There are a lot of reasons to doubt US president-elect Donald Trump’s incoming national security and foreign affairs team.
But his choice of Iowa governor Terry Branstad as the next US ambassador to China isn’t among them.
Branstad, it’s true, doesn’t speak Mandarin like former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, rumored to be under consideration for Trump’s State department. Nor is he an American of Chinese descent like former Washington governor Gary Locke. Both Huntsman and Locke served as ambassadors to China in the Obama administration.
Branstad has been elected to six terms as Iowa’s governor (for the first time in 1982 and most recently in 2014), and he has increasingly seen the effects of closer trade with China from the vantage point of a state that, after California, produces more agricultural output than anywhere else in the United States.
More importantly, however, Branstad has something of a personal relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平). Branstad was serving as governor when Xi made a two-week trip as part of a Chinese delegation to rural Muscatine in Iowa. Since that time, Branstad has visited China many times, most recently at a trade delegation in 2011, and Branstad hosted a dinner for Xi in 2012 when China’s paramount leader returned to Iowa. Continue reading Why Branstad is such a smart choice as ambassador to China→
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the last time Taiwan’s pro-independence party won the presidency, it was something of a disaster.
Sixteen years ago, opposition leader Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) ousted the ruling Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨), the first time since the Republic of China (ROC) separated from the mainland in 1949.
Chen’s election came not long after Taiwan’s transition in the 1990s from one-party rule under the Kuomintang to emerging democracy. From day one, Chen faced a recalcitrant and wounded Kuomintang determined to throw roadblocks in the new government’s path. If Chen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) knew little about governing, the Kuomintang knew even less about serving as the loyal opposition.
Most of all, the Kuomintang still controlled Taiwan’s legislature, giving it the tools to frustrate Chen’s agenda.
Taiwan ultimately survived its first real test of democratic transition (and, perhaps most importantly, without causing hostilities with mainland China), but not without a few bruises.
Chen’s eight years in office weren’t without victories. Taiwan formally joined the World Trade Organization in 2002 and Chen’s administration handled the 2003 SARS epidemic adroitly. But Chen’s reelection campaign featured an assassination attempt (that the opposition claims was faked) and legal wrangling over the result in court after the election. Chen’s second term ended in a blaze of corruption charges, and he and his wife were convicted on bribery charges in 2009. Chen was released on medical parole only last January.
The DPP retreated to the opposition after the 2008 elections under the leadership of a soft-spoken policymaker, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who previously headed the Mainland Affairs Council in Chen’s first term from 2000 to 2004. A graduate of Cornell University and the London School of Economics, Tsai came to politics after a career as a law professor. Despite losing the 2012 presidential election, Tsai stayed on as the DPP’s leader, and she continued to rebrand the party in the post-Chen era, efforts that have now clearly paid off.
Channeling a wave of popular discontent with the Kuomintang’s growing efforts to tie Taiwan closer to mainland China, Tsai won a landslide victory today in Taiwan’s presidential election, as expected, giving the DPP a second chance to govern the country.
What’s more, the DPP (along with its allies in the ‘Pan-Green coalition’) for the first time in Taiwan’s history will control of the Legislative Yuan (立法院), giving Tsai an unfettered chance for political success.
From a global perspective, the DPP’s victory today, long expected, is important because it could create tensions with mainland China, where leaders have been ‘warning’ Tsai for months not to take a stridently anti-mainland tone to Cross-Strait relations, and state media reports on the Taiwanese election have ranged from patronizing to misogynist to downright insulting.
The DPP, in theoretical terms, still favors a formal declaration of independence from the mainland People’s Republic of China (PRC).
But even the more fiercely nationalist ‘deep green’ Chen never attempted a universal declaration during his administration, and no one expects Tsai, who is generally seen as a highly pragmatic and ‘light green’ leader, to do so.
In her victory speech, she emphasized that she will seek to maintain the status quo with Beijing, just as she has worked throughout the campaign to reassure both Beijing and Taiwan’s allies in Washington and elsewhere. But more radical members of her party, newly empowered with a legislative majority, could try to push Tsai into a more confrontational relationship with the PRC.
Tsai faces in PRC president Xi Jinping (习近平) a strong-willed adversary expected to hold office through 2022. Xi has consolidated more power than any mainland leader in decades, and he has consistently disregarded political reforms, instead cracking down on Internet censorship and undermining long-promised free elections in Hong Kong next year. Home rule advocates will be watching the dynamic between Taipei and Beijing more closely than anyone.
Practically, however, fresh tumbles in the Chinese stock markets and a looming sense of broader economic trouble in the wider PRC economy mean that Tsai will spend far more time worrying about Taiwan’s economy than about Cross-Strait strategy. Last week, PRC premier Li Keqiang admitted that the government’s ‘bazooka’ strategy of ever more government stimulus wasn’t working to turn around the fundamental problems with the mainland economy.
Taiwan still has one of the world’s most impressive economies, but it’s linked more closely than ever to the mainland Chinese economy. Fully 27% of Taiwanese exports now go to mainland China and another 13% go to Hong Kong. But GDP growth slowed to just 1% in 2015, and Taiwan risks entering a recession this year if the wider Chinese economy collapses.
