Beijing's Ground Game in Taiwan Is Growing Smarter

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At least one thing is clear from local elections in Taiwan over the weekend - President Tsai Ing-wen and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party lost badly. Less clear, however, is how well Beijing won.

In a slew of polls and referendums on the self-governed island, Tsai’s DPP lost key races in the party’s longstanding local strongholds and saw its progressive agenda on gay marriage and a tougher line against Beijing repudiated.

The results bode poorly for the independence-leaning DPP and mark an unexpectedly strong comeback for the Kuomintang, or KMT, which suffered a humiliating defeat in the presidential elections in 2016. Beijing, which favors the KMT as the party of reunification, was thrilled and announced publicly that the results reflected the “strong will of the Chinese public” for better relations with the mainland.

Tsai will now be looking forward to the January 2020 presidential elections with dread, while the KMT – written off as a spent force only two years ago – has been rejuvenated and emboldened.

The repudiation of Tsai by the electorate is, on the face of it, unambiguously good for Beijing, which has increased economic and political pressure on Taiwan over the refusal of the DPP to toe the line on the one-China policy .

It is less clear, though, how much cross-strait issues had to do with the result. For outsiders and Taiwanese alike, it has always been difficult to disentangle ordinary domestic politics – about the economy and the environment and such issues – from the perennial debate about how to handle China. This election is no different.

Take, for example, the biggest upset of the night – the KMT’s victory in the southern metropolis of Kaohsiung, a city that has been a bastion of DPP power for more than two decades.

The DPP’s overconfidence about its prospects in the city, and the KMT’s quirky candidate, Han Kuo-yu, produced an upset. Older voters liked Kuo’s unabashed brand of KMT patriotism, while younger Taiwanese admired his taste in hip-hop music and straight-talking.

But there was another factor, more difficult to measure, that helped Kuo across the line: the role of Beijing and its backing of the KMT and its grassroots party organizations.

Beijing’s so-called influence operations have been in the news around the world in western democracies, in countries like the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and Canada, with critics accusing China of using local ethnic-Chinese front groups to influence domestic politics. Such operations are conducted by the Communist Party through multiple bodies, ranging from the People’s Liberation Army to the United Front Work Department, a ministry-level body dedicated to bolstering the party’s friends and marginalizing its enemies.

Although much of the high-decibel debate has been in the West lately, pro-Beijing activists have always been more focused on places closer to home, notably Hong Kong and Taiwan.

In the past, Beijing has been rightly accused of being tone-deaf about how its aggressive rhetoric on reunification plays out in Taiwan’s democratic politics – most notably when it lobbed shells near the island before elections in 1996.

The Communist Party may be getting smarter though, digging in behind the lines in Taiwan and openly favoring grassroots KMT groups that are crucial in gathering votes, especially in the countryside. 

This is what we might call the Communist Party’s ground game in Taiwan: bolstering rural community organisations that had fallen on hard times in recent years as the KMT went backwards in successive elections.

The Communist Party is nothing if not a learning organisation. It has now accumulated, quietly, over a number of years, great details on Taiwanese voters at a county-by-county level, according to Taiwanese officials I’ve spoken to.

Beijing’s support for rural groups was fortified by the distaste of these conservative voters for gay marriage, and a proposal to change the name used for the island internationally, from “Chinese Taipei” to “Taiwan.”

Beijing still issues periodic threats to Taiwan’s leaders about the need to stick with one-China policies, but it seems to have added to its arsenal by building an operation at the grassroots as well.

Not everybody thinks the election turned on Beijing’s tactics. “The elections were a poll on how the DPP government is performing,” Bruce Jacobs, a veteran Taiwan watcher, wrote in the Taipei Times Monday. “The government has become so cautious that it appears paralyzed.”

Local factors were no doubt important, including increasing questions about Tsai’s competence. But equally, after the setback of the 2016 presidential elections, there is little doubt that Beijing will think its new tactics are gaining ground.

Some caution is needed. Beijing has learned the hard way that in democracies (in Taiwan and elsewhere) you can win one day, and lose the next. And just as the KMT hasn’t turned out to be a spent force, the independence-leaning DPP won’t be going away either.

Taiwan’s next presidential election is in 2020. The 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party is in 2021. Despite Beijing’s success on the weekend, we could still see sparks flying around those two events.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney. He has been the bureau chief for the Financial Times in Beijing, Shanghai and Washington, and is the author most recently of "Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century".

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