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China's Recent Squeeze on Taiwan Could Backfire

FILE - Chinese President Xi Jinping (C) speaks during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the "Message to Compatriots in Taiwan" at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Jan. 2, 2019.

China’s recent squeeze on the Taiwan economy and its international profile is expected to backfire by making Taiwanese ever angrier and endearing them to leaders who oppose Beijing.

Taiwanese will like China less for cutting off self-guided tourism and blocking its citizens from entering a Taipei-based regional film award, analysts and a government official said this week. People upset with China generally vote for anti-China leaders at home, frustrating Beijing’s goal of unifying someday with their self-ruled island.

“In the past, the impact of this sort of attitude [in China] has been very poor,” said You Ying-lung, chairman of the survey research body Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation. “The targets of its criticism would be elected president.”

FILE - Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attends a ceremony to sign up for Democratic Progressive Party's 2020 presidential candidate nomination in Taipei, Taiwan, March 21, 2019.
FILE - Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen attends a ceremony to sign up for Democratic Progressive Party's 2020 presidential candidate nomination in Taipei, Taiwan, March 21, 2019.

Taiwan’s incumbent president, an irritant to China, is running for a second four-year term against a candidate seen as friendlier to the Communist leadership.

Accumulation of pressure

In the latest cases, China’s culture ministry starting August 1 will cut off permits for mainland Chinese people to visit Taiwan as independent travelers. About 82,000 of those travelers normally visit Taiwan every month. Their absence will erode business for inns, eateries and local taxi services.

Last week the Chinese government-controlled China Film News blog said domestic actors and films could no longer compete in the Taiwan-based Golden Horse Awards, an annual Oscars-like event for films from Chinese-speaking Asia. The awards in their 56th year have helped boost the fame of stars such as Jackie Chan.

“The authorities in mainland China must take full responsibility for causing this step backward in people-to-people exchanges,” said Chiu Chui-cheng, spokesman for the Taiwan government’s Mainland Affairs Council. “This incident will make Taiwanese citizens recognize again all the more that China is exerting political pressure on the essence of normal exchanges.”

China-Taiwan ties have weakened since 2016, when President Tsai Ing-wen took office in Taipei. Her government won't negotiate on Beijing’s condition that both sides belong to a single China. China regards self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory, to be unified by force someday if needed. Most Taiwanese prefer autonomy, a Taiwan government survey found in January.

Also during Tsai’s term, officials in Taipei say, China has sent military aircraft near Taiwan and persuaded five Taiwanese diplomatic allies to switch allegiance to Beijing.

Common Taiwanese are talking about the film awards and tourism suspension flaps, ruling party lawmaker Lee Chun-yi said. People are getting more upset with China, he added. “The more they push the Taiwanese, the further away they’ll get,” he said.

Cycle of anger

Actions in Beijing that are aimed at warning Taiwan by squeezing its economy or international reputation sometimes have an opposite effect, You said.
Beijing tested missiles in the Taiwan Strait from late 1995 until just before the 1996 Taiwan election, for example. Lee Teng-hui, who advocated keeping a political distance from China, won the election.

The Chinese government said ahead of Taiwan’s 2000 presidential that it would use force if the island’s leaders declined to discuss unification. Chen Shui-bian, another anti-China firebrand, won that race.

By taking action aimed at Taiwan now rather than later, China may avoid influencing the island’s January presidential and parliamentary elections, said Joanna Lei, CEO of the Chunghua 21st Century Think Tank in Taiwan. The campaign is likely to crest in November and December.

“This has got to be carefully weighted,” Lei said. “So even if people are unhappy, by the time November comes, there will be other things and they’re just trying to minimize the potential negative impacts to the extent possible.”

Tsai should get 45% of the presidential election vote, leading her closest rival by nearly five percentage points, the survey research foundation discovered in a July 22 survey.