Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou told his supporters relations with China were at their best in six decades as candidates began the final week of campaigning ahead of an election that will be a referendum on cross-straits ties.
“Since I took office, cross-strait relations are no longer confrontational and have reached their best in 60 years,” Ma said at a rally in Taipei yesterday. “Having improved relations with China isn’t a miracle drug, but we can see it is not something that only holds risks, but has benefits as well.”
Over 250,000 people joined a six-kilometer (3.7-mile) march and rally in Taipei, said Ma wei-kuo, a spokeswoman for Ma’s campaign. Opposition Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen’s rally in the capital attracted 150,000 supporters, DPP spokeswoman Hsu Chia-ching said.
Ma, the Kuomintang party leader who is seeking a second four-year term, has pledged to press ahead with his policy of improved China relations that he says helped power 6.6 percent growth in the first quarter of 2011. A victory for Tsai, who says Ma’s policies have made Taiwan too dependent on China, could shake cross-straits ties.
The DPP has focused on a widening wealth gap and criticized Ma’s push for closer economic relations with China. Ma, who returned the Kuomintang party to power in 2008 after the DPP had held the presidency for eight years, says Taiwan will reap economic benefits from the 16 agreements signed with China since he took office. Tsai has pledged to create more jobs and curb high property prices.
“After the president took office, the relationship with China has become less confrontational and Ma is about stability and peaceful development and that is good for economic development,” said Eason Lee, 31, a sales executive, marching with a flag that read “Vote for Ma for a golden future.”
Tsai, 55, Taiwan’s first woman presidential candidate, has sought to focus her campaign on domestic issues. She has eschewed talk of independence, unlike her DPP predecessor, former president Chen Shui-bian. The issue of closer ties with China dominated a Jan. 6 debate among candidates, the last held before the election on the island of 23 million people.
The opposition said Ma, 61, has been too conciliatory to China, which split with Taiwan in 1949. Beijing claims the self-ruled island as part of its territory, and has threatened to invade if Taiwan declares formal independence.
“Taiwan needs a change,” said Lin Wan-yi, 52, who was at Tsai’s rally waving a pink flag. “We want to be able to stand up and say we are sovereign nation in the eyes of the world, and Ma can’t deliver that. If Ma is re-elected, my dream will never come true.”
China and Taiwan resumed direct flights, shipping and postal services across the Taiwan Strait in December 2008, ending a ban that had been in place since Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, or Nationalists, fled to the island after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communists in 1949. Taiwan signed its first trade agreement with China in June 2010.
“Most people don’t feel the immediate benefits of the improved China-Taiwan relations that Ma has achieved,” said Chang Wu-ueh, a professor of political science at Taipei’s Tamkang University. “They care about jobs and domestic issues.”
The Taiex stock index tumbled 21 percent last year, its worst performance since 2008, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Ma was widening his narrow lead over Tsai in public opinion polls taken prior to a blackout period for voter surveys that began Jan. 4. Taiwanese law bars publication or release of polls 10 days prior to presidential elections.
The island ended a mainland-investment ban in 1991. Since then, officials have approved 39,509 projects, data compiled by the investment commission show. The opposition says closer cross-strait ties have resulted in a flow of jobs to the mainland. Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group, the maker of Apple Inc. iPhones and iPads, employs more than 1 million people in China alone. Taiwan had 2.97 million manufacturing jobs as of November.
China, Taiwan’s largest trading partner and the No. 1 investment destination, reported its economy grew 9.1 percent in the third quarter. The pace of China’s expansion is five times that of the U.S.
Tsai said she would set up a task force on dialogue with China if elected, and vowed to seek consensus within Taiwan on their relations.
“What it comes down to is we think Ma isn’t firm enough and he is led by the nose by China,” C.P. Chen, 76, a retiree, said at Tsai’s rally. “Tsai cares about what the people think and we want someone who will listen to us.”