April 25, 2013, by Editor

Economic Integration and Cultural Divergence: Obstacles to Political Integration Across the Taiwan Strait

Written by Jens Damm.

One of the most intriguing features of the current cross-Strait policies of Ma Ying-jeou, especially since his re-election as President of the “Republic of China (on Taiwan)” in 2012, is the divergence between the expectations of many outside observers of a rapid rapprochement between the two sides in the political arena and the obvious stagnation of the integration process during the early months of his administration. Since 2008, the continuing adherence to Realpolitik has led to far-reaching normalization between the two sides on a pragmatic level without touching the unresolved underlying issues of sovereignty. Realpolitik has not paved the way for the future unification of the island with the Mainland, a goal which is certainly being pursued by the government in Beijing in accordance with public opinion on the Mainland, although the majority of people in Taiwan have clearly indicated a preference for maintaining the status quo, while also keeping open the option of declaring formal independence in the long term.

In addition, according to many opinion polls, direct unification and political discussions between the CCP and the Guomindang (Kuomintang, GMD) have been clearly rejected by the majority of the voters on the island of Taiwan, which has further alienated the dominant faction of the Guomindang from the median voter. Although, for a brief interlude during the Li Denghui (Lee Teng-hui) presidency, the Guomindang was controlled by a largely native Taiwanese faction, it is today once more largely under the control of a group of leading politicians who support unification. In addition, they are the second generation of the Chinese mainlanders who arrived on the island after Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) had been defeated in the Civil War on the Mainland in 1949. On the other hand, the main opposition parties in Taiwan (the Democratic Progressive Party and the Taiwan Solidarity Union) seem to follow the line of the dominant identity politics on the island, a fact, however, which does not win them much support among the electorate. What are the underlying reasons for the divergent view of the ruling KMT and the majority of the voters?

The Mainland China “Threat”

The Mainland’s threat to “solve the Taiwan issue” by force if a formal declaration of independence were to be made certainly influenced the election outcome in Taiwan (and this threat forms part of a carrot “economy” and stick “missiles” policy). I would argue, however, that other domestic Taiwanese issues should also be taken into account in any attempt to explain both Ma Yingjiu’s re-election and his lack of popularity, since Taiwanese voters generally seem to be indifferent to mainland China’s stance on cross-Strait policies – unlike the rest of the world.[1]

Cultural Assimilation?

Not only did Western observers regard the 2008 election and particularly the 2012 re-election of Ma Ying-jeou as the return of the unificationists, many observers all over the world expected Ma’s first term of office, which was shaped by an economic and cultural rapprochement between the two sides, to be followed by a rapid political rapprochement during the second term. While in the case of the economic rapprochement (which included agreements on direct flights) the two sides actually came together, serious doubt exists as to whether cultural rapprochement is taking place. The number of tourists from mainland China is steadily increasing, and at the same time, more and more mainland Chinese students are coming to Taiwan. Simplified Chinese characters, which for a long time were strictly forbidden, are in common use today to cater for mainland Chinese tourists. The Palace Museum, which under Tu Chengsheng briefly shifted its orientation towards Southeast Asia, has again started to present traditional Chinese cultural artifacts and can be seen as a symbol of “Taiwan being the most traditional part of China”. [2]

Whether, however, these developments are leading or have indeed led to cultural assimilation between the sides is a matter of debate. Mainland Chinese tourists, as happened previously in Hong Kong, are subject to ridicule by the mass media and by the general population. In almost all circumstances, they are negatively contrasted with the second largest group of tourists, which comes from Japan, and the Taiwanese public seem to feel much closer to their former colonizer in the context of culture. Instead of going to the Palace Museum, Taiwanese tourists visit the almost countless number of other Taiwanese museums and exhibitions which have blossomed since the Chen Shui-bian administration and the “Chinese” Palace Museum is left for the visiting masses from mainland China. The popularity of Taiwan as a destination for mainland Chinese tourists has not led to an increase in the number of Taiwanese tourists visiting mainland China.

