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Big business tries to sway increasingly tense Taiwan election

Sydney Morning Herald - January 6, 2012

Philip Wen The Taiwanese electronics manufacturing giant Foxconn has attracted negative headlines for the poor working conditions at some of its Chinese factories, where workers are routinely pushed to the limit churning out Apple iPads.

So it might seem out of character for Terry Gou, Foxconn's boss and one of the world's richest men, to offer an extra week's leave and a free flight home for tens of thousands of its China-based Taiwanese employees.

The catch? By letting them return home a week earlier than normal for their annual Spring Festival break, Mr Gou, a prominent supporter of the President, Ma Ying-jeou, is urging his employees to vote in the Taiwanese presidential election, on January 14, which currently hangs on a knife edge.

And, like previous elections, the dominant issue remains Taiwan's relations with China. Even though Beijing and Taipei have been getting along better recently, a Pentagon report last year showed the Chinese military continued to increase its firepower, and has between 1000 and 1200 ballistic missiles pointed at Taiwan.

"Many Taiwanese, whether at home or working in China, are extremely concerned about this year's election," said one Taiwanese Foxconn employee, a Beijing product manager. "I myself am extremely concerned, especially with the current opinion polls. It's very close."

For months, the election has been expected to hand an easy victory to Mr Ma, of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, who has forged warmer diplomatic and economic ties with China.

It is for this reason that he is Beijing's preferred candidate over the Opposition Leader, Tsai Ing-wen, of the Democratic Progressive Party. Beijing's distrust of Ms Tsai stems from her party's former leader, the former president Chen Shui-bian, whose policy of pursuing formal independence for Taiwan deeply antagonised China. Mr Chen is now serving 19 years in jail for corruption.

The election has also been made more unpredictable by the late entry of James Soong in September. Mr Soong, the leader of the People First Party, is a former Nationalist Party stalwart who is expected to draw votes from Mr Ma. Mr Soong contested the 2000 election after being expelled by the Nationalist Party, narrowly losing to Mr Chen.

Final opinion polls released on Tuesday show Mr Ma maintaining his lead of between 3 and 8 per cent, depending on the poll over Ms Tsai, with Mr Soong a distant third. But tensions remain high.

In recent campaign speeches, Mr Ma has reaffirmed his commitment to the "1992 consensus" on "one-China, separate interpretation" in promoting cross-strait rapprochement.

Ms Tsai has instead raised the concept of a separate "Taiwan consensus". "The 1992 consensus is an agreement between the Communist Party of China and the then-ruling KMT not the Taiwanese people," she said.

China has resisted overtly backing Mr Ma, or criticising Ms Tsai, wary of a repeat of scenes in the 1996 election, where an aggressive series of Chinese military exercises prompted a voter backlash.

But a win for Ms Tsai would add to the mounting headaches Beijing, which already has to contend with the uncertainty of North Korea's leadership succession, the health of the US and European economies, and a rapidly cooling domestic property market.

"Beijing is watching the presidential campaign in Taiwan with great concern, and China's leadership is pessimistic about the prospects for maintaining cross-strait stability and progress if DPP returns to power," says Bonnie Glaser, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mr Gou's gesture speaks volumes about the stakes. He employs 1 million people worldwide and has built an empire around his ties with China.

Foxconn will charter planes to get its employees back to Taiwan in time to vote. Taiwanese business associations have also arranged for half-price plane tickets for their members.

The idea is that with skin in the game, Taiwanese with business interests in China will vote for the safe option and keep the status quo.

And with more than 1 million Taiwanese living or working in China, a large contingent returning to vote could swing the result. Taiwan's electoral roll has about 18 million voters.

"Those who work in China, because they interact a lot with mainlanders, they don't have such negative views about mainland China, and so are more likely to support [the KMT]," the Foxconn product manager said. "Our boss is a supporter of KMT and perhaps hopes this will create more votes. But he won't influence the way we vote."

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