Written by J. Michael Cole
With the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) set to assume office in Taiwan less than two months from now, the Chinese commentariat has shifted into high gear with warnings about Beijing’s “red lines” and the sundry ills that could befall Taiwan should incoming president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) cross any of them. One recurrent red line takes aim at “Taiwan independence,” a concept that is anathema to Beijing. But China has a much bigger problem on its hands, as there is not one but rather two independence movements in Taiwan.
Sometimes overlapping and sometimes clashing, these two movements are united in their opposition to Taiwan or the Republic of China (ROC), as it is officially known, becoming part of the People’s Republic of China. And taken together, these two groups account of the majority of the people in Taiwan regardless of their voting preferences.
The better-known movement, taidu (臺獨), is the one that is most often associated with DPP stalwarts and the pan-green camp (New Power Party, Taiwan Solidarity Union), which calls for de jure independence, a new constitution, and the abandonment of the ROC as both the nation’s official title and source of symbols. One such movement in the making following Ms. Tsai’s election is the U.S.-based “Welcome Formosa Republic; Farewell to ‘Republic of China’” (歡迎台灣共和國;告別“中華民國”), which intends to pressure Tsai into moving away from the ROC. Thus, if this group’s aspirations were realized, there would be one China (PRC) and one Republic of Taiwan. Most of them are to be found among those who in opinion polls advocate immediate independence. In general when Beijing warns against “splittism” and “Taiwan independence,” this is the group it is taking aim at.
Much less discussed but equally relevant to conflict resolution in the Taiwan Strait is another dynamic, which we could term huadu (華獨), or loosely “ROC independence.” In contrast to the taidu movement, huadu supporters tend to associate with the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the People First Party (PFP). Although these two political parties are often regarded as “pro Beijing” and have historically placed greater emphasis on Chinese culture and history, their voter base nevertheless shows a greater attachment to the ROC that demarcates them from the pro-unification ideology of parties such as the New Party and the China Unification Promotion Party. Many adherents to huadu are to be found among those who support the “status quo” in the Taiwan Strait.
While supporters of huadu do not necessarily agree with taidu calls for the abolishment of the ROC, they nevertheless share the values and liberal-democratic practices that are now intrinsic to the form of nationalism that has developed in Taiwan over the decades. Many of them do so even if they self-identify as ethnically Chinese or Chinese and Taiwanese, a phenomenon which sheds light on the two forms of nationalism (“civic” versus “ethnic”) that exist across the Taiwan Strait. Beijing should be worried that even supporters of Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the “pro Beijing” KMT presidential candidate before she was replaced in October 2015, were adamant that the ROC’s liberal democracy needed to be protected from the authoritarian PRC.
Although ardent taidu supporters regard huadu as an unacceptable continuation of KMT/Chinese colonialism (such groups have criticized president-elect Tsai for her vow to abide by the “ROC constitutional framework”), the two forms of independence (from the PRC) create a larger tent and give Taiwan much of its resilience. This is a force whose potency is proportional to the ability of the two camps to set aside their differences and to cooperate on matters of shared interest, such as the preservation of the way of life and institutions that define Taiwan/the ROC today.
The Taiwanese president who best reflects and secures the overlapping interests of both groups will come closest to achieving national unity and presenting a united front against Beijing. Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) probably catered too much to the taidu crowd, while President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has centred his efforts on the huadu segment within Taiwanese society and alienated taidu supporters. By striking a balance between the two groups, the next president should be able to consolidate her power base and thereby counter Beijing’s efforts to isolate “Taiwan independence.” Not only would this demonstrate that the desire for independence from the PRC is a much more prevalent phenomenon across Taiwan than is normally thought, it would also undercut Beijing’s ability to play one camp against the other. For the time being, Taiwan’s best strategy is to focus on the greatest common denominator, regardless of the name that comes attached.
Michael Cole is a CPI Senior Fellow and Editor of Thinking Taiwan.