More importantly, opinion polls carried out by the election studies center at Chengchi (Zhengzhi) University show that there is an unbroken trend at the individual level towards the acceptance of a Taiwanese identity. In addition, the younger generation of Taiwanese today can easily identify with being Taiwanese, politically, and “Chinese” (huaren,) culturally, but this cultural identity is not in any way linked with a pan-Chinese national identity (Zhongguoren) as it was before.[3]

Economic Integration as Normalization of “State to State” relations or Economic Integration of a Nation?

The second issue seems to be the misinterpretation of economic integration as the beginning of social, political and cultural integration. Although, without doubt, such a process can take place, (see, for example, the European Union), it is definitely not a necessity, particularly when the political will (on one side) is lacking or when an agreement cannot be reached on the form that the political integration should take (Canada and the US, Mercosur, ASEAN). Voters in Taiwan probably elected Ma Yingjiu for a second term in order to normalize the economic situation and the people-to-people relationships (tourism, student exchanges etc.) between the two sides. After the end of the “cold war” between the CCP and the GMD and the following period when hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese started to invest and work in mainland China, there was no further reason for not granting similar rights to the mainland Chinese with regard to Taiwan. Why should Macau and Hong Kong profit from the direct flights between the two sides as well as from the trade which officially passed through these two specific regions?  All these factors contributed to the victory of the GMD and Ma Yingjiu. The Western media, however, interpreted the results of the election in Taiwan as the beginning of a rapid integration process, when it was merely a process of normalization that was taking place. [4]

The Obstacles for the Ma Yingjiu Administration, the DPP and Mainland China

Ma’s cross-Strait policy is now severely hampered by public opinion in Taiwan, which expects economic success as a result of improved cross-Strait relations. At the same time, opinion polls by the MAC show that almost 85 % of the population in Taiwan is in favor of maintaining the status quo, and that public support for independence and opposition to unification is higher now than it was during the Chen Shui-bian presidency. The current administration is therefore faced with the problem that their core supporters, the conservative Mainlanders, are seeking a rapid unification process, including direct talks with the CCP, while the majority of those who voted for Ma Yingjiu only support his economic policy in general, and are disappointed with the results. There has also been a shift among this group towards a Taiwanese identity and they are in favor of maintaining the status quo if not of claiming independence in the long term. [5]

For the DPP, this offers a glimpse of hope: as the new economic integration process probably cannot be unraveled, a presidential candidate put forward by the DPP would probably be more in accordance with the identity politics of the island than the current President. However, the DPP as well as the median voter are well aware that the mainland would be much less friendly towards the DPP even if the actual policies did not differ from those of Ma Yingjiu due to the support for independence shown by the core voters of the DPP.

For the mainland, the situation is also anything but satisfactory. Although Beijing has praised the economic integration process and the growing number of tourists, concern has also been voiced that the trend towards independence and Taiwanese identity politics is gaining pace. Exerting strong pressure on Ma Yingjiu, however, would probably serve to increase his domestic problems.

As long as all sides adhere to the – ever shifting – status quo, the cross-Strait situation will remain stable, but there is little hope of finding a long term solution as long as the basic issue is not resolved. Who has the right to decide on the political future of the island? The population in Taiwan, or the “Chinese” on the Mainland and the large number of waishengren in Taiwan who still adhere to a pan-Chinese identity which is nevertheless rapidly losing popularity on the island?

 Jens Damm is Assistant Professor at the Graduate Institute of Taiwan Studies at Chang Jung Christian University and ERCCT Associate Fellow, University of Tubingen. With Gunter Schubert he is the Editor of Taiwanese Identity in the 21st Century: Domestic, Regional and Global Perspectives.


[1] I received a lot of inspiration for this blog entry from my participation at the workshop “Cross-Strait Relations in an Era of Technological Change, Security, Economic and Cultural Dimensions.” University of Oxford, St Antony’s College, Asian Studies Centre, China Centre, Taiwan Studies Programme on Tuesday 5th March 2013.

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