Kaohsiung’s new mayor Han Kuo-yu will spearhead a mainland-friendly policy that is expected to be followed by 14 other opposition Kuomintang-controlled cities and counties in Taiwan.

Beijing has already welcomed the move but it is expected to upset the government of the self-ruled island after its crushing defeat in the midterm polls on Saturday.

Han, the 61-year-old who led the KMT to a landslide victory in the local elections, said he would set up a cross-strait ad hoc committee to improve relations with the mainland when he takes office on December 25.

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“The mainland market is very important,” he told reporters in Taipei on Wednesday. “It accounts for 40 per cent of Taiwan’s total exports, and because of certain reasons, our products cannot be sold there and their people [tourists] are not coming.”

Han was referring to the deteriorating ties between Taipei and Beijing since Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, became president in 2016. Tsai has refused to accept the “1992 consensus” – an understanding that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China.

Beijing sees Taiwan as a breakaway province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, and has insisted that official communications will not resume until Tsai accepts this one-China principle.

Campaigning on a promise to make Kaohsiung rich and great again, Han won over voters in the southern city – a traditional stronghold of the pro-independence camp – and other KMT candidates in the local elections were able to build on his popularity.

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Tsai resigned as chairwoman of the DPP after her party lost control of seven counties and cities, including Kaohsiung and another special municipality – the central city of Taichung. The KMT, meanwhile, more than doubled its political control of the island to 15 cities and counties, including three special municipalities.

During his campaign, Han was clear about his support for the 1992 consensus, telling voters he would use it to give Kaohsiung a much-needed boost. The city’s economy has struggled in the past decade and Han pledged to make it easier for local businesses and farmers to sell their products to the mainland, and to encourage tourists from across the strait to visit Kaohsiung. Beijing has discouraged trade and tourism with the city because of its status as a pro-independence stronghold.

“So if we want to make money, it is highly important for us to take note of the [function] of the [new] cross-strait committee,” he said.

Han also said all mainland tourists were welcome to visit Kaohsiung and promised to improve the city’s services and facilities to attract more visitors.

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Other newly elected KMT mayors – including Lu Hsiu-yen in Taichung and Wang Hui-mei in Changhua – have also indicated they want to engage more with the mainland. They want Han to call a meeting of all 15 KMT local government leaders to come up with a plan for mainland-friendly initiatives.

In Beijing on Wednesday, Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Ma Xiaoguang said the mainland was willing to “share the fruits of development and chances with Taiwanese compatriots and deepen cross-strait economic and cultural exchanges and cooperation” – as long as they supported the one-China principle.

Ma said engagement between cities would help improve understanding between the two sides. “We welcome Kaohsiung and other cities and counties to take part in city-to-city exchanges and cooperation projects,” he said, adding that he had been told some mainland tour agencies had already planned trips to Kaohsiung.

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The KMT push to engage more with the mainland is expected to have a big impact on the Taiwanese government’s cross-strait policy, as well as the 2020 presidential election.

“Trade between cities in Taiwan and China is likely to increase, given that the KMT now controls 15 cities and counties,” said Soong Hseik-wen, a professor at the Institute of Strategic and International Affairs at National Chung Cheng University in Chiayi, southern Taiwan. That would put more pressure on the Tsai government, he added.


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