It's still the economy, and Tsai has her work cut out

PHOTO: Reuters

When Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore last November for their historic handshake, Mr Xi said of both sides: "We are brothers connected by flesh even if our bones are broken, we are a family whose blood is thicker than water."

It is a characterisation that is controversial in Taiwan. And even if it is to be believed, ties have been a little less than brotherly recently.

Just yesterday, news of a Taiwanese-Korean pop singer seemingly compelled to commit "self-criticism" and apologise for brandishing a Republic of China flag on an online broadcast landed here like a bomb. It came after angry Chinese netizens had flogged Chou Tzu-yu for "advocating Taiwan independence".

Outraged Taiwanese, calling it bullying, dived into the waiting embrace of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen sailed easily to victory

As one Taiwanese put it, the pop singer's "forced" declaration that she is a "zhongguoren" (Chinese) was a bullet for the DPP - much like how a shooting attempt on former DPP president Chen Shui-bian in 2004 won him sympathy and helped get him re-elected. It also marked the death of the already-expiring presidential campaign of Mr Eric Chu of the Kuomintang (KMT) which advocates closer ties with China.

Looking ahead to Ms Tsai's presidency, a second variable that will have an impact on the relationship is the economy. It - not cross-strait relations - is what the Taiwanese care most about at this point. One of Asia's former four tigers, Taiwan's roar has faltered - and for a while now.

Growth has halved with every change in the presidency since the 1990s - from an average of 8 per cent during Mr Lee Teng-hui's time (1988-2000) to 4 per cent during Mr Chen Shui-bian's (2000 -2008) and to 2 per cent under Mr Ma.

Young workers grapple with the so-called "22k curse", the seemingly unbudgeable starting salary for graduates.

In 2008 and 2012, pragmatic voters opted for Mr Ma and his pledge of warmer cross-strait ties, not because they were ideologically supportive of the KMT's China policy but because they bought into his promise that better ties will result in a better economy. In the end, this did not materialise. 

And so today, the pendulum has swung decisively back to the China-sceptic DPP, with the promise of a new leader and new ideas. Expectations are high. Retiree Chen Shu-jiuan, 70, said his three daughters - all educated overseas - draw salaries of only NT$20,000 to NT$30,000 (S$860 to S$1,300) a month. "The economy is in such poor shape so I thought we should change our leadership and see what happens."

Beijing would likely not want to give Ms Tsai credit for much, including improving the economy. It will also heap opprobrium on the President-elect if she does not endorse the 1992 Consensus which, to Beijing, is sacrosanct in its acknowledgement that both sides are part of one China.

But this will harm China's interest as far as cross-strait relations are concerned.

Without results to show to impatient voters, Ms Tsai may have to resort to appealing to her party's green (pro-independence) base of supporters and become more strident in rhetoric and policies.

At the same time, if she is under constant siege from Beijing, the moderates will throw their support behind their elected leader.

Beijing may understand the need to thus tread carefully, but the fear is that hawks within its ranks will impel it to react in a bellicose manner which, in turn, will force a reaction from the Taiwanese and result in a vicious circle.

With the rise of the Taiwanese identity, trying to convince the people that both sides are part of the same family is difficult enough. China does not have to make it any tougher. 

This article was first published on Jan 17, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.

More about

Tsai Ing-wen
Purchase this article for republication.