As Nationalist chances dim, fewer Taiwanese in China go home to vote

As Nationalist chances dim, fewer Taiwanese in China go home to vote
PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI - Taiwan businessman David Chai plans to fly home from China to vote in elections on Saturday, even though he knows the Nationalist candidate he supports doesn't have much of a shot.

Others like Chai from the self-governed island but who work in China apparently don't see the point.

Taiwan's Nationalists and the Chinese government have found common ground in recent years in encouraging the roughly one million Taiwanese people living in China to return home for elections.

The demographic is seen as more likely to vote for the pro-business Nationalists, who have espoused stronger ties with the mainland and oppose Taiwan independence.

The Nationalists have said Taiwanese businessmen made a difference in the 2008 and 2012 elections that delivered their candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, the presidency.

But with the party in disarray and independence-leaning opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen heavily favoured to become president, far fewer Taiwanese businessmen are making the trip than before.

"This year, the passion isn't half as strong as in previous years," said Chai, chairman of the Taiwan Business Association in the manufacturing hub of Dongguan, about 80 km (50 miles) north of Hong Kong.

"A lot of people think that it's maybe not worth it to vote." China, which detests the DPP, has regarded Taiwan as a renegade province since Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists fled to the island in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong's Communists.

Beijing has never ruled out the use of force to ensure unification.

SLOW TICKET SALES

The Nationalists have said they expect around 100,000 Taiwanese businessmen to return to vote this time.

That would be about half the turnout of four years ago when Ma won a second term by a slim six percent margin.

In Dongguan, as many as 40,000 Taiwanese went home to vote that year but Chai expects only 10,000-15,000 to go this year.

Around 40,000 Taiwanese living in Shanghai may return, said Eddie Hu, executive vice chairman of Shanghai's Taiwan Business Association.

Four years ago, 70,000 made the trip.

In a small sign of the anaemic interest, South East Travel Service Co Ltd took more than three weeks to fill a 300-seat charter flight from Shanghai for the election, according to its ticket sales department.

Airlines have trimmed prices on commercial flights to try to entice would-be voters, but Hu says that won't matter much.

"There isn't a problem with the price. The problem is whether or not people's hearts are in it for Taiwan," he said.

"If you don't have your heart in it, you're still not going to go back even if the ticket's cheaper."

Few have benefited more than Taiwanese businessmen operating in China from warmer cross-strait ties and more than 20 trade deals inked since Ma became president in 2008.

But the cosiness with China espoused by the Nationalists has ultimately undermined the party.

Many voters are suspicious of a perceived growing economic dependence on China and are supporting the DPP this time round.

"This isn't about one election. It's about Taiwan's future," said a Taiwanese executive and Nationalist supporter in Shanghai who declined to be named.

"The question is whether the Nationalists will continue to exist or not. I'm just voting to show my support."

Chai, the business association leader from Dongguan, says he is heeding the call of civic duty. "It may not be able to change the result," he said.

"But as a citizen I still need to vote."

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