Beijing watches anxiously as Taiwan readies for local polls

Supporters of Taipei mayoral candidate Ko Wen-je take part in his campaign rally ahead of the local elections in Taipei.

This couple of days, businessman Wang Ju-chen, 63, is rushing to finish up his work in Guangdong province, before he flies home to Tainan city in Taiwan.

The boss of an aluminium plant is readying to cast his vote in Saturday's polls where Taiwanese will elect more than 11,000 public officials, including the mayors of the island's six major cities.

Mr Wang's air ticket could be cheaper - by half.

A ticket home from Shenzhen city in Guangdong usually costs 2,200 yuan (S$466). But if he registers with China's Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the Mainland for an "election discount" ticket, he can get it for 1,100 yuan, he says.

But Mr Wang says he will not do so. "It feels like it is vote-buying," he says. "I'd rather pay full price for my own ticket."

The voter mobilisation campaign by the association, which is backed by Beijing's Taiwan Affairs Office in charge of cross-strait relations, underscores China's anxieties over Saturday's elections.

It worries that a clear victory by the pro-independence camp - a result that seems more possible by the day - could jeopardise gains in ties over the past six years under Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou while accelerating the turn of the tide against his ruling Kuomintang (KMT) ahead of 2016's presidential election.

There are an estimated three million Taiwanese working and living in mainland China. Among the businessmen, say analysts, about two-thirds tend to support the KMT. Mr Wang, a supporter of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is in the minority.

Besides encouraging them to go home to vote, Beijing has also quietly sought out "personal contacts" - opinion leaders and entrepreneurs - to disseminate their views "on the significance of the Nov 29 election for cross-strait ties", says analyst George Tsai, who is pro-reunification.

Such tactics are mild compared to how Beijing expressed its views in more bellicose days. When Taiwan held its first presidential election in 1996, China lobbed missiles into waters near the island - which simply galvanised the Taiwanese to throw their support behind the candidate that Beijing disliked, Mr Lee Teng-hui.

Says Professor Tsai: "They are in an awkward position - they want their favoured candidates to win but they don't want to offend or be heavy-handed which will irritate voters and cause more trouble. Therefore, the situation has to be skilfully and carefully handled, so it does not backfire."

While the elections are largely focused on local officials and issues, cross-strait relations remain a looming elephant in the room.

Candidates from both camps have avoided the topic, and focused on party politics and personal attacks. In the crucial battleground of Taipei, the KMT's Mr Sean Lien is trailing independent candidate Ko Wen-je. Mr Lien, already struggling with image issues as the privileged son of former premier Lien Chan, is being portrayed by former DPP legislator and analyst Parris Chang as a "princeling" that Chinese President Xi Jinping likes and trusts.

On the other hand, the DPP also wants to avoid any implication that a victory could strengthen its pro-independence stance, given that Taiwanese voters have expressed doubt about its ability to handle cross-strait ties.

Its secretary-general Joseph Wu says Saturday's polls are a "local election" and that cross-strait relations are a "non-issue".

"The DPP has a very consistent cross-strait policy," he says firmly. "The election will not have an impact on this."

This is not viewed the same way across the Taiwan Strait.

Mainland analyst Yan Anli of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies told the China Review News Agency that "if DPP does well this time, it will think its independence stance does no harm to the party and will maintain it - damaging the cross-strait relationship".

This article was first published on Nov 25, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.