China’s Soft-Power Offensive in Taiwan

China has learned trade and other enticements, rather than threats and bullying, are more effective in swaying voters during Taiwanese elections. But will China take the next step and learn that democracy Taiwan-style might also work in the mainland?

TOKYO – China’s behavior during the recent presidential election in Taiwan demonstrates that its leaders have learned some lessons, if only the hard way. They have learned that China can have a greater impact on Taiwanese voters through trade and making people feel richer than by threats – even threats to fire missiles – which had been China’s electoral tactics in previous Taiwanese elections, particularly when a pro-independence candidate looked popular enough to win.

Indeed, fearing the popularity of Lee Teng-hui, who ran in the 1996 presidential election on a pro-independence platform, China’s People’s Liberation Army actually fired missiles close to the nearby coast of Keelung. But this saber rattling backfired. Lee won.

The presidential election on January 14 was the first of the transfers of power in China and Taiwan that will take place this year. Later this year, China’s President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will be succeeded by men chosen by the Communist Party long ago. Avoiding new tension with Taiwan appears to have been a calculated decision by China’s leaders as they begin their own – perhaps not yet fully settled – changing of the guard.