TAIPEI: Taiwan is expected to turn its back on closer ties with China when it votes for a new president Saturday, in an election symbolizing the island’s battle for identity.
As citizens prepare to go to the polls, many frustrated Taiwanese are calling for change as fears grow over China’s increasing influence, casting a gloom exacerbated by economic woes.
Current president Ma Ying-jeou was voted in by a landslide eight years ago, promising prosperity through warmer relations with Beijing.
But trade deals and a tourism boom under his ruling Kuomintang (KMT) have been offset by deep unease that China is eroding Taiwan’s identity and sovereignty by making it economically dependent.
Voters are also angry that the economic benefits from closer ties have not filtered down to ordinary Taiwanese.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—which takes a much more skeptical approach to China relations—is tipped to win Saturday’s vote, and make its leader Tsai Ing-wen Taiwan’s first woman president.
“I’m concerned the government is eager to pursue ties with China without carefully calculating the risks,” said Lee Yi-chung, a Taipei businessman in his 40s who will be voting DPP.
“I don’t want Taiwan to be ruled by China.”
Taiwan is self-ruling after splitting with the mainland in 1949 following a civil war, but Beijing still sees it as part of its territory, to be reunited by force if necessary.
Ma has been accused of secret dealings over trade pacts and his historic summit with China’s president Xi Jinping in Singapore last November—the first between the two side since their split—bolstered those fears.
Anger erupted in 2014 when student-led protesters occupied parliament over a trade deal they said had been agreed behind closed doors. There were also protests last year over school textbooks criticized as too China-centric.
Voters fear Taiwan will eventually be “snatched” by Beijing, says Lee Shiao-feng, Taiwanese culture professor at the National Taipei University of Education.
“They want to say ‘no’ to China,” said Lee.
“Surveys show that more and more people here, even second or third generation mainlanders, consider themselves Taiwanese rather than Chinese.”
The DPP’s Tsai says Taiwan must move away from economic dependence and that public sentiment will influence her cross-strait strategy.
However, in a sign of pragmatism she also says she will maintain the “status quo” and has toned down the DPP’s traditional pro-independence stance.
Her moderate message is not just designed to assuage China but to calm nerves in the United States —Taiwan’s main ally—which does not want to see a rise in tensions.
The vast majority of voters also want to maintain peace with China.
Beijing has warned it will not deal with a leader who refuses to recognize Taiwan as part of “one China.”
The concept is enshrined in a tacit agreement between the KMT and Beijing known as the “1992 consensus” and is the bedrock of closer ties—the DPP has never endorsed it.