Saturday, January 16, 2016

Identity Politics vs Economic Dependence on the Eve of Taiwanese Elections

It is interesting to see that a day before Taiwanese head to ballot boxes to participate in what many calls the "most pivotal" presidential election in its still-short democratic history, a 16-year-old Kpop band member has taken over the headlines across all local media outlets.  Chou Tzu-yu, a Taiwanese member of Kpop band TWICE, posted a video apologizing for waving the Taiwanese flag in the band's recent publicity video that quickly draw fire from politicized netizens on the Chines mainland.  In the apology video, the girl showed feigned sorrow as she read mechanically from written script.

Clearly the apology is genuine, but forced by the management at JYP Entertainment, one of the largest Kpop agencies and the band's employer.  As the apology incensed a Taiwanese public loath to see a 16-year-old girl bearing the brunt of an ever-simmering issue of Taiwan's political status, the whole fiasco is likely to draw upon galvanized nationalism among the electorate, giving the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a last minute push to get even more among the youth made more politically conscious by the 2014 protests.

But while the Taiwanese populace appeal to their renewed sense of independent identity on their way to vote, the author is afraid that not enough hard questions are being asked, regarding both Chou's apology and about the expectations of the DPP once elected.  Think of it this way: it is unlikely that JYP's management is politically obtuse enough to not understand the implications of what they made Chou do.  As much as the Taiwanese are unwilling to admit, it pretty much is a blunt statement that potential business in mainland China is worth much more than the company's perception in Taiwan.

In this obvious slap in the face to the Taiwanese public, Chou is but an exploited figure, used to channel the company's straightforward focus on maximizing potential profits.  JYP is simply reacting to Chinese populism, not politics.  This populism seems to be vocal but its extent is unknown.  The Chinese government is largely silent about the incident, perhaps not willing to detrimentally affect the election results, but JYP cannot risk inaction turning into souring of relations with the higher-level folks in Beijing.  Its rallying effect on Taiwanese identity politics is but a side effect.

As such, the question becomes one of the unavoidable trend toward nationalism in Taiwan counters an equally unavoidable trend toward China's economic rise.  Artists based in Taiwan, even more so than those based in Korea like Chou, are pressured to compromise their personal political views in order to break into the mainland Chinese market.  The same can be said of Taiwanese businessmen in all industries, who see access to the Chinese market pivotal to their very livelihoods.  Many actively pander to Chinese political palate, in ways much more shameless than what JYP forced Chou to do.

It speaks to the failure of Taiwan's failure to diversify its economy away from China.  Just as Kpop has failed to grasp markets outside the immediate East Asian region, Taiwanese has failed to make substantial imprints in global markets.  The result is over-reliance on the Chinese market to such a degree that the loss of the Chinese market cannot be made up with advances elsewhere.  Last eight years of Ma Ying-jeou presidency's economic detente with China has only made the reliance even more visible by providing unprecedented access to Chines market.

Without reducing this dependence on the Chinese market, it is unlikely that incidents like Chou's apology will abate.  Only by opening up alternative sources of income that Taiwanese artists and businesses can depend upon that any political slight by the Chinese, whether it be at the popular or government levels, can be met with confident refusal to weakly appease with falsified statements of allegiance.  And only with defiance can the growing power of Taiwanese identity be really given real influence in cross-Strait political dialogues.

Yet, without active government initiatives, it is unlikely that the reliance on China will change.  Policies must be put in place that encourage Taiwanese to explore and succeed in non-Chinese markets.  Fortunately, DPP, in case of victory, will be given the mandate to do so.  With an unwavering base of supporters favoring de-Sinicization, full control of both executive and legislative branches, and less interference of a China-dependent business elite that is expected to vote largely for the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT), the DPP administration can active relatively freely on policy.

How this free reign to change the island's economic policies away from Chinese dependency will require the electorate's continued scrutiny.  As the Chinese government (and increasingly the American one) staying out of rocking the boat on Taiwanese domestic politics, it will be up to the Taiwanese people to set the tone on how DPP's power will be used to ensure that money no longer becomes a hindrance to their desire to speak their minds on who they really are.  The voters need to ensure the DPP government use the mandate to promote a more multilateral economic atmosphere.

And they urgently need to do so because the next few years may be the last chance for Taiwan to redirect its economic course.  China's increased move up in economic value chain means doors are closing for concessions to Taiwanese firms.  Taiwanese firms, without alternative markets, have to become "more Chinese" in order to persist in the Chinese market.  The move by one of Taiwan's premier tech firms, TSMC, to establish factories in China, is a clear case of this pressure.  Furthermore, Chinese economic slowdown is giving recession-vulnerable Taiwan less leeway.

Clearly, the ballot box is just the beginning for Taiwan's renewed focus on identity politics.  But without reducing economic dependence on China, any push toward a more independent identity will only create more conflicts with Chinese populism and hypocrisy by Taiwanese who feign allegiance for Chinese money.  The next years will likely be the last golden years for Taiwan to reduce this economic dependence.  How DPP can take advantage of its newly acquired mandate will largely depend on how the electorate behaves after the election results are out and celebrations are finished. 

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