ID cards part of Beijing's plan to entice Taiwanese

Taiwanese Sun Chih-wei with a registration receipt for his application for an identity card for islanders living on the mainland. The card entitles the roughly 400,000 Taiwanese living in China greater access to public services.
Taiwanese Sun Chih-wei with a registration receipt for his application for an identity card for islanders living on the mainland. The card entitles the roughly 400,000 Taiwanese living in China greater access to public services.PHOTO: XINHUA

Benefits for islanders living in China aimed at convincing them to abandon Tsai's policies

HONG KONG/TAIPEI • For Taiwan's government, China's decision to offer new identity cards to islanders now living on the mainland is the latest salvo in a pressure campaign.

For Taiwan native Allen Cheng, it is a shot at enrolling his son in a public school.

The 36-year-old equities analyst said the card, which entitles the roughly 400,000 Taiwanese living on the mainland greater access to public services, will make living in Shenzhen easier for him, his wife and two young children. Otherwise, he would face prohibitively expensive private school fees. "This will serve us Taiwanese in China better," Mr Cheng said. "It will make people like me more integrated."

The ID card is just one piece of a broad strategy by Beijing to convince Taiwanese to abandon the policies of President Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officially supports independence. China, which views the democratically run island as part of its territory, wants Ms Tsai to accept that both sides are part of "one China" or replace her government with one that will.

While Chinese President Xi Jinping has stepped up military exercises near Taiwan, he is relying on economic might to show the benefits of ties - and the cost of damaging them. On the one hand, he is expanding incentives for Taiwanese to do business on the mainland. On the other, he is luring away the island's few diplomatic allies and challenging any international recognition of the government in Taipei.

That strategy's success with Taiwan's 23 million residents will face a test in November, when Ms Tsai's party defends hundreds of seats in local elections. The vote gives the island's more China-friendly opposition, the Kuomintang (KMT), the first chance to claw back influence after being swept from power.

"China is taking a harder line and trying to create political embarrassment for Tsai," said Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. "China is trying to make the administration look unreasonable, and potentially get voters to punish her."

A survey by Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Office last month found that 65 per cent believed that China had an "unfriendly attitude" towards the Taipei government, compared with 57 per cent before Ms Tsai took office. A separate poll by National Chengchi University in June showed that 21.7 per cent backed the DPP, compared with 25.3 per cent for the KMT - its first lead in five years.

The election will be watched closely in Washington, since the US provides military support to Taiwan and has taken a renewed interest in the island as its trade spat with China widens. The US vowed to "oppose China's destabilisation of the cross-strait relationship" last month, after El Salvador became the latest country to cut diplomatic ties with Taipei in favour of Beijing.

The Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei dismissed the new ID cards issued by Beijing to Taiwanese living on the mainland as a "political ploy".

Still, China's ability to influence Taiwanese politics is limited. Ms Tsai's struggles to resolve stubborn issues such as stagnant wages and limited job opportunities likely play a larger role. And residents with strong ties to China have never been part of the DPP base.

China must also take care not to appear so aggressive that it risks a backlash. "The missing link for the mainland is still finding that political sweet spot that can persuade the Taiwanese that reunification would benefit them," said Professor Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Centre. "Taiwanese voters don't respond very well to sabre-rattling."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2018, with the headline 'ID cards part of Beijing's plan to entice Taiwanese'. Print Edition | Subscribe