Business forges links for China, Taiwan

Economics and migration affect political dynamic

March 11, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SHANGHAI - At the local campaign office here, the volunteers are making hundreds of calls a day to get voters to the polls.

Edison Yeh, the businessman spearheading this effort, laughs and chats easily with the staffers, pretending for the moment that a presidential election campaign is merely the natural state of things in China's most populous city.

This campaign, though, is for president of Taiwan, and Yeh's office is an outpost of Taiwan's Nationalist Party, the party of Chiang Kai-shek, sworn enemy of Mao Tse-tung's Communists.

"We're simply helping the Taiwanese here go back to Taiwan to vote," says Yeh. "Everybody has the right to return to Taiwan to vote."

Getting out the vote might indeed be the ordinary stuff of democratic politics, but this is Communist China, where popular elections and democracy are not tolerated.

The Nationalists once were not tolerated here either: they lost the civil war in 1949 and escaped to set up a government-in-exile on Taiwan, where they long antagonized China by claiming to be the true representative of the Chinese people.

Fifty-five years later, the Nationalists - more pragmatic and conciliatory now - are back, and Communist China - more pragmatic and capitalist now - appears happy to have them.

The turn of events demonstrates how politics, economics and a recent surge in Taiwanese migration to the mainland have transformed the complex dynamic between the two antagonists across the Taiwan Strait.

Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese, both native islanders and the children of mainland Chinese, have moved to China, most of them entrepreneurs, corporate executives and white-collar workers looking to cash in on the China boom. Between 1 million and 1.5 million Taiwanese live in China, about 400,000 to 500,000 of them in greater Shanghai. They have shed the ideologically sharp edges of the past for the comfortable lifestyle of the present.

"It's mainly because the Shanghai economy has developed and living conditions have improved, and many Taiwanese believe that it's no worse to live here and advance their careers here than in Taipei," says Mei Ru-bieo, whose parents escaped Shanghai for Taiwan in 1949.

Mei moved here with his family a year and a half ago and now advises Taiwanese interested in investing in the mainland and moving here. Relaxing in the living room of his luxuriously furnished home, Mei adds, "In some ways, you could say Shanghai is even better than Taipei."

Chinese officials as well as Taiwanese business leaders here hope these transplanted islanders will become a powerful voting bloc, one favoring closer ties with the nation that some of their parents and grandparents fled.

Taiwanese business leaders have pinned their hopes on the March 20 presidential election. President Chen Shui-bian has upset China by appearing to flirt with eventual independence, a status Taiwan enjoys in reality but has studiously avoided formalizing in law.

China's ruling Communists, who consider Taiwan part of Chinese territory, clearly prefer the challenger, Lien Chan, whose Nationalists are more favorable to the notion of eventually reunifying with the mainland.

The pro-Nationalist campaign here, tacitly welcomed by Chinese authorities, marks a remarkable turnaround from eight years ago, on the eve of another Taiwanese election. In an effort to undermine then-President Lee Teng-hui, China fired missiles into waters off the island. China had accused Lee, a Nationalist, of moving toward independence and only feigning interest in reunification, but Lee went on to win the election.

New capitalist spirit

In the intervening years, a capitalist spirit has changed the priorities on both sides of the strait and more closely intertwined the two countries' economies. Trade between the two countries totaled $58.4 billion last year, a 30 percent increase over 2002, according to official figures.

Taiwan's businesses have poured tens of billions of dollars into factories and real estate developments in China, though the exact figures are elusive because much of the money flows unofficially through Hong Kong and third countries to bypass Taiwanese investment restrictions.

Whatever the amount, in recent years greater Shanghai has received the lion's share of this new cash, and an increasingly vocal Taiwanese constituency is looking to protect its investments. And the get-out-the-vote effort is tolerated here because with their pro-business, pro-China platform, the Nationalists are now China's most important allies on Taiwan.

It is an alliance of convenience.

The Nationalists and their supporters in the business community view closer relations with China as a necessity for the struggling island economy. China's rulers view the Nationalists as their best hope for closer ties and, eventually, a negotiated form of reunification.

In this city of 20 million people, the roots of Taiwanese pro-China pragmatism are obvious in the stories of those who preach it.

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