Taiwan poses generational challenge to China

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Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s outgoing president, made history late last year by meeting China’s President Xi Jinping, the first such summit in history.

But the island has begun 2016 by going in a very different direction. Opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen’s triumph in this month’s presidential election confronts China with a less congenial neighbour — and marks a generational shift in Taiwan that could spell wider problems for Beijing.

Ms Tsai’s Democratic Progressive party focused on the youth vote as it capitalised on a growing sense of Taiwanese, as opposed to Chinese, identity. Her victory was a clear rejection of the ruling Kuomintang’s policy of closer economic ties with China.

“We are already an independent country with our own democracy so we are just voting for who we want,” said one student who cast a ballot for Ms Tsai. “If Beijing doesn’t like it, that is their problem, not ours.”

That is not how Beijing or much of the rest of the world sees things. China insists Taiwan — a self-governing island of 23m — is one of its territories. Only a handful of countries accord it diplomatic recognition: even Taiwan supporters such as the US hold back from doing so for fear of upsetting Beijing.

But Ms Tsai’s landslide victory — and the strong emotions behind it — make clear the challenge of maintaining the current status quo. They also highlight the regional difficulties facing China, as it contends with an array of problems ranging from unfriendly governments in the Philippines and Vietnam to growing discontent in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

If the mainland is unable to win over neighbouring Taiwan, with which it shares language, ethnicity, culture, business links and much more, how can it hope to secure other allies?

The shift in Taiwan is striking. About 60 per cent of people on the island see themselves as Taiwanese, up from less than 20 per cent in 1992, while those describing themselves as Chinese have dropped from 26 per cent to just 4 per cent, according to a survey by Taipei’s National Chengchi University.

Hardly any Taiwanese back Beijing’s ambitions for eventual reunification with the territory. The China Unification Promotion party, the only organisation promoting such a stance during the election, failed to win any seats and scored less than 0.5 per cent of the vote. By contrast, Ms Tsai’s DPP, which wants to reduce reliance on China and talks of a separate Taiwanese identity, scooped up 60 per cent of the seats in the legislature.

Bruce Jacobs, an expert on Taiwan at Australia’s Monash University, says: “Fewer and fewer people have the sense that they are Chinese and more and more feel Taiwanese. This was a crucial factor in the election.”

Other surveys show about 80 per cent still want to maintain the status quo, rather than formal independence, largely because of China’s threats to invade if that ever happens.

True to form, Beijing responded to Ms Tsai’s victory in what it calls a “regional leadership election” by reiterating its longstanding warning that it would never tolerate “any separatist activities”. And yet China’s broader ambitions depend on making friends in its neighbourhood.

The country is pushing forward with a foreign policy initiative known as One Belt, One Road — a hugely ambitious plan sometimes compared with the Marshall Plan. The goal is to build vast infrastructure projects in dozens of countries and so consolidate Beijing’s burgeoning influence.

But though China’s cheque book is undoubtedly big, the country will need to bolster its powers of persuasion if it is to strengthen regional links. Appealing to younger generations in neighbouring countries is a key task.

Beijing’s efforts to engage have frequently backfired, leaving many with a sense that a rising China is more eager to throw its weight around than to lend a hand. That may be the true lesson of the Taiwanese election: if it really wants to win round its neighbours, China has much to do.

Ben.Bland@ft.com

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