come back [to vote] at full price,” said Susan Chang of the World Taiwanese Congress, an umbrella organization of Taiwanese expatriates. “It's unfair!”

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