Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tough times for DPP

As relations with China warm, a former political force retrenches.

Global Post, June 24, 2009

TAIPEI — It got walloped in the last two major elections here. Its finances are shaky. And now, it's being targeted by Beijing’s time-honored "divide and conquer" tactics.

Times are tough for Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party.

A decade ago, the young party shocked Asia by riding to power on a wave of nationalist pride. But since mid-decade, its fortunes have reversed. As the governing Kuomintang improves economic ties with China, the DPP has been relegated to the sidelines, with too few seats in the legislature to have political heft.

That may be good news for regional stability. The party is too low on power, cash and morale to rattle Beijing with independence moves.

But the party and its sympathizers say it's unhealthy for Taiwan’s democracy.

"China is trying to create a one-party state in Taiwan, with the aim of preventing the DPP from having a competitive chance," said Hsiao Bi-khim, the party’s international affairs director, in a recent interview at party headquarters.

"It’s really sad — we wanted to use Taiwan as a democratic model for China," Hsiao said. "But the way things are going, China may change Taiwan before we have a chance to change China."

To be sure, some of the party's woes are self-inflicted. Corruption charges against former President Chen Shui-bian sullied the party’s clean image. (Chen remains in detention, his trial is underway.)

And critics say the DPP alienated moderate voters by playing too much to pro-independence hardliners.

But the party insists China's meddling is also to blame. It's using both indirect and direct means to muscle in on Taiwan politics, say Hsiao and other independence-leaning observers here.

If party finances are anything to go by, the DPP’s future looks grim. Hsiao said that after two election defeats last year, the party was in debt to the tune of $5 million.

A year later, they’ve finally paid it back and are operating "normally," she said.

But funding will be an ongoing challenge. Tycoons who once lent financial muscle to the party’s candidates have cut back ties since mid-decade — conglomerate Chi Mei’s Hsu Wen-lung and shipping giant Evergreen’s Chang Rong-fa are two examples.

And a 2004 law requiring disclosures of campaign funding sources has made it easier to find out exactly who’s given the DPP money, and how much.

Observers say that’s sapped away much of the party’s financial lifeblood.

"It’s getting more and more difficult — many businesspeople have huge stakes in the China market," which they’re afraid to put in jeopardy, said Lo Chi-cheng, a political scientist at Soochow University who’s close to the DPP. "Tycoons are afraid to give money to the DPP."

China is also using more direct means to woo pro-independence supporters, or "greens", in the local political color-coding.

Beijing has stepped up efforts to win over DPP moderates, hoping to sharpen divisions within the party, say party insiders and observers.

"This is a new policy," said Antonio Chiang, a former top official in the DPP government, and now a media commentator. "They [the Chinese] know that if you can win over ‘green’ people, you can win over Taiwan."

"That’s why we’ve become a target," said Chiang. "It’s political, that’s very obvious."

In recent months, prominent members of the pro-independence camp have received invites from local governments in China for all-expenses paid junkets, say Chiang and others.

The latest slew of invites was for a cross-strait forum held in May in China's Fujian Province; China’s state-run media said that 8,000 Taiwanese attended.

Hsiao, the DPP official, dismissed that event as a "da bai-bai" (a grand respects-paying occasion) and said that no high-ranking or elected DPP officials had attended.

In a recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, another former top DPP government official, Parris Chang, also sounded the alarm, writing: "Beijing appears to be playing a wily game both to encourage internal divisions within the DPP and to discredit the DPP on the international stage."

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Beijing's charm offensive will work.

"They're clearly trying to win them [DPP members] across," said Bruce Jacobs, a Taiwan expert at Australia's Monash University. "Whether they will be successful is another issue. But there's no question they're trying."

Beset with such difficulties, the party is scrambling for a survival strategy. For one, it’s drafting a list of do’s and dont’s for party members’ travel to China.

In the meantime, it’s made it known that elected officials and ranking members at party central should not go to China; other party members should be wary.

"We rely on the self-discipline of our party members, not to fall into the divide and conquer traps that they [the Chinese] are laying out," said Hsiao.

Meanwhile, the party is looking for creative ways to raise money: in May it launched a system for accepting donations through convenience stores ("We’re the only political party in the world where you can donate to us through 7-11," said Hsiao.)

And it’s returning to its scrappy, street-protest roots to try to prop up flagging morale. The latest large-scale protests were May 17, in both Taipei and Kaohsiung.

But even Hsiao admits that the mood in the party is dark.

Some pro-independence hardliners are becoming more radicalized, Hsiao said, as Taiwan’s government leans ever closer to China.

Others are simply losing interest in politics. "Some of our supporters have turned apathetic — they say there’s no hope; we might not even have another election because we’ll be part of China soon," said Hsiao. "A lot of people have said that to me, that’s scary and sad."

Such talk is likely paranoia; President Ma Ying-jeou has publicly ruled out unification during his term.

In the end, Hsiao says, the party can't fight the political headwinds alone — the Taiwanese will have to step up.

"We’re being squeezed to the limit; we have no choice but to rely on the people of Taiwan," said Hsiao. "If they decide there’s value in a multiparty system, then they’ll have a stake in our survival."

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