Taiwan the Complicated

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou shakes hands with a 95-year-old supporter during a local elections campaign on December 4, 2009. (Photo: Sam Yeh/ AFP-Getty Images)

Since Ma Ying-jeou (pronounced "Ing-jeeo") of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), won a landslide victory in the 2008 presidential election, relations between Taiwan and the Communist leadership in Beijing have arguably seen more advancement than Ma's predecessors managed in eight decades.

President Ma has made significant progress toward his most important goals. First, he has stabilized cross-strait relations. The tension that previously gripped Taiwan and China has abated, high-level visits have become routine, and the two sides are engaged in energetic negotiations on a wide range of issues.

Also, after taking a hard hit in the global economic downturn of 2008, Taiwan's economy is bouncing back. In February, Taiwan's jobless rate declined to 5.7 percent, and its unemployment rate declined for a sixth consecutive month as exporters hired more people to meet increasing international demand for the island's products.

Additionally, President Ma is negotiating a trade accord with China that would cut import duties on Taiwanese goods in the world's fastest-growing major economy and help cement the island's recovery. Taiwan exited its deepest recession on record in the fourth quarter of 2009, and the proposed accord should attract foreign investment and create jobs.

Ma has also rebuilt the all-important Taipei-Washington relationship, culminating in the Obama administration's recent announcement that it would complete a long-awaited arms sale to Taiwan.

A history of occupation

Taiwan has an exceptionally short recorded history by Asian standards, starting with the arrival of the Dutch in 1624. Though the Taiwanese have a long history of rebellion and resistance, they've rarely been masters of their own fate. In addition to the Dutch, the Spanish, mainland Chinese, Japanese and briefly the French have occupied the island.

For the vast majority of Taiwanese, whose ancestors migrated from China roughly around the same time as the pilgrims landed at Plymouth (1620), calling Taiwan a country—as in the land of their birth, citizenship, and residence—achieves the very modest goal of describing reality. Yet it is not recognized as a country by most of the world.

And in spite of the fact that most Taiwanese have been living and dying on the island for centuries, completely cut off from the political convulsions unfolding in mainland China, Taiwan was most directly affected by the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949.

With the victory of Mao's Red Army in mainland China in 1949, almost 2 million mainland Chinese poured across the Strait and into Taiwan, changing its political, economic and social structure, and leaving behind a legacy still strong today.

The KMT army, led by General Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to Taiwan after being defeated by Communist troops. In 1950, Chiang Kai-shek became president of The Republic of China in Taiwan, a post he held until his death in 1975.

Many of the soldiers who fled to Taiwan in 1949 originally joined the army to fight the Japanese. They never expected, after Japan's defeat at the end of World War II in 1945, that they would have to fight their own people. When retreat to Taiwan was ordered, most had no time to tell their families. To this day, many do not know what happened to their parents, their siblings, their spouses. Many of the family members left behind were persecuted and sent to (northwest China's) Xinjiang province for hard labor, making it impossible to find them. Due to a 38-year restriction (1949-1987) on visiting mainland relatives, those who left behind wives and children later remarried in Taiwan, when it became painfully clear that they would never see their mainland Chinese families again.

Martial law was lifted in 1987, and today Taiwan is a democracy, with the president elected by universal suffrage every four years.

And today, it all boils down to one burning question: Is Taiwan part of China? The debate reflects a very real and passionate divide across Taiwanese society.

Its own identity

While ordinary Taiwanese, and especially its youth, have continued to develop a very recognizable and separate identity in music, pop culture, food, fashion and art, Taiwan's status in the world remains unclear. Its relationship with the People's Republic of China on the mainland is Taiwan's most challenging issue.

The majority of the inhabitants of the island identify themselves as Taiwanese and not Chinese. Moreover, the majority already has the opinion that the country, whatever it is called, is de facto independent.

Approximately 75 percent of Taiwanese remain in favor of the "status quo." That is the current situation in which Taiwan is de facto independent, but unrecognized as such in much of the world. Approximately 10 percent favor reunification, while approximately 15 percent favor formal independence.

Though in part driven by fear of what China might do to a formally independent Taiwan, the status quo is acceptable because, in practice, Taiwan operates much the same as any other sovereign nation. The obvious exceptions are at the Olympics when Taiwanese athletes compete under the designation "Chinese Taipei" and its lack of representation at the United Nations.

It is extremely impressive that a diplomatically isolated, tiny island nation of over 23 million people generate enough momentum to be one of the top ten trading nations in the world. Taiwan's main exports are electronics (including 75 percent of the world's laptop computers and 40 percent of its LCD screens), mechanical appliances and plastics.

Unemployment is low by Western standards, and destitution and homelessness are rare exceptions. The government has instituted a national healthcare plan that provides affordable healthcare and medication to all.

Most politicians support the status quo position, masking a fundamental division between many KMT and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporters; the real issue remains unification versus formal independence.

