Ma goes too far, too fast for Taiwan
By Cindy Sui

TAIPEI - The massive anti-China protests in Taiwan's capital last weekend were a reminder to President Ma Ying-jeou that his attempts to forge closer links with China will not be all smooth sailing. Although the protest will not change Ma's China policies, the rally underscores the challenges he faces as a large segment of the population remains deeply wary of the island's longtime rival.

Zhang Mingqing, a former senior official with China's Taiwan Affairs Office, was also physically attacked by a mob of local residents during a private visit to southern Taiwan a week earlier. The incident, which happened ahead of a historic visit to the island by China's top negotiator with Taiwan, was however seen 
Ma goes too far, too fast for Taiwan
By Cindy Sui

TAIPEI - The massive anti-China protests in Taiwan's capital last weekend were a reminder to President Ma Ying-jeou that his attempts to forge closer links with China will not be all smooth sailing. Although the protest will not change Ma's China policies, the rally underscores the challenges he faces as a large segment of the population remains deeply wary of the island's longtime rival.

Zhang Mingqing, a former senior official with China's Taiwan Affairs Office, was also physically attacked by a mob of local residents during a private visit to southern Taiwan a week earlier. The incident, which happened ahead of a historic visit to the island by China's top negotiator with Taiwan, was however seen

 

as an isolated case carried out by a small group of pro-independence and anti-China activists.

But the rally Saturday - the biggest since Ma became Taiwan's president in May - surprised people in Ma's party, the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), and perhaps Ma himself. Organizers estimated that 600,000 people took to the streets, although police gave a figure of about 180,000, which is still impressive by any country's standards.

Contrary to expectations that many would be bused up from the south by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which organized the rally, quite a number came from Taipei or nearby, where KMT supporters are concentrated. Many from other parts of Taiwan paid their own way.

"We believe it's an expression of the people's concerns," said Tsai Chin-lung, a KMT legislator and former secretary general of the party. "I think Ma Ying-jeou has heard their concerns ... The orientation of our policies will be the same, but as to Taiwan's sovereignty and economy, we need to be more careful, [and] definitely not take any actions that may harm Taiwan."

Ma has long stressed that building closer ties with China is good and necessary for Taiwan and its population of 23 million. Since becoming president, he has allowed regular weekend flights across the Taiwan Strait and opened the island to more Chinese tourists. To be sure, most people, even the protesters, are not opposed to this. It's Ma's other moves that worry them.

Within days of taking up his new post, Ma raised the cap on China-bound investments from 40% to 60% of a Taiwanese company's assets, with some fearing this will lead to further capital flight to the mainland. Under Ma, Taiwan this year also gave up its bid for United Nations (UN) membership for the first time since 1993, and instead sought to join UN-affiliated agencies to avoid upsetting China, although without success so far.

Ma has also indicated he wants to sign a peace accord with China and made a u-turn on foreign policy by ending a long and costly competition with China for diplomatic allies - known as "checkbook diplomacy".

Straying widely from the island's two previous presidents, Ma does not advocate "state-to-state" relations with China, which hates the concept and considers Taiwan one of its provinces awaiting reunification. Instead, Ma calls for building a common market with the mainland.

He wants to allow Chinese banks to set up branches here, Chinese investors to invest in Taiwan's financial and property markets, Chinese students to study at Taiwan's universities, and to recognize Chinese academic credentials.

These policies, he argues, will help Taiwan's slumping economy, by enabling Taiwanese banks to operate in China, Taiwan's universities to enjoy higher enrollment, Chinese capital to boost Taiwan's economy and Chinese tourists to spend money here.

For his part, Ma has repeatedly assured the public he will not discuss unification with Beijing during his term and that his opening to China will come with limits, to protect the island's sovereignty and its people's livelihood.

But Ma may have underestimated a strong suspicion of China among segments of the population, and their unease with the fast pace he is moving after being in office for only five months.

There are genuine fears that the administration and the KMT are making too many concessions to China, potentially allowing Beijing to exert influence over the island and hurt Taiwanese people's benefits.

Doctors and nurses at the rally Saturday said Ma's stated desire to recognize mainland academic degrees could allow Chinese doctors and nurses to work in hospitals here.

"We're worried about losing our jobs, [and] lowering our medical standards," said Louis Wu, a Taipei doctor. "Ma Ying-jeou is negotiating without public consent. He is making decisions by himself so fast. People are very suspicious of him."

The Ma administration's handling of the scandal over melamine-tainted food imported from China has further fueled suspicion that the island is kow-towing to China. The opposition DPP and protesters accused the government of being too soft by not immediately demanding an apology and compensation from Chinese authorities over the impact of the toxic products, which sickened three children here and caused panic among Taiwanese consumers, while hurting retail sales.

Adding to public dissatisfaction about Ma, whose approval ratings have fallen to less than 30%, is the downturn in the economy, partly due to the global financial crisis, which saw the island's unemployment rate reach 4.27% in September, a four-year high. Exports that same month declined for the first time in six and a half years, as economic indicators suggest the island is heading towards a recession.

"People are worried about the economy so they are very willing to accept the [opposition party's] argument that opening up to China will have a negative impact on the economy," said Chao Chien-min, a professor specializing in cross-strait studies at National Chengchi University in Taipei.

What doesn't help is that two of Ma's earliest initiatives, introduced with much fanfare in July - regular direct weekend flights and allowing more Chinese tourists here - have not borne fruit. Ma had hoped up to 3,000 mainland tourists would visit the island each day, but so far the average daily arrival figure is less than 300.

