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Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on March 17, 2008
The death toll in Tibet is rising and unrest is spreading to neighboring provinces. Tibet’s Buddhists aren’t the only ones angry at being part of China. Farther north, in Xinjiang, the Chinese government is facing problems with Muslim separatists. There should be one bit of good news for Beijing, though. Probably the most sensitive breakaway region of all shows signs of coming to some sort of accommodation with the Communist regime: Taiwan has elections this Saturday and it seems likely that Ma Ying-jeou, the candidate of the opposition who favors closer ties with the mainland, will win big over Frank Hsieh, the nominee of the Democratic Progressive Party, whose term-limited leader, President Chen Shui-bian, has annoyed Beijing for years with his pro-Taiwan-independence policies.
But Ma’s party, the Kuomintang (aka the KMT, aka the Nationalist Party, which ruled Taiwan for decades from the time of Chiang Kai-shek until losing power in 2000), has managed to blow elections before. The KMT seemed a sure winner in 2004, for instance, and then blew it. And the Taiwanese voters have shown in the past that they don’t take kindly to provocations from Beijing. Might Taiwanese people see what’s happening in Tibet as a reminder of just why they don’t trust the Communist government? If so, that could drive people to vote against Ma, who wants to warm ties with China.
That’s an impression that DPP supporters seem to be pushing. Consider this editorial from the Taiwan News:
Could this happen in Taiwan, with our democratic political system and our modern society and culture? Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Indeed, this process may have already started and may accelerate after the March 22 presidential election if Kuomintang presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou wins and returns Taiwan to the “China-centric” rule of the “formerly” authoritarian “Chinese Nationalist Party,” which remains the KMT’s official name.
And Hsieh himself has adopted similar talking points. “[O]nce we open up a gate for China, we may end up like Tibet,” the Australia’s ABC reported him saying. Ma has denounced the Chinese action in Tibet, too, but with milder words. Again, from the ABC, here’s what Ma’s comment: “We support autonomy in Tibet. They have their own culture and religion that must be respected therefore we strongly condemn China’s action.”
Ma has a pretty strong wind at his back. The KMT won a big victory in legislative elections earlier this year, and more and more Taiwanese recognize that the island’s economic health depends to a large extend on establishing normal relations with the mainland. If people could fly directly from Taipei to Shanghai without having to waste hours by transiting through Hong Kong, for instance, there were would a lot less incentive for Taiwanese to move to the mainland, for instance. Opening to Chinese tourists would also provide a big boost to local retailers. And voters seem genuinely tired of the DPP.
So most likely the Chinese crackdown in Tibet won’t create a big enough backlash in Taiwan to pave the way for a surprise DPP victory. But the election isn’t till the weekend. And as we saw in 2004, when a bizarre last-minute assassination attempt against Chen seemed to create a sudden sympathy vote for the incumbent, strange things happen in Taiwanese politics.
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.