I was happy to be asked a few questions about Hong Kong and its troubled relationship with Beijing:
The relatively low poll numbers for Ma Ying-jeou, the Nationalist Party leader and President of the Republic of China, would seem to bolster the opposition’s prospects for the November elections—and perhaps in the 2016 presidential contest. Ma is a lame-duck, and the occupation of the Legislative Yuan by students this year would seem to stymie his efforts to build cross Strait economic ties. Further, some on the island feel strongly that the promised economic benefits of cross Strait economic relations have not been been realized, or have not been shared equitably among Taiwanese. The mainland’s increasingly aggressive policies toward Japan and others in the region has not helped Ma, who has emphasized how better relations with Beijing would help stabilize the region.
Further, the Democratic Progressive Party has some strong leaders with with good reputations for their governance of cities or counties on Taiwan.
However, based on two trips to Taiwan this summer, and what I’ve read, I think the DPP is not, and should not become, over-confident.
1. Taiwan has a history of “surprises” right before major elections.
2. It is unknown to what extent the mainland will encourage or facilitate the return of Taiwanese to vote in a non-presidential election.
3. The DPP has a difficult relationship with the students and activists who occupied the legislature in early 2014. It is unclear whether the party will be harness that discontent at the ballot box. These young people probably won’t vote for the Nationalist Party, but will they turn out for the DPP?
4. Greater cross Strait ties have created some economic incentives for some constituencies to temper their support of the DPP. This was seen in southern Taiwan during the last presidential contest.
5. In the past, the Nationalists have been able to portray the DDP as unrealistic about Taiwan’s power and its potential to create international space. How long will the legacy of Chen Shui-bian haunt the DPP?
6. Some strong Nationalist politicians in central and northern Taiwan might be able to stake out independent positions that distance themselves from Ma in the minds of voters.
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On April 9, 2014, President Ma Ying-jeou of the Republic of China spoke to Americans via video-conference to discuss his foreign policy.
The talk seemed to contain some interesting assumptions.
1. Better cross Strait relations will not change the US interest or commitment to Taiwan in the long run. What happens if you convince Washington that cross Strait relations will be resolved peacefully?
2 That Taiwan must continue to strengthen its economic ties across the Strait, and rely on the US for security. In my mind, such a division of labor will not work in long-term.
3. The problems with TISA (the cross Strait agreement on the service industry) are related to education rather than the content of the agreement. This was his effort to address the occupation of the Legislative Yuan by students opposed to greater mainland influence on Taiwan, as well as those who felt the process of reaching agreements across the Strait are undemocratic. Ma’s approach suggests that economic benefits will consistently trump other concerns. Sorry to be cynical, but the last century is filled with people and states deciding to put national pride and identity before standard of living.
4. That cross Strait integration is inevitable. This is much like the argument that globalization is inevitable. I would argue that economic integration waxes and wanes over time.
5. TISA was some sort of litmus test for others (like the US and a possible investment agreement) to decide whether they can negotiate trade or investment deals with Taiwan. Beef and pork as a barrier to trade deals with the US was not mentioned.
6. Economic and cultural agreements can be divorced from political influence or interference. I am not arguing that the PRC is unique, but what large country doesn’t use economic and cultural ties to enhance its political influence?
Just my two cents.
Over the past years, we’ve seen the color revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Jasmine Revolutions in the Middle East. In Taiwan, we are witnessing the Sunflower Movement of students and others who want to limit their country’s dependence on China. It is also called the 3-18 Movement because it started on March 18.
First, students occupied the National Assembly. They accused the ruling party, the Chinese Nationalist Party, of not allowing sufficient review of a new trade agreement with China focused on services rather than goods. The Nationalists has promised a detailed review of the agreement, then appeared to reject that promise. The student movement is thus about ties to the mainland, and democracy on the island itself.
Second, support for their cause grew:
Students fear that the agreement will increase dependency on the mainland, and bring in low-wage labor. In short, they have the concerns that people all over the world express about globalization. Add to this the mainland’s claim that Taiwan is part of China. Many people on Taiwan know that the mainland wants to increase its influence on the island in order to push the island toward unification under the Beijing government’s control. Students on Taiwan may not articulate it, but they are clearly worried about United Front tactics–a combination of political coalition building and subversion that the Chinese Communists know how to do very well. Students fear that closer ties to China will mean less democracy on the island–thus creating a key test for the Nationalist Party and President Ma Ying-jeou.
Then, one Nationalist Party leader, the Speaker of the National Assembly, broke with President Ma Ying-jeou, and said he would not support removing the students from the Assembly hall.
Efforts to occupy other government buildings has been met with resistance.
On top of that, the President, Ma, is very unpopular with most voters right now. He’s a lame duck and cannot run for president again.
To make it even more complicated, the Ma administration said passing the services agreement with the mainland was vital, because this would enable Taiwan to forge trade agreements with other countries. Two United States Congressmen have already said that Taiwan’s services agreement with the mainland is not a factor in future agreements with Washington.
The mainland is very uncomfortable about all of this, for two reasons.
1. The fear that cross Strait economic integration (which the Beijing government sees as a precursor to political unification) will be slowed.
2. The concern that more people in China will see student protects and want to speak out about the authoritarian government in Beijing.