Resilient economy likely to work in Tsai's favour

Despite Beijing's pressure campaign, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen can boast a solid economic record, with the lowest unemployment for decades and strong export growth.
Despite Beijing's pressure campaign, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen can boast a solid economic record, with the lowest unemployment for decades and strong export growth.PHOTO: REUTERS

But Taiwan businesses still hugely reliant on China, and voters may buckle under pressure

TAIPEI • Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen looks set to win a second term in Saturday's elections, but her Achilles heel is an economy that China has squeezed in an attempt to assert its control over the island's future.

Despite Beijing's pressure campaign, Ms Tsai can boast an economic record with the lowest unemployment for decades and strong export growth. But her main challenger has gained traction by insisting Ms Tsai's dismal relations with China bode badly for the island's longer-term prosperity.

Ms Tsai, the island's first female president, is riding high in the polls and has portrayed herself as a defender of Taiwan's liberal democracy against the increasingly authoritarian shadow cast by Beijing under President Xi Jinping.

Her main rival, Mr Han Kuo-yu from the Kuomintang (KMT), favours warmer ties with China, saying it will boost the island's fortunes. Mr Han has drawn blood on the economy, which Beijing has squeezed since Ms Tsai took power in 2016 because her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rejects the 1992 Consensus which states that there is only "one China" but allows for differing interpretations on which entity is China's legitimate governing body.

"My goal as the president is very clear: 'Taiwan safe, people rich'," Mr Han said during a recent televised debate, repeating what has become his main mantra.

"Taiwanese people have been living very difficult lives in the past 3½ years," he added.

With Taiwan being hugely reliant on the mainland, that message has resonated among many, especially those with business in China.

Mr Tsai Pao-shin, a former DPP supporter and an executive secretary of a fishing association in Kaohsiung city, plans to vote for Mr Han.

"(President) Tsai's policy is anti-China. We can't sell our products to China and there are fewer mainland tourists to Taiwan," he said.

 
 

"Discord between the two sides is not doing anyone any good."

On paper, Taiwan boasts some enviable economic data. Despite Beijing tightening the screws and the island finding itself in the midst of the US-China trade war, the economy has grown for 14 consecutive quarters since Ms Tsai took office as she touted for fresh business and tourists across Asia.

But Mr Han's own track record has not helped his cause. A plain-speaking political outsider, he stormed to victory in 2018 to become mayor of Kaohsiung city, a traditional DPP heartland, on a vow to make its inhabitants "filthy rich".

"Kaohsiung didn't get 'filthy rich' in the past year as Mr Han promised," said political scientist Fan Shih-ping at National Taiwan Normal University. "So why would voters be convinced that he can do it now?"

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2020, with the headline 'Resilient economy likely to work in Tsai's favour'. Print Edition | Subscribe