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Taiwan election lures expatriates back from China


BEIJING » The only thing more striking than the $32,000 diamond-encrusted eyeglasses on display at the Baodao Optical department store here is the bronze statue of Chairman Mao Zedong that greets shoppers entering what is billed as the world’s largest eyeglass emporium.

That is because Baodao Optical’s owners are from Taiwan, the island whose governing party, the Kuomintang, fought a fierce — and losing — civil war against Mao’s Communist forces before fleeing the mainland in 1949 with more than a million refugees. The rival governments have yet to sign a peace accord.

But by choosing to display Mao’s likeness and his famous credo "Serve the People" so prominently, Baodao Optical reveals how far some Taiwanese businesses will go to romance a Chinese market that many see as the wellspring of their future prosperity.

Such gestures have become especially freighted as an estimated 200,000 people return to Taiwan for an election Saturday whose outcome could determine the future of a relationship that has warmed steadily since President Ma Ying-jeou swept into office there in 2008.

Ma, of the Kuomintang, is facing a vigorous challenge from Tsai Ing-wen, a low-key academic whose Democratic Progressive Party has long advocated formal independence, a position that in the past inspired Beijing to lob missiles into the Taiwan Strait. Polls suggest that the race is too close to call, with a third candidate expected to draw around 10 percent of the vote, largely from Ma.

The growing political heft of the Taishang, the name given to the million or so Taiwanese in China who have staked their livelihoods on its expansive economy, has become a point of contention in a race that has raised existential questions about a Taiwan increasingly ensconced in Beijing’s embrace.

Because Taiwan does not allow absentee balloting, Taishang executives have been urging their compatriots to return home to vote, warning that a victory for Tsai could anger Beijing and prompt it to yank back the welcome mat. But Taishang business leaders have done more than exhort. They have arranged for discounted plane tickets, pressed Chinese airlines and those from Taiwan to add 200 flights and have offered their employees paid holidays that coincide with Election Day, which falls just more than a week before the start of the Chinese New Year.

When seats on regularly scheduled flights to Taiwan sold out, business groups in and around Shanghai and Guangzhou organized charter flights. Terry Gou, the chairman of Foxconn, an electronics manufacturing giant based in Taiwan, is reportedly flying home 5,000 of his employees.

"Many Taishang weren’t that interested in the race, but when they saw how close it was, they got very concerned," said Lin Qingfa, chairman of the Beijing Association of Taiwan Enterprises, a group that counts 300 companies among its membership. "There is a feeling that if Tsai Ing-wen is elected, cross-strait relations will suffer and so will our business opportunities."

Tsai and her allies have cried foul, saying such efforts pander to the Chinese Communist Party, whose overarching goal is to reunify Taiwan and China, even if by force. Although the candidates are campaigning largely on domestic concerns, among them stagnant incomes, a growing wealth gap and evaporating jobs, Tsai has also cast her opponent’s pro-Beijing policies as a first step to selling out Taiwan’s sovereignty.

Bi-khim Hsiao, vice president of the New Frontier Foundation, a research institute financed by the Democratic Progressive Party, said efforts to sway the election went beyond arranging half-price flights. Hsiao said mainland officials were visiting Taiwanese-owned factories and pressuring businessmen to vote for Ma, an accusation Kuomintang officials reject.

"In the past, each time the Chinese attempted to interfere in our elections it backfired," she said, alluding to the 2000 race, when Beijing’s warnings of "bloodshed" helped produce a narrow victory for the pro-independence candidate Chen Shui-bian. "This time is no different," she added. "We are confident not all Taishang will vote for Ma."

Analysts and business leaders agree, estimating that 70 percent to 80 percent of Taiwanese who live and work in mainland China are backing Ma. But their numbers could be pivotal, especially if there is a repeat of 2004, when Chen was re-elected by a margin of fewer than 30,000 of the 13 million votes cast.

"These business tycoons and Taishang who have benefited from the relaxation of cross-strait ties are clearly motivated this year," said Chen-shen Yen, director of the Institute of International Relations at National Chengchi University in Taipei. "They appear to be voting for their pocketbooks, not with their hearts."

For business owners at least, the benefits of playing ball with Beijing are hard to deny. Direct flights have turned a daylong odyssey into a 90-minute puddle jump. In 2010, Taiwan’s exports to China hit a record $115 billion, up 35 percent from a year earlier. And Ma’s detente opened the door to mainland tourists, with more than 3 million of them arriving since 2008.

If the experience of Baodao Optical is any indication, cultivating the Communist Party establishment has its rewards. Since 1997, the chain has opened more than 1,000 stores across the mainland, with 2,000 more on the drawing board, executives say. By contrast, the company has 300 shops on Taiwan, whose population of 23 million is comparable to Shanghai’s.

"There’s not much more expanding we can do at home," said Keri Chang, the company’s marketing director for northeast China. "Our future is here."

Like a good many Taiwan expatriates, Chang, 40, has strong feelings about the status quo, which means another four years of Ma and his nonconfrontational ways. When she first arrived here as a college student in 1999, she recalled, she was hectored by students and teachers who accused her of seeking to split the motherland by pursuing an independent Taiwan.

These days, her mainland Chinese friends and colleagues are mostly filled with admiration. They sidle up to her and gab about Taiwan’s pop culture and fashion, and speak longingly about its democracy and uncensored media.

"They mostly want to imitate us," she said.

The admiration appears to go both ways. Cai Zhisheng, 38, a sales manager at the store, said his first year in China had helped chip away at the ugly stereotypes he held about China. Like many Taiwanese, he thought mainlanders were rough-edged, backward and cold.

"But what I’ve found is most people are not uncivilized or impolite," he said. "In fact, people are really friendly, especially when they find out I’m Taiwanese."

But even Taiwanese who have done well are having second thoughts about getting too close. Tavanic Yantun, a senior marketing manager at Adidas, suspects that Beijing is seeking to manipulate Taiwan into submission, a prospect that grows more likely as Taiwan’s economy and that of its giant neighbor become interdependent.

Since the onset of the global financial crisis, he has watched as scores of well-paying jobs in Taipei have disappeared. Last year, he was lured to the mainland by an irresistible pay increase.

"I had never been to China until the job interview," he said.

The experience has been largely positive. He, too, has been warmed by the enthusiasm of Chinese colleagues who can recite dialogue from Taiwanese television. Others quietly ask him to bring back banned history books. But he is also frustrated by their insistence that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China.

"Even well-educated friends are brainwashed when it comes to Taiwan," he said. "I worry one day we might have to give up our freedoms."

With a few days before the election, Yantun said he was still undecided. Should he vote for the continued reconciliation championed by Ma or the wariness advocated by Tsai?

"I guess I’m torn between my own selfishness and the future of Taiwan," he said.

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