Only seven months ago, Ma Ying-jeou was elected president of Taiwan by the largest margin of victory in the nation's history, and a big reason was his bold plan for linking Taiwan more closely to China. Ma believes that improved relations with a rapid-growth China will boost the island's own sagging economy. His program also lent hope that tensions could be reduced between Taiwan and China, which still regards Taiwan as a renegade province and claims sovereignty over the island. In a flurry of new policies, Ma opened Taiwan to Chinese tourists and investors and launched direct flights between Taiwan and China for the first time.
But today Ma and his program are coming under increasing fire. On Oct. 25, hundreds of thousands protested against closer China ties at a Taipei rally organized by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Last week, a Chinese official, Zhang Mingqing, fell to the ground as another mob of angry protesters pushed and shoved around him during his visit to a temple in the city of Tainan. The protesters specifically targeted Zhang, who, as vice-chairman of the Chinese organization responsible for cross-strait relations, was seen as a symbol of China's sway over Taiwan. Meanwhile, Ma has watched his approval rating sink to about 25%.
Ma's plans to improve relations with China were destined to be controversial in Taiwan. About a third of the population is in favor of Taiwan becoming a fully independent country and fears closer ties to China will lead to re-unification with the mainland. But dissatisfaction with Ma's agenda has also been intensified by the continued struggles of the Taiwan economy. The expected benefits from the measures taken to improve links to China have yet to materialize. The anticipated rush of big-spending mainland tourists, for example, has proven to be only a trickle, due to continued restrictions on travel to Taiwan imposed by Beijing. "I think the good cross-strait policies have been blamed as a scapegoat for the downturn in the economy," says Chao Chien-min, a political scientist at National Chengchi University. "If times were better, I think the general attitude towards China would not be so strong."
There may be little Ma's China policy can do to significantly bolster Taiwan's economy in the face of the global financial crisis. The economy is highly dependent on exports, especially of electronics, to the U.S. and elsewhere. Taiwan's export orders grew only 2.8% in September from a year earlier, the slowest pace since 2002. The consumer confidence index in October dropped to the lowest level since monthly surveys were first conducted in 2001.
Ma, however, appears determined to pursue his China policy even as opposition grows. After the Taipei rally, Ma said that he "will listen to the voice of the people and fix any policies that are not good enough," but added that "the larger direction of the government is correct." And he does continue to have some public support. Despite the large Taipei rally, poll results show that a majority of Taiwan's population approve of parts of Ma's China policies, such as direct transportation links. "Ma will be more cautious" in the wake of the large rally, says Yang Tai-shuenn, a political science professor at Taiwan's Chinese Culture University. However, "the only hope for Taiwan's economy is China. Ma has no option but to rely more on China."
Ma faces another test next week, when representatives from China and Taiwan will hold another round of negotiations in Taipei to further improve ties. The DPP has already warned it plans protests during the summit. For Ma, the task of resolving the conflict with China, already a tough task, looks set to become even harder.