Taiwan unlikely to move to reunify with China, despite Ma Ying-jeou’s reelection

TAIPEI, Taiwan — At the 228 Memorial Museum, a shrine to the victims of a 1947 massacre by Chinese troops, staff members were in mourning Sunday over the reelection of Ma Ying-jeou, a president who they think wants to turn Taiwan over to China.

“China has us by the throat, and now he’s going to surrender,” said Ang Hwih Hwih, a die-hard advocate of independence for Taiwan, an island of 23 million people that Beijing views as a wayward Chinese province. Ang cried at the news that Ma — whose Kuomintang party orchestrated the slaughter of 1947 — had won a second four-year term and thus a mandate to press ahead with a policy of rapprochement with Beijing.

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‘No rush’ for talks

But although Saturday’s election results may have dispirited Ang and other believers in independence — and delighted Communist Party leaders in Beijing who want unification — there is little sign that Ma has any intention of moving toward, or has any public backing for, a political settlement with China on Taiwan’s status.

“There is no rush to open up political dialogue,” Ma said shortly after declaring victory over Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party. “It’s not a looming issue.”

It is not a popular issue, either. Public support for unification, which Beijing views as the aim of political discussions, has withered to insignificance, according to public opinion surveys by the Election Study Center at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. Independence is not popular either, but it enjoys far more support than a merger with China.

Reunification unpopular

In a 2011 poll, only 1.4 percent of respondents said that they wanted swift unification, and 60 percent favored keeping the status quo indefinitely or until some undecided future date. Only 8.7 percent said they preferred the status quo with eventual unification, compared with 23 percent who want either immediate independence or the status quo with moves toward independence.

Beijing has repeatedly said it would use force to block any move by Taiwan, already a separate state in all but name, to declare independence.

Even Ma’s fervent fans dismiss the idea of joining China anytime soon. “When the Communist Party is gone and they have democracy, we can talk about it,” said Lin Chun-ching, an elderly Kuomintang supporter. He spent Election Day feeding birds outside a giant memorial hall to Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese leader who was defeated by Mao Zedong during China’s civil war and decamped to Taiwan in 1949.

Chiang, who dreamed of reconquering China and was hailed for decades in Taiwan as a hero, is now widely dismissed as delusional, a dictator or simply irrelevant. The grounds of his memorial hall used to be named in his honor but are now called Freedom Square. Most of the visitors are tourists, many from China.

Chiang’s old — and the Communist Party’s current — dream of a single, united China holds little appeal for most people in Taiwan, said Su Chi, the former head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council. Both unification and independence are “issues of faith” best left to one side.

Business across the Taiwan Strait has grown steadily for two decades and is set to surge following a landmark 2010 trade accord. Taiwan’s sense of separateness, however, also has grown.

Between 1992 and 2011, according to surveys by the Election Study Center, the proportion of people describing themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese soared from 17 percent to 54 percent. The share identifying themselves as Chinese, meanwhile, plunged from 25 percent to 4 percent.

“The growth of Taiwanese identity is very, very significant” and “makes it more and more difficult for Ma to maneuver vis-a-vis China,” said Bruce Jacobs, an expert on Taiwan at Australia’s Monash University. Having quietly backed Ma during the election campaign, Beijing is “now expecting a payoff, but Ma is really constrained,” Jacobs said.

When Jacobs first came to Taiwan in 1965, the island was under martial law, talk of a separate identity for Taiwan was taboo and the Kuomintang was dominated by refugees from China yearning for their homeland. Now, he said, even the “KMT is overwhelmingly Taiwanese” and any bid by Ma to reach a political deal with Beijing “would be stopped cold in his own party.”

Although China is still prone to rhetoric about the “sacred mission” to unify the “motherland” and the occasional menacing propaganda blast from the military, it has dropped a push from the 1990s for unification and shifted its focus under party leader Hu Jintao to preventing Taiwan’s independence.

Beijing applauds vote

China’s official Xinhua News Agency on Sunday welcomed Ma’s victory and said it “may open new chances.” But it acknowledged that the “situation in the island is still complicated” and that “there are still some long-term disputes and divergences existing between the two sides.” The issue of independence, it added, “will continue to haunt the cross-strait relations development.”

As the presidential campaign reached its climax last week, Ma, who was born in then-British-ruled Hong Kong to parents who had fled China’s 1949 communist takeover, scoffed at warnings by his opponents that he might rush to Beijing for a political deal.

“If I win this election, I will not be visiting China,” he said.

 
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