Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen marks the first anniversary of her presidency this weekend, avoiding scheduled speeches to review achievements, as approval ratings slip and pressure mounts to engage China for economic gain.
The president’s office said Tsai will give no speech Saturday, the first day of her second year in office, surprising political experts accustomed to past leaders who addressed the public on their inauguration anniversaries.
Opinion surveys indicate Taiwanese are keen for Tsai to improve economic conditions. Some want her to engage old political and military rival China for economic benefits, though without compromising Taiwan’s political autonomy.
“People are not happy with the economy and with the cross-Strait (China-Taiwan) stalemate,” said Raymond Wu, managing director of the political risk consultancy e-telligence in Taipei. “They expect that Taiwan’s economy will rebound. I think they will expect that there will be more interaction and there could be some dialogue at the official level.”
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and demands eventual unification of the two sides, a goal that goes against a majority of public opinion in Taiwan. Tsai rejects Beijing’s condition for dialogue that each side sees itself as part of a single China. The two sides have quit talking about trade and investment as they did for eight years before Tsai took office.
Over those years they signed 23 deals that opened tourism for a record 3.4 million mainland Chinese visitors in 2015 and dropped import tariffs on 800 items. Momentum in forging ties with China had created 9,600 jobs as of 2015, the government of ex-president Ma Ying-jeou said.
However, last year group tourism from China fell about 30 percent as the Beijing government compelled its travelers to go elsewhere, analysts in Taipei believe.
“Cross-strait ties of course will affect Taiwan’s tourism,” said Wang Yeh-lih, comparative politics professor at National Taiwan University. “Because the number of tourists from China is down, that will naturally affect the economy.”
A trade-in-goods agreement proposed in Ma’s term to cut thousands more tariffs has been put on hold as the two sides no longer talk.
Tsai’s approval rating has eased from more than 50 percent shortly after she took office. It stood at 41.4% in February, according to the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation. The group Taiwan Democracy Watch said this week just 18.4 percent of Taiwanese approve of Tsai’s ability to run the government.
The president acknowledged Thursday at a private event that her approval rate was falling, Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported.
Taiwanese want the government to raise wages, make housing cheaper and create jobs, especially for youth, according to surveys and political experts in Taiwan. Tsai campaigned on making those changes. In a speech to Chinese-language media Friday she urged patience.
“I know a lot of people hope for a quick fix to speed reforms, but we’re a democratic country, and Taiwan can’t go back to the authoritarianism of the past,” Tsai said, a likely reference to the martial law years before democratization in the 1980s. “I’m not a dictator. I’m a leader who’s resolutely reforming under a system of democracy.”
Taiwan’s export-led $519 billion economy will grow slightly less than two percent this year, according to official forecasts. Monthly wages of around $1,300 for entry-level engineers, an anchor of Taiwan’s giant tech industry, have pushed some talent abroad. Younger workers say they cannot afford apartments in Taipei.
One China policy
But 56.6 percent of Taiwanese want Tsai to continue resisting China’s demand that the two sides belong to “one China” as a negotiating condition, Taiwan Democracy Watch said.
China is unlikely to negotiate on any other condition, experts say, and will instead share its economic might with Taiwan’s exporter rivals, such as South Korea and the nations of Southeast Asia.
Ma’s acceptance of "one China" contributed to widespread street protests around Taipei in 2014 and cost his Nationalist Party local elections that year. China has fumed over Tsai’s approach by barring Taiwan from a World Health Organization annual assembly and passing an aircraft carrier around the island.
Tsai, a 60-year-old law scholar and head of her Democratic Progressive Party, handily won the presidential race last year against a Nationalist candidate.
Over her first year, Tsai’s party has approved legislation allowing more guaranteed time off for workers and has made headway on pension reform. Her government also has started easing immigration rules and setting up offices to help Taiwanese companies invest more in South and Southeast Asia, and vice versa.
That “New Southbound Policy” will cut dependence on China by building up ties with another fast-growing, populous region, officials say.
“Everyone believes this is a policy we should pursue. What’s everyone paying attention to now? The new southbound policy, up to now, where are the achievements and what’s the advantage to everyday people’s lives?” government trade negotiator Tsai Yun-chung said in an interview this week.
“So in the future when we pursue this thing, we need to let that element stand out, not only to promote a policy but the policy outcome’s relevance to people’s lives, and link those together,” he said.