Written by Ben Goren.
With one month to go before the combined Taiwanese Legislative and Presidential elections, Beijing has likely come to the firm conclusion that Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) will emerge as Taiwan’s next president. Furthermore, it has probably also done the maths to work out that the DPP has a high chance of winning a clear majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan for the first time ever, and could possibly win a majority of seats. For many of the senior cadres inside Zhongnanhai this will not be welcome news. With a pro-Taiwan DPP rather than a pro-China KMT in office, it will be difficult, on principle, for the Chinese government to explain continuing the current pace and depth of exchanges and dialogue with Taiwan’s Straits Exchange Foundation and Mainland Affairs Council without drawing criticism from nationalist factions in the party and military. Although interactions across the Taiwan Strait were framed by the Ma administration as one sovereign governing body talking to another, this narrative was largely for Taiwanese domestic consumption and in no way reflected the actual substance of the relationship – a party to party united front working arrangement that was conditional upon the KMT being in power. With the KMT out of power, if Beijing decides to escalate tensions as a policy designed to squeeze Tsai’s political space and international reputation then the true nature of that arrangement becomes all the more obvious.
One of the very reasons the KMT is suffering in the polls, and was severely punished in the 2014 local elections, was because the Taiwanese public had come to see how cross-strait relations under Ma’s model did not preserve Taiwan’s dignity or sovereignty as an equal partner in supposedly mutually respectful and equal negotiations. Beijing’s gambit to woo Taiwanese by ‘supporting’ Ma largely via signing political agreements masked as trade pacts, hollow purchasing promises, and Chinese tourists as an economic placebo, has failed because Taiwanese were insulted by China’s skin-deep two-faced policy of crowing about concessions provided to Taiwan whilst humiliating Taiwan on the international stage. Beijing couldn’t win hearts and minds because it constantly undermined its own efforts to encourage Taiwanese to trust it. In turn both Ma’s authority and the legitimacy of cross-strait talks were fatally undermined because Beijing’s exceptionalism never stopped framing Taiwan as a domestic provincial level ‘core interest’, thereby poisoning the tone and intent of relations from day one. A combination of pride, ideological rigidity, arrogance, and looming economic weakness on China’s part ended up sabotaging Beijing’s best opportunity for realising its goals to ‘bring Taiwan back into the fold’. Beijing was in turn constrained by a ‘sacred commitment’ to ‘recover’ Taiwan that it had built much of its own domestic authority around, a corner it had ideologically boxed itself into.
Whatever direction China decides to take its Taiwan policy should Tsai win the elections, there are some important lessons it could derive from the development of Taiwanese democracy. Firstly, this election is perhaps the quietest ever. It is Taiwan’s sixth direct Presidential election in twenty years – an entire generation having now grown up to regard the democratic right to choose their Head of State and governing party as a normal and essential feature of their national identity. This time round the KMT’s catastrophic mismanagement of its Presidential candidate selection and then Chairman Eric Chu’s poor choice of Vice-Presidential candidate, along with terminal confusion about the definition of his China policies and inability to differentiate himself from President Ma’s poor record in office and collapsed reputation, has rendered the election in the public’s eyes an almost foregone conclusion. Never before has a DPP presidential candidate polled more than fifty percent nor held a thirty point advantage in the last month before an election. Having used up all its ‘ammunition’ against her in the 2012 elections, the KMT has almost nothing to rebut the case for why Tsai should be President. This is not to say that Tsai hasn’t significantly ‘upped her game’ but that previous methods used to scare the public against voting for her and the DPP at the national level now no longer appear to hold much sway with voters. Again, Beijing has itself in part to blame for this. If it hadn’t treated Ma and the Taiwanese with such barely concealed contempt, more Taiwanese might still feel that the KMT would still be the best choice for preserving ‘peaceful’ cross-strait relations. More importantly, the KMT’s party-state model has lost legitimacy as it became obvious that it no longer delivered either economic growth, sufficient benefits to the public, or guarded against corruption and nepotism. Should Beijing ever one day genuinely consider democratising Chinese politics it should look to the collapse of the KMT on Taiwan as an example to learn from and avoid.
