Written by Gunter Schubert.
Facing an uphill battle in the current presidential campaign and a disastrous defeat that may even cost it the usual majority in the Legislative Yuan there is much more at stake for the KMT than just another round of national elections. It may, for the first time, loose its ‘discursive supremacy’ in the domestic debate on China-Taiwan relations with no promising strategy – or vocabulary – to win it back any time soon. What I mean is the KMT’s possible loss of the ‘China narrative’, which was critical for the party to sustain its political power in democratic Taiwan for such a long time. The so-called ‘1992 consensus’ has been disputed since its first invocation, but never had there been a tangible danger that a majority of Taiwanese would question this formula, embodying the KMT’s ‘China narrative’, which ensured a minimum of ideological overlap and stability across the Taiwan Strait. It was a fundamental component of KMT gouvernementalité, deeply penetrating the mindsets of KMT supporters and, more importantly, most of Taiwan’s middle-of-the road voters, who are stability-oriented and ideologically moderate. Until the 2012 presidential elections, the DPP was not able to challenge the ‘1992 consensus’ and expect electoral success. Today, things look quite different.
In Gramscian terms, Taiwan’s political camps are now engaged in a ‘war of position’ regarding the ‘China narrative’, and the KMT may lose it. If the DPP takes both the presidential office and the legislature with a cross-strait stance that eschews an unequivocal commitment to live up to the ‘1992 consensus’, successfully reducing it to on ‘option’ that may or may not be chosen by the Taiwanese people in some undetermined future, it will indicate that the political tectonics have dramatically shifted. During his tenure, Chen Shui-bian could not do away with the ‘1992 consensus’, and when he took the road of Taiwanese nationalism in his second administration he alienated broad segments of Taiwanese society and certainly the majority of middle-of-the-road voters. Chen thus did not succeed in overcoming the KMT’s ‘China narrative’. At the end of his second administration, the ‘1992 consensus’ was a powerful ‘mantra’ that swept the KMT back to power. If I am right, the mantra has now lost its power. Why?
Many observers reckon that the DPP will soon be forced back into accepting the ‘1992 consensus’ after winning the upcoming elections. The CCP-KMT alliance, so goes the argument, will operate along the same lines as during the Chen Shui-Bian years, trying to isolate and constrain the administration of Tsai Ing-wen and loudly bringing home the point that the ‘1992 consensus’ is the only game in town when cross-strait relations are at stake. This may happen, even though constraining Tsai would be much more difficult without a KMT legislative majority. But this is not the major reason for arguing that old wine in new bottles will not help the KMT, or the Chinese government, to convince the populace that the DPP is a bad choice. In fact, the upcoming election may not be about the best ‘China strategy’ or past policy failures on the part of the Ma administration at all, but simply about a tipping point that has been reached in the course of the last four years: Taiwanese identity may now be consolidated to an extent that makes most voters self-confident enough to reject categorically any formula that, in their estimation, impinges on Taiwan’s state sovereignty. The younger generation, for its part, may be divided into those who are ready to assert their national identity against China’s sovereignty claims by political action, and those who do not care about cross-strait politics at all and only focus on their professional careers, made either in Taiwan or on the mainland. The first group rejects the ‘China narrative’ explicitly; the latter is politically indifferent to it and would thus not care to vote for the KMT, or any other party, in the first place. Either way, the KMT currently has little to hope for when looking at the younger generation.
If it is correct to assume that most Taiwanese have become either oppositional or indifferent to the ‘China’ narrative, the KMT has a real problem. It would probably not be able to convince the majority of Taiwanese again that it is the only party that can deal with China and that adherence to the ‘1992 consensus’ and the ‘One China’ principle in indispensable for Taiwan to be safe and prosperous. Nobody can be persuaded to believe that any more.
Certainly, this is only an assumption, and it could be wrong. Maybe the Taiwanese will be driven back into the KMT’s fold if China plays hard against a DPP government by insisting on the ‘1992 consensus’ uncompromisingly and becoming actively unfriendly. However, this is far from certain. Pressure on a people that has a stance based on a consolidated identity, be that stance politicized or just taken for granted, can only further consolidate that stance. The KMT would therefore do good to think of some new ‘cross-strait speak’ if and when it is defeated in the upcoming ballot.
The DPP, for its part, seems to stand on safe ground. If the current survey figures bespeak a qualitative change of how most Taiwanese look at cross-strait relations and the ‘1992 consensus’, it suffices for the party to simply claim that it is ready to engage China economically and maintain the status quo of functional (or de facto) ROC sovereignty. All other things being equal, this stance could secure a long time of DPP rule.
Gunter Schubert is Professor of Greater China Studies at the Department of Chinese and Korean Studies at the University of Tübingen. He is also the director of the European Research Center on Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT) at this university.