Taiwan is expected to turn its back on closer ties with China when it votes for a new president Saturday, in an election symbolising the island’s battle for identity.

As citizens prepare to go to the polls, many frustrated Taiwanese are calling for change as fears grow over China’s increasing influence, casting a gloom exacerbated by economic woes.

Current president Ma Ying-jeou was voted in by a landslide eight years ago, promising prosperity through warmer relations with Beijing.

taiwan xi jinping ma
Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou during a summit in Singapore November 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su.

But trade deals and a tourism boom under his ruling Kuomintang (KMT) have been offset by deep unease that China is eroding Taiwan’s identity and sovereignty by making it economically dependent.

Voters are also angry that the economic benefits from closer ties have not filtered down to ordinary Taiwanese.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — which takes a much more sceptical approach to China relations — is tipped to win Saturday’s vote, and make its leader Tsai Ing-wen Taiwan’s first woman president.

“I’m concerned the government is eager to pursue ties with China without carefully calculating the risks,” said Lee Yi-chung, a Taipei businessman in his 40s who will be voting DPP.

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Activists protest against the Singapore meeting between Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou and China’s President Xi Jinping outside the Ministry of Economic Affairs in Taipei, Taiwan, November 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Pichi Chuang

“I don’t want Taiwan to be ruled by China.”

Taiwan is self-ruling after splitting with the mainland in 1949 following a civil war, but Beijing still sees it as part of its territory, to be reunited by force if necessary.

Ma has been accused of secret dealings over trade pacts and his historic summit with China’s president Xi Jinping in Singapore last November — the first between the two side since their split — bolstered those fears.

Anger erupted in 2014 when student-led protesters occupied parliament over a trade deal they said had been agreed behind closed doors. There were also protests last year over school textbooks criticised as too China-centric.

Student protesters occupy Taiwanese legislature during Sunflower Movement
Student protesters occupy Taiwanese legislature during Sunflower Movement. Photo: WikiMedia

Voters fear Taiwan will eventually be “snatched” by Beijing, says Lee Shiao-feng, Taiwanese culture professor at the National Taipei University of Education.

“They want to say ‘no’ to China,” said Lee.

“Surveys show that more and more people here, even second or third generation mainlanders, consider themselves Taiwanese rather than Chinese.”

‘Status quo’

The DPP’s Tsai says Taiwan must move away from economic dependence and that public sentiment will influence her cross-strait strategy.

However, in a sign of pragmatism she also says she will maintain the “status quo” and has toned down the DPP’s traditional pro-independence stance.

Her moderate message is not just designed to assuage China but to calm nerves in the United States — Taiwan’s main ally — which does not want to see a rise in tensions.

Tsai Ing-Wen
Tsai Ing-Wen. Photo: Wikicommons.

The vast majority of voters also want to maintain peace with China.

Beijing has warned it will not deal with a leader who refuses to recognise Taiwan as part of “one China”.

The concept is enshrined in a tacit agreement between the KMT and Beijing known as the “1992 consensus” and is the bedrock of closer ties — the DPP has never endorsed it.

But analysts say Beijing will not want to alienate Taiwan as that would work against its reunification goal.

“I think at least in the first year Beijing will try to show conciliatory gestures,” said Willy Lam, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies.

“If after two or three years the Tsai Ing-wen administration refuses to demonstrate any enthusiasm for political dialogue, then it’s possible that Beijing might employ tougher tactics,” he added.

China has marginalised Taiwan on the world stage as its influence has grown — another source of voter anger. Only 22 countries formally recognise it and even the US has only unofficial ties.

But for many, everyday issues will take precedence Saturday, when the KMT is also expected to lose its majority in parliament.

Low salaries, rising housing costs and shrinking exports are among a raft of economic problems.

“I don’t care about China ties, I just want the economy to get better,” said Yang Chien-yi, 24, an office worker in Taipei.

“The KMT is incompetent and only looks after the interests of big business groups while regular people are suffering. I think the DPP could do better.”

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