Of utmost concern among protesters, however, was the possibility Taiwan could one day become a part of China due to Ma's policies.

"The most important thing is Taiwan is a free and democratic country. We don't want to be a part of China," said Taipei retired middle school teacher Lin Kui-mei, who joined the march.

While Ma, who ran in the March presidential election on a platform of opening up to China to revive Taiwan's lackluster economy, basically got a green light to pursue his policies when he won by a 58% landslide, a significant portion of people in Taiwan see the island as a de facto independent country and cherish its sovereignty and democracy. Even those open to the idea of eventual reunification do not want that to happen anytime soon and definitely not under an undemocratic China.

"We can have good relations with China, but we must have freedom and independence. Ma Ying-jeou has done too much; he doesn't keep his word," Lin said, echoing the views of others.

Opposition to Ma's China policies is in some ways a reflection of the social and historical divisions in Taiwan's young democracy, where there is still distrust of Ma's party, the KMT. It bred resentment when it fled here after losing a civil war with China's communists in 1949 and ruled the island with martial law and as a single-party state for decades. The first direct presidential election was held only in 1996.

The makeup of Taiwan's society is 84% Taiwanese whose ancestors migrated here when emperors still ruled China. Fourteen percent are those who arrived around 1949 and their offspring, and are 2% indigenous peoples. Most of the protesters are believed to be from the first group - many of whom do not feel any connection to China.

But despite strong calls by demonstrators for the government to not sell out to China - and to defend Taiwan's sovereignty - such cries will not likely affect Ma's unprecedented plan to establish closer relations with the island's giant neighbor, analysts and KMT insiders said.

In the minds of Ma and the KMT, the issue was never about selling out Taiwan, but doing what is necessary - fostering a relationship in which Taiwan can benefit from and not be cut off from the economic powerhouse of China, and in which the two sides can peacefully coexist, without threats of war.

"The KMT had ruled Taiwan for 50 years before the DPP took over. The KMT didn't sell out Taiwan during that time, why would we sell out Taiwan now?" said Tsai.

The timeline of opening to China also will unlikely be affected. While some criticize Ma for moving too fast, others believe Taiwan should have opened up to China long ago, but that was impossible under the stalemate between Beijing and the island's previous pro-independence administration.

"I don't expect any change in President Ma's China policy and the development of cross-strait relations [due to the protest]," said Chao. "This year, the focus of talks will be on direct transportation links and tourism. Next year, it will be on normalization of economic and trade ties."

Neither the demonstration in Taipei last Saturday nor the public anger over toxic milk products from China are expected to derail talks during next week's visit by Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Association for Relations across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS).

Chen will be the highest ranking Chinese official to visit Taiwan since the two sides split at the end of the civil war. His visit is scheduled to start on November 3.

Four agreements are expected to be signed during Chen's visit - including pacts on expanding air links, opening shipping and postal links and setting up a framework to deal with food safety issues. The two sides will also talk about future financial and banking cooperation.

Weekend "direct" flights, launched on July 4, are seen as not sufficient or convenient enough as they are only available Fridays through Mondays and still need to be routed through Hong Kong airspace due to security concerns. Discussions will focus on making the flights really direct and perhaps daily, with more routes between mainland and Taiwanese cities.

Shipping cargo directly between Taiwan and the mainland will also be discussed. Ships now spend as long as eight days plying the waters to get to each side's ports because direct navigation routes are not allowed. Vessels from Taiwan to Shanghai or Tianjin in east China detour through Hong Kong and the outer islands of Japan or South Korea, wasting money and time.

Direct shipping can boost Taiwanese fruit exports to China, Ma said, by reducing delivery time in half, to just four days or even 10 hours, ensuring freshness and prolonging shelf life.

Analysts said there is really no alternative but to mend ties and strengthen links with China due to the island's proximity to China and the fact that the two sides are already economically intertwined.

China is Taiwan's largest export destination and second-largest source of imports. China is also the top recipient of foreign direct investment (FDI) from Taiwan. By the end of 2007, investments in China made up about 61% of Taiwan's outbound investments. Trade between the two sides grew by double digits last year, with Taiwan enjoying a trade surplus of tens of billions of US dollars - and that's despite investment restrictions imposed by the previous anti-China administration.

Surveys show that most people in Taiwan support Chen's visit and closer economic links with China.

Protestors' calls, however, did not fall on deaf ears.

Although Ma said the direction the government is taking "is correct" following the protest, he has reassured the public he will not jeopardize Taiwan's sovereignty and vowed to ensure transparency in cross-strait talks, emphasizing that the talks will not touch on political issues.

Protestors also seem to have gotten China's attention, which is getting a taste of how Taiwan's democratic society works and how hard it will be to win over the hearts of Taiwanese people. On Monday, ARATS faxed a letter formally apologizing to its Taiwanese counterpart Straits Exchange Foundation over the negative impact of melamine-tainted imports on Taiwan.

Ma's administration was cautious not to praise the apology, instead remarking that it was "belated".

Analysts believe Ma should not overlook the importance of communicating the reasons for his policies, even if he believes they are the right way forward.

"There's room for improvement," said Chao. "Ma's been busy with cross-strait policies; he has spent less time forging a consensus within Taiwan."

Tsai agreed: "Whether it's a sovereignty, economy or cross-strait issue, he must now take into consideration people's concerns. (Aware of this) Ma, in his talks with Chen Yunlin, will stand firm on his position - that is to work for Taiwan's benefits."

The opposition and protesters will not let him forget. They are planning a series of demonstrations to coincide with the visit.

Cindy Sui is a freelance journalist based in Taipei.

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