The Rule of the Mainlander


When the newly elected Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou is sworn in today Alejandro Wang will be watching the presidential inauguration speech from his business base in Santiago, Chile.

Last March Alejandro Wang made the lengthy journey from Santiago to his native Taipei. He came, like thousands of other Taiwanese expatriates, to vote in the 22 March presidential elections. His vote went to the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)’s Ma Ying-jeou.

Ma’s victory over the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Frank Hsieh – 58.4 to 41 per cent – was expected. Taiwanese people were tired of the DPP’s eight years of economic mismanagement and corruption.

Corruption has plagued the DPP until its final days in power. The latest scandal broke on 7 May when three high level members of the Hsieh’s government resigned following their involvement in a $30 million embezzlement scheme. The money was due to be used to buy – in the tradition of Taiwanese chequebook diplomacy – Papua New Guinea’s international support.

Last March, just days after the election, Alejandro Wang took me to his old neighbourhood, where the imposing Taipei Financial Center 101 Building rises from what were once rice paddies. "The victory of Ma showed that Taiwanese people want a clean government, economic prosperity and also a friendly relationship with China," he said. For this pragmatic businessman, Ma’s pledge of a closer relationship with China is vital to Taiwan’s economic future. "Everybody is doing business with China, including our direct competitors such as Korea and Singapore. We are the silly ones being left behind."

Twenty years ago Wang moved to Chile and since then his import and export business has flourished. He is now developing a new axis of business: Taiwan-China-Chile. This means extensive trips between Taiwan and China. "So far however it has not been easy due to the investment restrictions imposed by Taiwan and the prohibition of direct flights to China," he said.

Direct flights between these two neighbours have been banned for the last five decades. This means that Wang has to fly to third port – Hong Kong for example – and then to Shanghai to see his clients. "It’s silly. It takes me more than six hours instead the one hour and 30 minutes that it would take me from Taipei to Shanghai." Taiwan and China are just 160 kilometres apart.

If Ma’s promise to restore direct flights between China and Taiwan is fulfilled, Wang will be relieved. "No more waste of money no more waste of time." Ma has pledged to open seven airports across Taiwan for daily direct flights with the mainland.

Cheng Chen-mao, a Citibank economist, said that direct transportation and trade links across the Strait "will be a boon to Taiwan’s economic development and will help to vitalise the domestic financial market." More than half of Taiwan’s gross domestic product comes from exports and China is a key market. Ma has also pledged to open the island to Chinese tourists. From next July, 3000 daily Chinese tourists will be allowed to enter the island with the aim of increasing it to 3 million a year.

The direct air links between Taiwan and China are just one of the many measures the new President has vowed to implement. The centrepiece of Ma’s program was the "one China market" that will pave the way for a common market. This would authorise Chinese investments in the island and ease the rules imposed on Taiwanese business people whose investments in China are limited to 40 per cent of their assets.

It is not just the business community or the potential tourists celebrating the election of Ma. Common Taiwanese – unhappy with DPP corruption and its inability to generate better economic conditions – have also put their hopes on him.

"The DPP was not concerned with the basic needs of Taiwanese people, they were more concerned with antagonising China and priorities such as education and employment were not taken care of," told me Vivian Wu, a Taiwanese IT student now living in San Francisco. I met her in the train between Naili and Taipei. "I’m very happy with the result," she said. "Taiwanese workers’ income have been falling, consumer prices are rocketing and education is bad."

These are the same concerns I heard over and over again in Taiwan. These were the apprehensions for example of the Yu-feng family.

I met them in Hsinchu, home of the high-tech Hsinchu Science Park where 440 high-tech leading manufacturing companies are located. It is the Taiwanese Silicon Valley. The Yu-fengs are a young couple with two daughters. They are engineers who, like thousand of employees at the Hsinchu Science Park, have been badly affected by stagnant wages and rising living costs over the last eight years.

In the last decade the profit margins for many of the companies in Hsinchu Science Park have declined and they are concerned about the impact this is having on their daily life. "We are concerned about our daughters. We want a peaceful society, good economic management and a good education for our children."

During the election campaign the DPP described Ma as a "mainlander" – he was born in Hong Kong – ready to sell out Taiwan to China. This is not a concern for the Yu-feng family. "It is nonsense, we share with China a common history and our ancestors came from China."

Most of the Taiwanese people I met in Taipei, Naili, Taoyuan and Hsinchu expressed their deep desire for a peaceful relationship with China. In the last eight years they have witnessed what they describe as the DPP’s unnecessary provocations to China. Taiwan and China are technically at war

While Taiwanese people are ready to do business with China, there is something that is not negotiable: territorial demands and national sovereignty. This is deeply embedded in the Taiwanese psyche and the Ma – the "mainlander" – knows this well.

Alejandro Wang, the Chilean-Taiwanese businessman I met in Taipei, is one of those who say "yes" to business with China but "no" to reunification. "China and Taiwan are two different countries, they are the People’s Republic of China and we are the Republic of China. We are two different nations," he told me. Wang echoed the widely held aspiration of Taiwanese people: "I really hope that the Cross Strait will be a zone of economic prosperity and not a zone of military confrontation."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.