In spring, there were sunflowers in Taipei. By autumn, there were umbrellas in Hong Kong. But the end of the year, in greater China, has brought a sudden, bitter winter for the ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) in Taiwan.
The former Nationalist rulers of mainland China, who were beaten by the Communists in the 1945-1949 civil war and forced into an uneasy exile in Taiwan, were thrashed by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and independent candidates in local elections at the weekend. The DPP won 47.5% of the vote, compared to the KMT’s 40%.
The extreme scale of the drubbing was unprecedented, with the KMT winning just six of the nation’s 22 cities and counties, losing nine that it formerly controlled as well as traditional strongholds such as the capital, Taipei, Greater Taichung and Taoyuan.
The landslide against the party has already claimed the scalp of Premier Jiang Yi-huah, and yesterday Taiwan’s 82-member cabinet resigned en masse.
Taiwan’s friendless President Ma Ying-jeou is reportedly preparing to resign as party chairman tomorrow. The KMT is in freefall, and it has Beijing to thank; umbrella-wielding students and Occupy protesters in Hong Kong got more than a few tips from the student-heavy sunflower movement in Taiwan that sideswiped Ma and the KMT earlier this year.
The foundation of the protests by both groups has been the encroaching influence of Beijing.
During the past six years, under Ma, Taipei has moved closer to Beijing on the promise of massive economic and security benefits to the island nation of 24 million people. But while the mainland still considers Taiwan to be an errant province, the Taiwanese see it as very much their own country.
At the outset, Ma’s strategy was practical, economically prudent and popular, and it resulted in direct postal, shipping and airline connections between the two countries for the first time since 1949, no small relief to business investors forced to move back and forth via Hong Kong or elsewhere. Swarms of Chinese tourists began to arrive, bolstering the economy, and Chinese investment began to pour into the country, at last reciprocating the billions of yuan invested in the mainland by Taiwan that was a fundamental building block in China’s rise.
Yet all this time China, ever possessive and diplomatically tone deaf, continued its weapons build-up on the other side of the narrow Taiwan Strait.
It became clear that while Taiwan was prepared to recast its attitude, Beijing was not; indeed, under its latest, more aggressive leader, Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has hardened its opposition to any territorial compromise. Taiwan, Beijing dreams, would eventually be brought back “home” but under a “one country, two systems” deal — similar to that struck with the British regarding Hong Kong.
Even the suggestion of this was a bridge too far for many Taiwanese, and therein lay the groundwork for fresh conflict. For at the same time as Ma was hurling himself first into former president Hu Jintao’s, then Xi’s arms, Beijing was fast eroding Hong Kong’s supposed autonomy. Beijing accelerated the backsliding on its 1984 pact with Britain so brazenly that it has had the unintended consequence of shaking Taiwan from its greed-induced slumber, in the process scoring the regional own goal of the year.
In March this year, students stormed the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, and occupied it with relative impunity; branded the Sunflower Revolution, or Sunflower Student Movement, it has turned out to be a signal moment. Ma, his popularity diving to uncharted depths, was forced to recant his China bromance and assert that Taiwan would remain independent. But the horse bolted long ago and now, as he ekes out the last year or so of his two terms, he is the lamest of ducks — and as of the weekend the man who lost Taipei for the KMT.
A little further south, in Hong Kong, students were watching, learning and preparing their own protests, which only this week are being suppressed as they failed to bank the win and have doubled down by embarking on that most futile of strategies: the hunger strike.
Still, for many weeks, Beijing’s heavy-handedness gave the protesters succour and garnered them an unexpected level of local support — and most critically, so far, helped to firm opinion against the Chinese Communist Party in Taiwan. Oops.
Suddenly, Beijing is on the back foot with Taiwan, and it might just be dawning on leaders there that being ethnic Chinese and mainland Chinese are not the same thing.
As voters in Taiwan gave Beijing a collective sunflower stem at the weekend, Communist Party chiefs were spinning around ever faster, searching for a strategy that would not involve blood on the streets. Even a partial replay of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre — a tragedy in one of Asia’s true international cities and China’s most important financial centre — would expose the party’s true, brutal nature and could sound its death knell.
Cool-headed supporters of Taiwan now believe that the island has a once-in-a-century opportunity.
There is little doubt that the screws will continue to be tightened on Hong Kong — the party knows no other way, and any concessions at this stage would undo all the hard work Xi has done to either placate or purge his internal enemies, potentially unleashing a fresh battle for the control of the organisation.
As Beijing continues to chip away at Hong Kong’s differences, talk is beginning to circulate in financial markets about who would win a larger share of the pie if Hong Kong were to fall too far under Beijing’s sway. While Singapore ticks many boxes, it’s got its hand full with emerging south-east Asia and is quite a physical hike from Beijing.
Taiwan, on the other hand, has the language and cultural ties as well as vast business interests and connections inside China — there are estimated to be as many as a million Taiwanese living on the mainland — to re-cast itself as the new Hong Kong. Taiwan is just as close to Shanghai as Hong Kong, and air links and internal infrastructure on the island have vastly improved in recent years. And Taipei is a vibrant, cosmopolitan and surprisingly liberal city.
If the DPP can leverage its election success at the weekend and capitalise on disillusionment with a tired KMT that is, for now, out of touch and bereft of ideas — and it can develop a plan for Taiwan as a major financial hub free of any interference from Beijing — it could change the shape of the region. You can almost hear the cheers from Washington DC.