Democratic countries that worry about the Chinese government’s attempts to influence their politics should study its success in this weekend’s elections in Taiwan. The many races — for some 11,000 positions in villages, towns and counties across the island — were something like midterms and widely seen as a prelude to the next presidential election, scheduled for early 2020. By my count, candidates friendly to Beijing will now occupy 16 of the 24 top posts that were contested, up from the current six. China has denied any meddling.
But in the last several years, it has allegedly intensified its efforts to destabilise the Taiwanese government led by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party or DPP. It has curbed tourism from the mainland, conducted military maneuvers around Taiwan and even threatened to invade. How quickly the tide seems to have turned. In 2016, the DPP had swept into power promising to set stronger safeguards against encroachment by the Chinese government even as it would develop Taiwan’s economic relations with China to improve its performance.
The party won both the presidency and a solid majority in the national legislature — advances that seemed likely to radically set back China’s growing ambitions on the island. That DPP victory followed the astounding Sunflower Movement of 2014, in which students, mostly, occupied the legislature to block the ratification of a trade treaty with China.
The deal, negotiated by the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, of the Kuomintang, or KMT, Taiwan’s main pro-unification party, would have allowed Chinese capital easy entry into Taiwan’s service sector, and the protesters feared that it endangered what little remained of Taiwan’s economic independence. Their sit-in succeeded and the treaty was derailed. But China wouldn’t take no for an answer.
And apparently it was correct not to: On Nov 24, even before all the election results were in, President Tsai Ing-wen resigned as the head of the DPP. In part, her party’s losses were the result of her courageous efforts to tackle much-needed but politically costly reforms — such as a plan to phase out an exorbitantly expensive pension programme for civil servants. She also opposed nuclear power, a proposition that is unpopular with Taiwan’s powerful high-tech manufacturers, whose factories depend on a stable electricity supply. But the DPP’s defeat also reveals Beijing’s increasing reach into Taiwan and, more specifically, its ability to exploit the weaknesses of an open society: namely, openness itself.
In the summer of 2014, I visited Port Keelung, a naval base in northeast Taiwan. Not far from the piers was National Taiwan Ocean University, which, among other things, trains naval officers. In its huge student centre, I saw stacks of free newsletters published by the university’s association of students from China. The contents were subtly political, with Beijing’s pro-unification line buried in human-interest stories or slick-looking entertainment. I asked a student if he was worried that Beijing was making inroads with such propaganda. He looked puzzled and said, “Well, you know, we are a free country, and these publications are legal.”
By now, according to the research institute of NHK, Japan’s national broadcaster, influential media conglomerates in Taiwan have become pro-Beijing; their major shareholders have been given greater business opportunities in China’s vast market. Major Taiwanese newspapers and TV stations regularly feature content that hardly differs from that in China or routinely heap praise on Chinese leaders.
In March 2013, the Taiwanese newspaper China Times described Liu Yandong, a vice premier who once headed the Chinese Communist Party’s vast influence machine, as one of “three golden flowers among new leaders.” In March this year, it ran an opinion piece setting out a convoluted argument for why unlimited terms were a good thing for a good leader such as President Xi Jinping of China.
Other examples abound. James Moriarty, the chairman of the board of trustees of the American Institute in Taiwan, gave an interview to the pro-Beijing local media Television Broadcasts Satellite earlier this month, in which he warned that external forces might spread fake information to manipulate public opinion ahead of the vote. The interview was aired once and promptly deleted from the channel’s website. The government in Beijing also knows that money talks with Taiwanese workers, including younger workers, who have faced a stagnation in real wages since manufacturing jobs — especially higher-paying ones in high-tech industries — started moving to China when it opened up its economy in the 1980s.
Soon after the Sunflower Movement, Beijing began offering subsidies and preferential treatment to young Taiwanese who would go to China to work or to establish startups. But it is among Taiwan’s political parties that China seems to have had most success. In just two decades, the KMT, once the staunchly anti-communist party of Chiang Kai-shek, has evolved into a deeply pro-Beijing party: It has even advocated Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland, essentially on China’s terms. Just this month, Ma, who long counted as a moderate within the KMT, switched from once standing for “no unification, no independence and no use of force” to now saying that he was “not against unification.”
Many Taiwanese say they regard themselves as only Taiwanese; just a tiny minority call themselves Chinese. And with the KMT now on the ascendancy, China may feel less need to consider a military invasion. But these factors also suggest that there will be even greater Chinese infiltration in Taiwan in the future.
If Taiwan falls and is absorbed into China, Hong Kong — which is already fast losing the autonomy that Beijing promised it during the handover in 1997 — could be next. It could become just another Chinese city well before its privileged status is set to expire in 2047. The Chinese government might then tap or pressure the global Chinese diaspora even more than it has so far.
In particular, it could more easily manipulate migrants (or their descendants) who moved to the West from Taiwan or Hong Kong after China became communist in 1949, for example, by applying pressure on any of their relatives still living in Taiwan or Hong Kong.
After World War II, capitalist democracies feared that countries throughout Asia would fall to communism one by one. The domino theory didn’t materialise, partly because of those democracies’ vigilance. They would do well to stay on their guard today or else they may finally see the theory realised — by China, starting with Taiwan.