Top representatives from eight municipalities in Taiwan controlled by the pan-blue camp visited China at the weekend for talks with Chinese officials and to promote tourism and agricultural produce as Beijing shows Taipei the cold shoulder for its refusal to acknowledge the so-called 1992 consensus.
Besides belonging to the same camp — six of the eight city and county government heads belong to the Kuomintang (KMT) and two others are blue-leaning independents — all eight representatives have stated they recognize the “1992 consensus,” which an inflexible Beijing has set as a precondition for cross-Strait exchanges.
Having frozen most (albeit not all) the official communication mechanisms between the central governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Beijing is now accelerating its efforts to bypass the central government in Taipei and rewarding local governments that agree to say what it wants. In return, the heads of those eight municipalities hope to reap the benefits of Chinese tourism and better market access for their produce. In other words, they are agreeing to form a clientelistic relationship with China.
There are many precedents for such tactics. For example, for several years now such a relationship has existed between China and Hualien County (county commissioner Fu Kun-chi [傅崐萁] was on the weekend’s delegation). Moreover, after the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration’s efforts to sign additional cross-Strait agreements were frustrated by the Sunflower Movement in March/April 2014 and President Ma had become a lame duck, Chinese officials also sought to create dependencies through direct dealings with local representatives, trade associations and Aboriginal leaders.
During his visit to Taiwan in June 2014, Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), the head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) who met this weekend with the Taiwanese delegation, also momentarily bypassed officials from the Mainland Affairs Council and met with Kuo Yun-hui (郭雲輝), chairman of the Taiwan Borough and Village Warden Association (台灣村里長聯誼會) while in Taoyuan. And needless to say, China engaged in similar activities during the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration (2008-2008).
The aim of such a strategy, which as expected following the victory of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the Jan. 16 elections has accelerated, is not really to bring succor to parts of Taiwan that are struggling economically due to a supposed drop in the number of Chinese tourists. Realistically, how many package tours can Miaoli County, which isn’t exactly tourism material, offer to Chinese visitors, county commissioner Hsu Yao-chang’s (徐耀昌) pilgrimage to Beijing notwithstanding?
The fact of the matter is, however much Beijing would like to use them as both a commodity and political instrument, Chinese tourists will not visit parts of Taiwan that aren’t appealing to them, which applies to most of the municipalities represented by those who went to China this weekend. So whatever promise the TAO made them on Sunday, don’t expect swarms of Chinese tourists at those locations, hopping from one blue-controlled municipality to another without their feet ever touching the ground of those run by DPP or pan-green independents — which coincidentally is where most of the real tourism action happens to be located.
The key to Beijing’s strategy is to undermine the central government’s authority by creating bilateral dependencies. Its aim is to sow division and to promise carrots to whomever accedes to its demands, regardless of the fact that the majority of Taiwanese have so far been willing to follow President Tsai’s lead in not acknowledging the “1992 consensus” and “one China.” If there is one reason why last week’s protest by Taiwan’s tourism associations fell flat, this is it. No doubt some people (perhaps the representatives themselves) will benefit from China’s “largesse” in the form of purchasing tours — and we have seen those before, by the bucketful of bananas and crabs. But China’s carrots were never meant to help local economies; they didn’t then, and they won’t now. The local communities should know that and realize that what their representatives are doing their name isn’t as altruistic as it may seem.
Beijing’s bypass strategy is a palliative to its failure to extricate itself from the mess it has created for itself by insisting on the government in Taipei recognizing a “consensus.” It is also an offshoot of the Chinese Communist Party’s inability to focus on substance rather than rhetoric. But in the end this is a self-defeating strategy, as it will compel the government in Taipei to redouble its efforts to diversify its economy and find alternatives to easy-but-comes-with-strings-attached Chinese money.
First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: Olivia Yang