Direct flights now connect mainland China and Taiwan—a first since the two countries split during China's 1949 civil war—thanks to the untiring efforts of President Ma and the KMT government. This new arrangement makes it much more feasible for Taiwanese to conduct business on the mainland, facilitating travel for the estimated 5 million Taiwanese who traveled to China last year, and for the 1 million who now live and work on the mainland. It also opens up opportunity for mainland Chinese to visit Taiwan, and is expected to aid Taiwan's economy and ease tensions across the Taiwan Strait.

The increase in mainland tourists has already boosted Taiwan's economy. The Taiwanese government estimates that up to 1 million Chinese tourists will visit the island this year, bringing in an estimated $2 billion in tourism revenues.

Thousands of mainland tourists visit the National Palace Museum, the National Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, Longshan and Confucius Temples, the Sun Moon Lake, Ali Mountain—places that they read about as children in China but never had access to.

The influence and impact Taiwan has had on mainlanders is tremendous. Mainlanders have come to realize that as the only true democracy in the Chinese-speaking world, Taiwan enjoys freedom of expression, and its media—print, radio, television and Web—consistently exhibit a level of openness that is almost unheard of in Asia's other Chinese societies, including Hong Kong and Singapore. Many mainland tourists spend an enormous amount of time in their rooms, watching Taiwanese television talk shows.

And it works the other way around. Many young people in Taiwan have never stepped foot in China despite its close proximity, and tend to be more interested in Japanese and Western culture, so increased interaction between young people could spell a new chapter in peaceful relations.

The status of Ma

So why have President Ma's impressive successes, courage and vision failed to endear him to his constituents? His popularity has plummeted since the election, and today his personal approval ratings hover around 30 percent. The dissatisfaction extends to his party as well, and it's been manifested concretely in elections.

Ma's KMT party won a far smaller share of the vote in December 2009 local elections than it captured in the previous round, and it lost six out of seven legislative by-elections in January and February of 2010. Municipal elections at the end of this year have been touted as a bellwether for the 2012 presidential race, when Ma is expected to seek a second term.

Critical year-end special municipality mayoral polls in Taipei City, Sinbei City, Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung will have a dramatic impact on the expected outcome of presidential and national legislative elections in 2012, which could ultimately shape Taiwan's political future.

Less than two years ago, Ma was elected president of Taiwan by the largest margin of victory in the nation's history, and a big reason was his bold plan for linking Taiwan more closely to China. And Beijing is unlikely to find any Taiwanese leader easier to deal with than Ma, which strengthens the KMT's election stance that they are the party that can do business with the mainland.

Hence the conundrum: Why are Ma's successes in areas believed to be important to voters—reducing cross-strait tension and reviving the economy—not boosting his approval ratings or his party's political fortunes?

One reason may be the rising anxiety among Taiwan's small businesses, workers and farmers over Ma's rush to sign a cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). However, if it were true that without the trade surplus with China, Taiwan's trade would be in deficit and reserves would be gone in six months, wouldn't it be in Taiwan's best interest to sign an agreement with China?

Additionally, If Taiwan is able to have an ECFA with China, the pressure on other Taiwanese trading partners might be reduced. Many countries that don't currently have diplomatic ties with Taiwan may feel that since Beijing is ready to improve relations with them, they can as well.

It is impossible to deny that Beijing still sees military power as an effective tool to prevent Taiwan's move toward a more complete independence; the number of missiles trained on the island has climbed to nearly 1,400, from 900 in 2007.

And the U.S. military, which could be drawn in to defend Taiwan in the event of a conflict, considers the Taiwan Strait to be one of the most tense and dangerous flashpoints in Asia. Closer diplomatic and trade ties between Taiwan and mainland China would go a long way in easing tensions, so isn't it in Taiwan and China's best interest to keep the relationship on a positive footing?

That logic helps to explain why, even as Chinese leaders fulminated against the United States for its decision to follow through on arms sales to Taiwan, they chose not to direct their venom at Taipei. In 2009, Beijing even withdrew its opposition to Taiwan's efforts to secure observer status at the U.N. World Health Assembly.

But the road towards Ma's ultimate goal—peaceful relations with Beijing—is still fraught with political challenges. What will happen if Ma loses in the next election? For those in Taiwan who think Ma is too conciliatory and puts too great a stake in cross-strait relations, what is the alternative? Will Beijing trust a DPP government, or will the tension that gripped Taiwan and China during President Chen's years (2000-2008) return?

President Ma has made it possible for mainlanders to visit Taiwan and for Taiwanese to visit the mainland. He has forged a relationship with Beijing that will help create a path for future generations of mainlanders and Taiwanese to better understand each other.

The next generation will ultimately be responsible for protecting Taiwan's democracy and freedom. Their greatest challenge will be the protection of their homeland. Ma's diplomatic efforts to this point make any form of aggression between the two nations far less imaginable that at any point in the past.

Ms. Teri Schure is the founder of, lectures on issues pertaining to publishing, and is a consultant in the magazine, web development and marketing industries.

Check out Teri Schure’s blog The Teri Tome.