Violent unrest in Tibet has created shock waves in another volatile region on China’s periphery, shaking up the presidential election in Taiwan and sapping support for the candidate Beijing hoped would win handily.
The suppression of Tibet protests by Chinese security forces, as well as missteps by the Nationalist Party, which Beijing favors, have nearly erased what had seemed like an insuperable lead for Ma Ying-jeou, the Harvard-educated lawyer who has been the front-runner in the race.
Concern that China’s crackdown could herald a tougher line on outlying regions that Beijing claims as sovereign territory, including Taiwan, has become the most contested campaign issue ahead of Saturday’s election.
On Thursday, China acknowledged for the first time that security forces had opened fire on Tibetan protesters in Sichuan province, while also saying that protests had spread to several areas of China where ethnic Tibetans live.
Even if Ma wins, the election may now give him a weaker mandate for his goal of pursuing closer economic ties and reduced diplomatic tensions with China.
A loss by Ma, which campaign analysts say is unlikely but now possible, would be a major setback for China’s leaders. They have cultivated the Nationalists in recent years to undermine Taiwan’s current pro-independence president, Chen Shui-bian, and reduce the chances that his Democratic Progressive Party will hold the presidency after Chen’s mandatory retirement.
Both the Nationalists and the Democratic Progressive Party promise to reduce tensions between Taiwan and China. But China has been wary of the Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, who inherits a volatile coalition that includes many native Taiwanese who favor outright independence from China.
Hsieh and his party, with help from Chen’s ministers, have moved swiftly to turn Tibet into a central campaign issue. They contend that Tibet’s fate is an example of Taiwan’s future if it does not stand up to Beijing.
“What has happened in Tibet in the past three decades, and what is going on now, is a warning to us,” said Information Minister Shieh Jhy-wey, a Democratic Progressive Party hard-liner toward Beijing. “We don’t want to have the same fate as Tibet.”