As far as Taiwanese public opinion goes, the relatively pro-Chinese stand of president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has been a disaster, especially in his second term.
When he leaves office early next year, Ma will do so as one of the most unpopular Taiwanese leaders in memory, stirring a popular revolt last year among Taiwanese citizens who believe his government has been too quick to cozy up to Beijing. The student-led ‘Sunflower movement’ protests so rattled Ma’s government that he abandoned what he hoped would become one of his administration’s most important policy achievements — the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which would have liberalized many service sectors between mainland China and Taiwan, including tourism, finance and communications. Though Ma concluded negotiations with Beijing over the CSSTA, the Taiwanese parliament still hasn’t ratified the agreement.
Ma’s decision to meet with Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平) today is not necessarily a popular decision back home — and its swift announcement earlier this week was a bombshell in the campaign for Taiwanese elections just nine weeks away.
With just months left in office, his ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT, 中國國民黨), is far behind in the presidential race. For the first time in Taiwan’s history, the Kuomintang and its allies that form the Pan-Blue Coalition could lose control of Taiwan’s parliament. The Kuomintang’s first presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the vice president of the Legislative Yuan (立法院), Taiwan’s unicameral legislature, sunk so low in polls since becoming the KMT presidential nominee in July that the party dumped her last month. Her replacement, Eric Chu (朱立倫), the party chairman and, since 2010, the mayor of New Taipei, is gaining little traction.
Neither Ma nor Xi are expected to announce any new policies or make any joint statements as a result of the meeting taking place today at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel, on ‘neutral’ ground. That’s not necessarily a problem, though, because the fact that the two are meeting on (relatively) equal — Ma as the head of the Kuomintang and Xi as the head of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP, 中国共产党) — is historic in its own right.
Given that so much of Ma’s unpopularity stems from his pro-China stand, his meeting today in Singapore may well doom the Kuomintang’s chances entirely in January’s general election. Indeed, the party’s low standing in public opinion may have made it eaiser for Ma to engage Xi. The near-certainty of losing power might have liberated Ma toward a historic meeting that will almost certainly have long-term benefits for better cross-straits relations.
In one sense, Ma’s position follows naturally from the force of economic gravity — 27% of Taiwan’s exports now go to China, and another 13% go to Hong Kong. Direct flights between Taipei and Beijing are now commonplace, trade continues to rise and mainland tourists are no longer a rare sight. Though Taiwan has the world’s 19th largest economy and incomes are far higher in Taiwan than on the mainland, China’s growing economic prowess (even as it may be headed into recession) is simply a matter of fact. Among the issues Ma expected to raise with Xi: a direct hotline between Taipei and Beijing, greater cooperation from Beijing in dealing with Taiwan’s murky international status and Xi’s change of heart in inviting Taiwan to join the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank that Xi formed last year as a counterweight to US-dominated global financial institutions.
Xi, a ‘princeling’ whose father was a top Party official, is expected to head the mainland Chinese government through 2022, has more thoroughly dominated the CCP than any leader since perhaps Mao Zedong, waging a widespread campaign against corruption within the Party that has snared so many top officials that critics argue it functions as a purge of Xi’s internal rivals. Fresh off meetings to design China’s next five-year economic program, Xi’s government has been particularly aggressive, if not successful, about ameliorating economic headwinds, including failed efforts to stop a Chinese stock market crash over the summer. Two weeks ago, China formally ended its ‘one-child’ policy, and Xi’s government has worked with the United States to establish goals to reduce Chinese (and global) carbon emissions in the next two decades, plans that will take center stage at the international summit on climate change next month in Paris.
Nevertheless, the Chinese economy faces a difficult patch as its working population ages and it transitions from top-down growth built on internal improvements and an economy based on manufactured exports produced mainly along China’s dense eastern coast. Politically, Xi has gradually cracked down on dissent and tightened internal controls on Internet freedom. Nevertheless, he faces an angry Hong Kong population that has demanded a greater voice in choosing who will be eligible to stand for chief executive in 2017. Relations between Beijing and China’s western ethnic communities, such as the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, are still strained. The last thing Xi wants is a reversal of Beijing’s gains with Taiwan since 2008. It’s been Xi (and not Ma) who has resisted a meeting in the past; Xi’s accession to today’s meeting reflects that growing economic ties alone are not enough to secure those gains.
In local elections last year, the Kuomintang suffered defeats nationwide, including the Taipei mayoral elections, where an independent candidate, Dr. Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), a respected surgeon, easily took power with the support of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨). The losses were so severe that Taiwan’s prime minister stepped down. Those losses seem likely to multiply on January 16, when the DPP seems likely to win the presidency for just the second time in Taiwanese history. Continue reading Ma-Xi meeting takes place with Kuomintang’s political woes looming→
Forget Japan’s election in two weeks — the political earthquake in east Asia today come in the form of a new pro-independence mayor in Taipei, the capital city of Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China (ROC).
