The Invisible Candidate in Taiwan’s Elections

The Island Is Set to Vote On 11,000 Official Posts. Here’s Why the Mainland Will Be Watching.

Almost 80 percent of Taiwan, an island of 23 million off the coast of China, is expected to head to the polls November 29 to vote in local elections with more than 11,000 seats up for grabs. Voters will choose candidates ranging from mayors in Taiwan's six biggest cities to low-level village chiefs and township councilors, who make up the bulk of the vacancies.

But the elections are more than just an exercise in local politics. Beijing, which views the island as a renegade province that must someday be reunited with the Chinese motherland, has actively cultivated relationships with local Taiwanese officials in the lead up to the elections and will likely watch the outcome closely. With the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), a trade pact that would open Taiwan to further mainland investment, stalled in the island's parliament since March, elected officials on the village, county, and city levels could provide China an alternate avenue for making economic inroads into the island.

For Taiwanese voters, the November election most immediately is about domestic issues. Highly watched races include those for mayor in Taiwan's six cities: Taipei, New Taipei, Taoyuan, Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. For Taipei's hotly contested mayoral race, six major Taiwanese media outlets, including those that favor the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) and the opposition pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), have all put Ko Wen-je, a doctor and an independent supported by the DPP, on top of his competitor Sean Lien, son of former Taiwan Vice President Lien Chan.

Beijing appears to have already taken steps to cozy up to Taiwan's locally elected officials.

China, however, likely views Taiwan's election this year as a harbinger of what's to come in cross-strait relations. In 2016, Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan's hugely unpopular president and KMT chairman whose rapprochement with the mainland has left many Taiwanese suspicious, will leave office because of term limits and voters will elect a new leader. Jacques deLisle, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, told Foreign Policy that the Nov. 29 elections are likely to be a referendum on KMT rule and Ma's presidency, as well as a "prognosticator" of what will happen in two years' time when, in the national elections, "issues of relations with China, Taiwan's standing in the world, and ruling-party choices are very much on the table."

Beijing appears to have already taken steps to cozy up to Taiwan's locally elected officials. Beijing appears to have already taken steps to cozy up to Taiwan's locally elected officials. As early as April 2012, China had already begun making plans to arrange for "contact people" from Taiwan's various city and county governments to visit China to attend workshops for which they received mainland government subsidies, according to a July 4 column in the Apple Daily, a popular newspaper critical of China that is published in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Citing unnamed intelligence sources, the article asserted that Ye Kedong, the deputy director of China's Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), remarked in 2012 that while "in the past, exchanges between Taiwan and the mainland occurred between big cities or high-ranking political and business leaders, now, exchanges with local village and township officials have become the important trend." At least 75 villages and townships in Taiwan, the article said, have received direct or indirect subsidies from Beijing.

More recently, on June 25, when Zhang Zhijun, minister of TAO, toured Taiwan and met with elected officials, Taiwan's Internet was abuzz over the role one political association of village and township executives played in helping arrange Zhang's meetings with mayors in the three major cities of New Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung. That group, Taiwan's Village and Township Alliance, received attention from Beijing's state-controlled China News Service shortly after it was established in December 2011 in Taichung, where Zhang visited on June 28.

Such a strategy may pay dividends for China. By gaining its footing on the first rung of Taiwan's political ladder, Beijing can make China "seem friendlier and less scary to lower-level officials" while "helping to undercut the 'fear of China' narrative," deLisle explained. He added that early cultivation of relationships with future leaders, many of them KMT party members who are more sympathetic to Beijing's interests, could benefit rapprochement between China and Taiwan.

Taiwan's mayors are also appealing to China. Among the mayoral incumbents whom Zhang visited in June, Taichung's Jason Hu, of the KMT, and Kaohsiung's Chen Chu, of the DPP, had previously expressed interest in transforming their cities into Free Economic Pilot Zones, which would relax restrictions on everything from the flow of goods and information to the procedures allowing specialized workers to enter Taiwan—a move that would benefit China, Taiwan's main trading partner. (The results have been mixed; a Nov. 11 Yahoo poll had Hu trailing and Chen leading in their respective races.)

For his part, Ma has recently sought to portray himself and the KMT as capable of making a stand against China. During a speech on Oct. 10, Taiwan's National Day, Ma drew a swift and sharp rebuke from Beijing when he lent support to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which began Sept. 28, and declared that China needs to move toward constitutional democracy. NYU law professor and China-watcher Jerome Cohen, who taught Ma when he attended Harvard Law School, told FP that there was "a good domestic immediate political reason" behind Ma's speech, namely that a "wonderful statement about democracy" could win over Taiwanese voters still torn between choosing a KMT or DPP candidate in November's election. This, Cohen said, could give "a boost to the centrist people in Taiwan who presumably will select the next president" in 2016, whom Ma would naturally hope is from the KMT. That aside, Cohen added that Ma—who has negotiated more than 20 trade agreements with China, restored flights across the strait, and boosted tourism, particularly from the mainland—also has to consider the legacy he leaves, as well as what he will do after being president.

Although island-wide DPP victories in this election may not unnerve China as they once did, Beijing will certainly be watching closely how local election strategies play out. "Beijing believes its best strategy" for achieving political integration is by "deepening economic integration," deLisle noted. If Beijing can make the China market more enticing to local elected officials in southern Taiwan, long a DPP stronghold, then those officials in turn can sell it to Taiwanese businesses and, ultimately, to the Taiwanese people. And with the CSSTA at an impasse in Taiwan's parliament, successfully courting locally elected officials and their constituents could be key to gradually altering the mindset of Taiwanese voters who fear China, a change that may position the behemoth in a more favorable light just in time for Taiwan's 2016 presidential election.