Written by Gunter Schubert.

Before an important election is due, Taiwanese businesspeople investing in China (known as Taishang) regularly make headlines in the Taiwanese media. Surprisingly, there was not much of a public outcry when it was reported in early September that Taiwanese Business Associations (TBAs) on the mainland had made acting and former heads of regional TBAs responsible for rallies for KMT candidates in the upcoming county magistrate elections and convince TBA members to support them with generous donations. This just confirmed what many Taiwanese have long since claimed to know, that Taishang are ‘pro-China’ and ‘pro KMT’. It is also well-known that Taiwanese Business Associations (TBAs) and local Taiwan Affairs Offices in China provide Taishang with subsidized tickets and additional charter flights to return to Taiwan and cast their ballots. Some 250000 to 300000 Taishang (including company staff and family members) are usually believed to make the trip. Even though these figures are regularly found to be exaggerated after checking back with immigration authorities, the Taishang can certainly be a critical constituency in a tight electoral race.

The dominant ‘Taishang narrative’ among green-supporting Taiwanese goes as follows: Taishang easily trade loyalty to whatever country for economic interest and money. They would therefore not stand up to defend Taiwan’s rightful quest for sovereignty, democracy and identity but are rather indifferent to this quest. They hollow out the Taiwanese economy by shifting their capital and knowledge to China and willingly help Beijing pave the way for unification. Taishang overwhelmingly vote for and support ‘pro-China’ parties and politicians, most notably the ruling KMT. They work clandestinely through Taiwanese Business Associations and private channels to set up and nurture close relations between Chinese and Taiwanese government officials. They also lobby the Taiwan government to drive forward cross-strait integration, including the opening-up of Taiwan’s economy for Chinese investments. And they penetrate the Taiwanese media market to eradicate negative reporting on China. They are – some more, some less – Beijing’s trojan horse in Taiwan.

So how do Taishang themselves think about this narrative? Based on interviews with some 150 mainland Taishang (of different scale, business, and arrival time in China) which I have conducted over the last couple of years, their reply to the ‘Taiwan narrative’ can be summarized as follows:

First, increasing cross-Strait economic liberalization and integration are inevitable and important for safeguarding Taiwan’s prosperity. Taiwan cannot escape the Chinese economic pull and must face the ‘mainland dragon’. Economic liberalization and competition may initially make Taiwan’s economy suffer but will eventually help it become stronger. Taishang are the driving forces of this process. They link up the economies on both sides of the Taiwan Strait and, hence, make them become increasingly compatible. Taiwan will never do without free trade and open borders, and a government that supports both. Free trade agreements of all sorts are thus critical for the survival of the Taiwanese economy. You should negotiate their scope and adjust their sequencing to the specific problems of structural economic change in Taiwan, but you should never stay away from liberalization or even be protectionist!

Second, Taishang are and always will be Taiwanese. However, claiming to be Chinese at the same time is helpful to survive in the mainland market. It also facilitates integration into Chinese society if Taishang have opted to reside in China permanently. This is not opportunism but realism. Political exposure to Chinese authorities requires keeping a low political profile, including all ‘identity speak’. But they (the Chinese) know who we are, and we know who they are.

Third, befriending (and sometimes bribing) Chinese local governments, lobbying for cross-Strait economic liberalisation and keeping a distance to public politics in both China and Taiwan are objective requirements to safeguard the economic interests of Taishang in China. By accommodating these requirements, Taishang do not ‘sell out’ Taiwan, but ensure that Taiwanese companies earn money (which they are increasingly investing back in Taiwan), offer career perspectives to Taiwanese skilled labour and mobilize strongly needed capital investment by Chinese companies in Taiwan.

Fourth, Taishang are not opportunists, they just do what they are supposed to do as ‘economic animals’. Many Taiwanese ignore, often out of pure and blind domestic concern, the significance of cross-Strait economic integration for Taiwan’s future, and the important role which the Taishang play in this respect. Even worse, these Taiwanese invoke an antinomy between economic integration on the one hand and democracy and Taiwanese identity on the other. They treat the Taishang as traitors to avoid any serious discussion on the needs of the Taiwanese economy and the hopes of many young Taiwanese who look to the mainland for their future careers.

Fifth, if you cannot escape the ‘Chinese tiger’ you must ride it. Being afraid of it is useless. This is not a matter of questionable loyalty to Taiwan but of courage and self-confidence which each and any Taiwanese should show to the world. The Taiwanese must say: Look, we all know whom we are facing. We all know China’s agenda. So what? Are we really afraid of being swallowed? We are not!

Without taking sides, my past fieldwork has brought to the fore a number of interesting further issues which might be funnelled into the ongoing ‘Taishang debate’. Taishang are strongly disappointed with the second Ma administration, no matter what political camp they identify with. The current government, as the saying goes, does too little too late and never takes clear stances. At the same time, Taishang are deeply sceptical about the DPP. The opposition party’s protracted struggle for a coherent China policy is particularly troubling for ‘green’ Taishang who have become frustrated with Taiwanese politics altogether.

Taishang often express political isolation and feel detached from their government and society. They despise Taiwanese politicians as lacking in capacity or will to look further ahead than the next election and plan long-term. Taishang are arguably the most alienated political constituency in Taiwan, even though a number of big tycoons may exert considerable influence on the Taiwanese government.

The rift between mainland Taishang and Taiwan’s civil society is increasingly deep, to the detriment of a necessary dialogue between all societal groups on the future of Taiwan and its approach to China. Judging from this rift alone, a so-called ‘Taiwan consensus’ invoked by politicians and intellectuals alike, especially on the eve of important elections, is hardly imaginable in the foreseeable future.

Gunter Schubert is Professor of Greater China Studies and director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) at the University of Tübingen. Image credit: CC by Ludovic Lubeigt/Flickr.