Taiwan Vote Lures Back Expatriates in China

 Published: 1/11/2012 6:00:05 AM GMT
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Taiwan Vote Lures Back Expatriates in 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 that greets shoppers entering what is billed as the world’s largest eyeglass emporium.

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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 on 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Ms. 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.”

Ms. 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, Ms. 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. Ms. Hsiao said mainland officials were visiting Taiwanese-owned factories and pressuring businessmen to vote for Mr. 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 Mr. Ma. But their numbers could be pivotal, especially if there is a repeat of 2004, when Mr. Chen was re-elected by a margin of fewer than 30,000 of the 13 million votes cast.

Edy Yin contributed research.

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