I’ve stressed often in this blog that one important driver of identity politics in Taiwan is structural: on a range of important issues, the two parties have very similiar views. The one reliable difference between them is the pro-Taiwan stance of the DPP and the pro-China stance of the KMT. Hence, at the national level, both parties tend to stress that. From that perspective the renaming of the Memorial Formerly Known as CKS must be seen as part of the normal electoral dance between the two parties, one that allows each to send out appeals to their identity-based electorates.

Two articles came out recently that illustrate this similarity between what are essentially two nationalist, center-right pro-business parties very nicely. The first is a Taiwan Journal piece that reviews the economic policies of DPP Presidential candidate Frank Hsieh and KMT Presidential hopeful Ma Ying-jeou. After highlighting the two candidate’s economic proposals, the piece concludes:

While the business world pays attention to the two candidates’ cross-strait policies as a touchstone, in reality, both men are seen as having few differences in essence. Being viewed as more open in this issue, Ma promised to readjust the current 40-percent investment cap for Taiwanese companies in China. Opening Taiwan to tourists from China through direct transportation links is also included in his policy. “Not only entrepreneurs but also farmers hope for direct flights, because the latter can sell their fruit in China,” Ma argued. “This is intended not to encourage Taiwanese investors to flow into China, but to assist them in making profits there and bringing them back to Taiwan.” However, Ma said that the local agricultural marketplace would not be open to Chinese imports, and China’s blue-collar workers would not be allowed to work in

Hsieh said he approved of direct flights, but only on a charter-flight basis. He also proclaimed that an evaluation system designed to manage companies’ investments in China is a must, adding that anything to do with national defense and agriculture must be strictly monitored. Hsieh pointed out that he is not against Taiwanese businessmen having closer ties with China, but every case should be handled on an individual basis.

Note that Hsieh’s policy in practice amounts to having no restrictions on cross-strait investment at all, because such “review” processes in Taiwan are typically toothless. By contrast, Ma says he will “adjust” the cap, implying that it will remain. Both candidates plan to keep Chinese labor out of Taiwan, a sensible policy followed by virtually all of China’s neighbors. Those of you on the East Coast can take heart for prosperity is on the way — Ma plans industrial corridors there, something that was discussed back in the 1990s but fortunately was never realized.

Similarly, the conservative Jamestown Foundation has a piece out on the KMT’s defense policy that begins by emphasizing similarities with the DPP, but then also moving on to differences:

The KMT’s overall strategy is similar to what the DPP has proposed in many respects. For instance, DPP-affiliated anlaysts have proposed a variety of CBMs [confidence building measures] as well. Moreover, President Chen has also pledged that Taiwan will refrain from developing nuclear weapons. Perhaps most surprisingly, however, especially given the prolonged and highly acrimonious debate over the unprecedented arms sales package that Washington approved in April 2001, the KMT’s defense strategy also appears to share some common ground with the DPP’s preferred approach when it comes to determining the appropriate level of defense spending. Specifically, both parties support raising defense spending to at least 3 percent of GDP. The KMT and DPP also both favor improving Taiwan’s defense industrial capabilities. In addition, both parties support making the transition to an all-volunteer military service system to enhance the professionalism and operational capability of Taiwan’s armed forces.

I must repeat: if the KMT was really serious about the 3% level, all it has to do is get the legislature moving, since it controls the legislature. Ma Ying-jeou talked about that 3% level twenty months ago in his visit to the UK, and the KMT hasn’t done jack about it since.

Meanwhile, on the subject of the island’s political leadership, AmCham’s Richard Vuylsteke left a parting blast reported in today’s China Post:

The past seven years have witnessed an unhealthy — and often unseemly — evolution of leadership that pursues cross-faction and cross-party rhetorical vendettas, sows unnecessarily disruptive ethnic discord, and exhibits a profound pettiness of personal interaction that has soured the public image of political factional and party leaders, Dr. Vuylsteke notes.

“Nasty innuendo, false and unsubstantiated claims, bogus statistics, and a seemingly endless string of legally frivolous lawsuits dominate media reporting on current leaders and their interactions,” Dr. Vuylsteke points out.

Political leaders have made little effort to cultivate public understanding of critical issues that seriously affect public welfare and economic well-being, Dr. Vuylsteke goes on. They have failed to make research and reflection to substantively address issues that worry the man in the street.

While I deeply respect and applaud AmCham’s focus on the practical and necessary…. see, for example, Vuylsteke’s comments below….

The American business executive cites sewage treatment as example. Currently, Taiwan has a 16.68 percent level of household connectivity to sewage treatment island-wide. The policy goal is to increase it to 22.1 percent by 2012. By comparison, South Korea’s coverage currently stands at 87 percent. Taiwan’s shortfall compared with its neighbor is unconscionable.

“Real leadership, at both municipal and national levels, would take on this issue — informing the public of the threat this appalling state of affairs poses in terms of drinking-water safety and disease control, plus its potential negative impact for the development of water sports, fishing, and other recreational activities along river and ocean shorelines,” the commentary says.

…it would be possible to take Vuylsteke’s commentary more seriously had its lead not been The past seven years…. indicating AmCham’s longstanding pro-KMT bias — and thus, its complicity in the creation of this Taiwan it ostensibly deplores — as well as proffering a fantasy world in which none of these attitudes and issues is older than seven years. Yet I can remember AmCham complaining about the sewage issue back in the 1990s, when DPP rule was only a remote possibility (the earliest AmCham White Paper on their website dates from 2002, and mentions sewage as a problem twice). As I said, the business community has internalized KMT talking points as if they were cogent commentary, and it is sad to see Vuylsteke engaging in such behavior here. All the nastiness that Vuylsteke identifies is easily identifiable in the KMT period as well….. Good luck in Hong Kong, Dr. Vuylsteke.

Vuylsteke’s instancing of sewage as an example of failure here also shows another driver of identity politics at the national level: the KMT political economy that still determines the shape of political activity here. The KMT created widespread institutional corruption in Taiwan to purchase the loyalty of local faction and clan leaders. In exchange for permitting them to enrich themselves, the KMT did not permit local faction leaders to operate at the national level. One result is that local development issues generally do not become national development issues — instead of the whole nation commenting on the massive, and massively stupid, industrial development project down in Mailiao, it is simply a matter between local Yunlin politicians and the relevant national government development entities.

Since “local” issues do not become “national” issues, public policy discussion at the “national” level is highly impoverished, limited to “national” issues like national identity and China policy. Sewage? That’s a local issue….

UPDATE: Feiren also notes the pro-KMT slant of AmCham’s recent comments, in its 2007 White Paper:

First of all, let’s keep in mind that this is not up to the people of Taiwan, it’s up to the government of China. The DPP government has wanted to negotiate with China about flights to and from China for years, but China insists that Taiwan first recognize the One China principle that Taiwan is part of China before it will discuss this issue. By disingenuously appealing to the people of Taiwan on this issue AmCham is inserting itself into Taiwanese politics on behalf of the KMT in an inappropriate and unseemly fashion.