In his run for the job of president of Taiwan, Terry Gou (郭台銘), one of Taiwan’s richest businessmen, has called for the revival of economic and cultural exchanges with China and cited former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) time in charge of Taiwan as a win-win situation for cross-strait peace and prosperity. The spectacle operates as an absurdly appropriate backdrop for a new book that reassesses why that last Taiwan-China rapprochement took place. Hint: People like Gou were heavily involved.
The book is “Social Forces in the Re-Making of Cross-Strait Relations: Hegemony and Social Movements in Taiwan” by Andre Beckershoff, a research fellow at the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan. Its premise is that while the Chinese Communist Party has for decades looked to exploit growing interdependence between the Taiwanese and Chinese economies, a push and pull between business interests and countervailing social and political forces within Taiwan has been key in dictating Taiwan’s China policy.
Beckershoff’s account describes how having been carefully kept out of politics by the authoritarian Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government after its retreat to Taiwan in 1949, in the decades that followed, the financial gains on offer from China gradually became both more compelling and politically attainable for big Taiwanese business. As Taiwan was expelled from the U.N. in 1971, lost recognition (and preferential loans and grants) from the U.S. in 1979 and experienced internal issues such as a lack of land limiting the potential for further growth, China’s economy became more valuable as both a “workshop” and eventually a market. This meant that once Taiwan’s business class separated itself from the KMT and the state during a period of economic liberalization in the 1980s (which excluded China), and through democratization in the 1990s, it began to actively push for access to China.
However, the book’s key insight is that for economic ties to China to tighten and stick, consent from the wider Taiwanese population is required. Early efforts to push for closer ties (in the 1990s) lacked a “coherent corporate project,” led by institutions like think tanks and forums, that could shape and spread a coherent ideology to the wider population. This meant that under the “pragmatic” foreign policy of KMT President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), China policy was able to flip-flop from a focus on economic opening-up pre-1996 missile crisis to a focus on security after it. It also meant that after being elected on a platform of tightening economic ties with China in 2000, the first Democratic Progressive Party president, Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), ended up going into the 2004 election with an “increasingly confrontational stance on cross-strait relations.”
Beckershoff suggests serious attempts at consent-building began after that 2004 election victory for Chen. Through think tanks like the National Policy Foundation (NPF), the Third Wednesday Club (TWC) and the Cross-Strait Common Market Foundation (CSCMF), big Taiwanese business first became involved in cross-strait activities “ranging from technical negotiations to high-level meetings between the KMT and the CCP.” Then, it set about “depoliticiz[ing] cross-strait relations” via three political and media strategies:
“The first consists of naturalizing the rapprochement, that is, of draining all social interest from it by portraying it as part of the inevitable and quasi-natural process of globalization. The second was to normalize it by arguing that the restrictions on cross-Strait trade and the absence of negotiations with China were the exception that had to be rectified. The third strategy was to depict the rapprochement as necessary, i.e. there being no alternative if Taiwan wanted to effectively respond to the pressures of globalization, avoid isolation and maintain its economic prosperity.”
Basically: The population was told that the economy had nothing to do with questions around Taiwan’s sovereignty — and key groups within it, such as farmers who had previously been antagonistic to attempts at market openings elsewhere, were given preferential access to China’s market to smooth the progress.
These ideas were successful in framing the debate around the 2008 election, which saw President Ma win while promising closer economic ties with China, even while identification as “Taiwanese” continued to grow. Then, when Ma’s agenda was challenged (unsuccessfully) in 2009 by the relatively under-organized Wild Strawberry Movement, protesting police brutality in the face of an earlier protest at the arrival of a Chinese diplomat, a new layer was added to the messaging.
Led by a series of media acquisitions and — most interestingly — the annual Straits Forum, a push to separate social/cultural/private lives from the political question of Taiwan’s sovereignty or security began. The forum, which started in 2009 and was co-organised by the Taiwanese Want Want and United Daily groups, as well as Eastern Broadcasting and TVBS, became a hub of activities and facilitated exchanges between a huge variety of Taiwanese and Chinese sporting, religious and other social groups, involving hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese people. Through people-to-people exchanges like these, and increasing media cooperation, Beckershoff argues that, rather than seeing themselves as living political lives, the population was individualized as, “Tourists, worshippers of Mazu on a pilgrimage, students seeking a promising education, young graduates escaping Taiwan’s job market in the hope to obtain an internship in a company that develops online games or to even found a start-up company in China, participants in kung fu, baseball or esports tournaments, or … appreciators of literature and film.” First investments, then culture were “depoliticized.”
This strategy reached its apotheosis when Ma won a second election in 2012 with a commitment to pursuing closer ties with China. But that’s only half of what the book is about. (Terry Gou may wish to focus on the other half.) After surging at the start of the millennium, trade between China and Taiwan stopped increasing after 2008, and Beckershoff’s structural push and pull does a good job of explaining why. Based on dozens of interviews with participants, Beckershoff details how — in a mirror image of the business groups — the countervailing forces behind the Wild Strawberry Movement, primarily student groups and NGOs, refined their own organizational structures and practices following on from that failure. They then coalesced into the Sunflower Movement of 2014, protesting against a free trade agreement with China. Ultimately, the agreement was never submitted to the Legislative Yuan’s general assembly, and the DPP won the next election.
Beckershoff’s conclusion is not that big business flat out lost, though. He notes that part of the above protest movement’s refinement of their strategy was jettisoning some of the more radical critiques of neoliberal free trade in favor of procedural complaints and a sprinkling of anti-China nationalism. This saw rapprochement with China essentially replaced by attempts to gain closer economic ties with Southeast Asian countries (with varying degrees of success), rather than with anti-free trade policy. Big business was offered an alternative, then, rather than seeing its wishes cut out altogether. It’s just that for some, like Terry Gou, that’s still not enough.
Image: Terry Gou’s campaign team