The result is a stinging defeat for the ruling Kuomintang (中國國民黨), and prime minister Jiang Yi-huah stepped down in response to the Kuomintang’s defeats in municipal elections held Saturday across the island of Taiwan. The scale of the ruling party’s defeat in the November 29 elections indicates that it will be hard-pressed to hold onto Taiwan’s presidency in 2016, paving the way for a more stridently pro-independence president.
Following the local elections, the Kuomintang lost power in eight of the country’s 22 various city and county governments.
In Taipei, Dr. Ko Wen-je, a respected surgeon and an independent candidate supported by the opposition, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨), easily won the capital’s mayoral election, ending 16 years of Kuomintang control.
Ko defeated Sean Lien, a financier, and, as the son of a former vice president, a scion of the Kuomintang elite. Lien was never the strongest candidate for Taipei’s mayoral election, and Ko headed the trauma hospital unit that saved Lien’s life four years ago. A surgeon team supervised by Ko successfully removed a bullet from Lien’s head after he was shot at a 2010 campaign rally.
While Lien promised to bring international capital (including, presumably, from Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere in the PRC) to Taipei, Ko focused on social justice in a country that faces growing income inequality and rising housing prices, familiar concerns across the developed world.
The elections were something of a referendum on the Kuomintang’s push to create closer economic ties with the Chinese mainland. So while the results are a setback for Kuomintang and Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), they are even worse for the People’s Republic of China.
Earlier this year, young Taiwanese students protested in full force to stop the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which would have significantly liberalized trade in services with mainland China. Ma’s attempt to push the agreement through the Taiwanese legislature met with furious opposition, and the CSSTA hasn’t yet been passed into law, a significant victory for the self-proclaimed ‘sunflower student movement.’ Continue reading Kuomintang loses Taipei as premier resigns→
In Hong Kong, they may be protesting with umbrellas, but in Taiwan earlier this year, it was sunflowers.
As Beijing locks itself into what now seems like a needless showdown with the pro-democracy activists who have formed Hong Kong’s ‘Occupy Central with Peace and Love,’ among the chief incentives for proceeding with caution are mainland China’s relations with the Republic of China (ROC), the island of Taiwan, which split from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 in the aftermath of the Chinese civil war and which has maintained its de facto sovereignty ever since, to the annoyance of decades of Chinese leadership.
Even as Western commentators trot out tired comparisons to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown (at a time when Hong Kong’s British colonial governors were not prioritizing democratization in any form), the Hong Kong protests have a readier comparison to the ‘Sunflower Student’ movement in Taiwan earlier this spring, when another group of protesters demonstrated against closer ties between Taiwan and the PRC.
In June 2013, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the ruling Kuomintang (中國國民黨) signed the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with mainland China, which would liberalize trade in services between Beijing and Taipei, including, most controversially, tourism, finance and communications. When Ma (pictured above) tried to push the CSSTA through the Taiwanese legislature without as much political deliberation as promised, an already skeptical Taiwanese opposition howled, and CSSTA protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan (立法院) to stop Ma’s push to ratify the agreement. Today, Taiwan’s legislature still hasn’t approved the CSSTA.
Moreover, Ma came out in favor of the Hong Kong protests on Monday and reiterated earlier this week his opposition to reunification with mainland China:
“We fully understand and support Hong Kong people in their call for full universal suffrage,” Ma told a gathering of business leaders in Taipei.
“Developments in Hong Kong have drawn the close attention of the world in the past few days. Our government has also been very concerned,” he added. “We urge the mainland authorities to listen to the voice of Hong Kong people and use peaceful and cautious measures to handle these issues.”
Cross-Straits relations have crested and ebbed over the last 65 years, but today it’s indisputable that Taiwan and mainland China have more ties than ever. Since 2008, direct flights between Taiwan and China have greatly intertwined the two economies, and a deluge of Chinese investment has taken root in Taiwan.
While Hong Kong and Taiwan have very different histories and relationships with the PRC, they share many similarities, so it’s not surprising to see so many similarities between the two popular anti-Beijing movements that swept across both jurisdictions in 2014.
In the second half of the 20th century, Taiwan and Hong Kong both became magnets for defectors from the Chinese Communist Party (中国共产党), and both Taiwan and Hong Kong became pockets of economic prosperity while mainland China languished under Mao Zedong (毛泽东) and his fearsome reign of socialism, rural famine and political terror. Throughout, both Hong Kong and Taiwan developed particular cultural identities, such that majorities in both places see themselves today as Hong Kongers and Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
Both Hong Kongers and Taiwanese also worry that Beijing is plotting to bring Hong Kong and Taiwan more firmly within its grasp. If it’s outlandish to think that Beijing can accomplish that goal with military might, it’s not difficult to believe it can do so through economic and political coercion. That’s exactly the kind of insidious influence that motivates both the Occupy Central’s fight for Hong Kong’s democratic sovereignty and the Sunflower Student movement’s fight for Taiwan’s economic sovereignty. Continue reading Taiwan warily eyes battle of wills between Beijing and Hong Kong→