Secondly, corruption is not the only threat to a party-state’s legitimacy and the stability of an authoritarian state. Early Taiwanese democratisation movements in the 1960s and 1970s learned not to challenge the State head on as this came at a high, and often lethal, personal cost to activists. Instead, groups coalesced around other seemingly ‘non-political’ issues such was women’s rights and environmental protection. From there, and with international pressure, the Chiang regimes in Taiwan were forced to respond to criticisms that it had failed to protect the public’s health, indirectly contradicting its claim to defend the ‘principles of the people’. Once it could not suppress these challenges under the false pretext of combatting ‘communism’ or ‘insurgency’ this opened a window of opportunity for a sliding scale of confrontations that became more political in nature as the regime’s ability to maintain absolute control weakened symbolically and physically. In the end, the KMT was essentially forced to sue for democracy, setting in process a chain of events that ultimately ended its complete hold on the country’s society, politics, and economy. The death of Chiang Ching-kuo in 1987 acted as a catalyst in Taiwan to rapidly accelerate this process, at the same time as Beijing panicked and slaughtered thousands of its own citizens in an attempt to resist a similar process from taking place in China. Some thirty years later, China’s large scale and long term environmental problems are likewise undermining the authority of the CCP in Chinese eyes. Crude nationalism can be wielded to build public support for battles against ‘separatism’ in Tibet and East Turkestan, or annexing reefs in the South China Sea, but it is useless in convincing Beijing residents that they shouldn’t be worried about smog so thick that breathing it for any prolonged period of time is likely to be fatal in the medium to long term. Arresting people for demanding breathable air and drinkable water is not only a PR disaster but also a short cut to a collapse of government authority that firing or executing a few officials will not ameliorate.
Finally, these Taiwanese elections illustrate that supposedly ‘ethnic Chinese’ societies are compatible with other forms of democracy than just ‘democracy with socialist characteristics’ or other euphemisms for an Asian-style plutocratic party-state that mimics the worst failures of democracy in the West. Taiwanese have shown that elections are not existential crises for their nation which rend society into two brutally combative and implacable enemy camps. The days of one dynasty rising up to overthrow another, or clans engaging in pitched battles for control of resources and living space, are over. Taiwanese democracy, much more so than Singapore or Korea, illustrates that a peaceful pluralism and change of ruling parties with greatly contrasting core values is possible and does not signal chaos or irresolvable internal division. For the CCP, the lesson is that if it does allow China to undergo democratisation, allow true multi-party politics, and the possibility of being elected out of power, it can still win back power if it reforms itself to be reflexive to public concerns and needs. Furthermore, it does not face the problem of the KMT which is finding itself stranded on Taiwan increasingly alienated by its ageing and dwindling support base clinging to ideological cargo that it brought over from China. If the CCP were to trust its own people rather than see any challenge to its authority as a manifestation of western intrigue or attempt to revisit humiliation upon the nation, it might find that a grateful public return it to office sooner rather than later. After all, it has experience in governance where other new parties would not.
All this however requires a shift in the mindset of CCP officials who are invested in the benefits of the iron rice bowl a little too much, or those who consider the people an uneducated rabble unable to decide what’s good for them. A democratic China publicly declaring and implementing an end to the silencing, persecution, and murder of regime critics and opponents would not only allow Chinese to start the process of healing the psychological damage of decades of repression but also act to address many of the criticisms from other countries that currently undermine the nation’s efforts to project ‘soft power’ abroad. Critically, with the Chinese economy slowing down, democracy could act as a ‘release valve’ for public discontent, as it does in Taiwan, rather than the current situation where the CCP maintains tight control over all aspects of the economy and therefore total responsibility in the public’s eyes. Democracy in China would not mean foreign powers taking over or humiliation for the CCP but rather the Chinese people playing a more direct role in shaping their Government’s policies so that it serves their needs rather than its raison d’être being to preserve its hold on power.
Of course, democratisation would not be easy nor pretty, and there would inevitably be casualties of such a change in the political system as well as no guarantees that new governments and leaders would be any less corrupt. Taiwanese also paid a price for their democratisation and it is arguable that their own project is still underway. There remains a significant amount of work to be done to decolonise Taiwan of its authoritarian past, and its ideology, before transitional justice can be achieved for the many who suffered under the KMT’s Martial Law. That is not however an argument that Taiwan should not have democratised. Taiwanese demand, and like having, a choice to elect and de-elect their own government officials at all levels. This accountability means that there is a mechanism for punishing those who abuse the system for their own benefit or neglect constituents and the public’s welfare. Without this mechanism, it is likely that Taiwanese politics would be a lot more confrontational, divisive, and violent than it is today. Rather than lose the elections only to live to fight for re-election another day, had it not agreed to allow and participate in democratisation, the KMT might have eventually been bloodily evicted from their irrational and despotic grip on power and any such position in future – an outcome that would have been fatal not only for the party but also its R.O.C. More so than ever before, Taiwanese elections and democracy provide important lessons for China if it could ever allow itself to learn them.
Ben Goren is a longtime resident of Taipei and owns Letters from Taiwan.