China Policy Institute: Analysis


Tsai Ing-wen

Tsai Gets Passing Grade for Apology to Taiwan’s Aborigines

Written by J.Michael Cole.

It was a move that many saw as unnecessary — and an unnecessarily risky. In a highly publicized event at the Presidential Office in Taipei earlier today, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) formally apologized to the nation’s Aborigines for the unfair treatment they received over the past 400 years.

In the weeks leading to today’s event, a number of activists and members of Aboriginal communities across Taiwan had wondered why President Tsai felt compelled to apologize to the land’s first inhabitants. For many of them, the ceremony would be simply that — a grandiose, well publicized exercise in public relations which, in the end, would not yield the morsel that’s always been missing: substance. Continue reading “Tsai Gets Passing Grade for Apology to Taiwan’s Aborigines”

Radio Silence in the Taiwan Strait? Think Again

Written by J.Michael Cole.

The Taiwan Affairs Office on Saturday confirmed that Beijing had suspended cross-strait communication mechanisms due to failure by the Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) administration to endorse the so-called 1992 consensus and “one China” principle.

The news, though it quickened the pulse of many a news editor worldwide, was not exactly a surprise. After all, Beijing has been telegraphing its intentions for months, and various officers at the TAO since well before May 20, when the hotline set up in 2014 between the TAO and the Mainland Affairs Council in Taipei is said to have gone silent, had been threatening such an outcome if President Tsai refused to utter the wording dictated by the Chinese side.

Continue reading “Radio Silence in the Taiwan Strait? Think Again”

Tsai’s Timidity Risks Squandering Mandate

Written by Ben Goren.

In Taiwan there are ominous signs that newly elected President Tsai Ing-wen, her Premier Lin Chuan, and his cabinet, may be so scared of governing with fortitude and in defence of progressive principles that they are developing a political flinch in anticipation of an inevitable hostile reaction to their policies. This attitude is surprising given that the DPP has recently won the Presidency with a clear majority and gained a solid working majority in the Legislative Yuan for the first time. Taiwanese voted for a break from the ideology and policies of the KMT. Will Tsai deliver? Continue reading “Tsai’s Timidity Risks Squandering Mandate”

The KMT responds to loss: Trauma management and mimetic distortion

Written by Stephane Corcuff.

It could have been the first civic protest against Taiwan’s new government of Premier Lin Chuan and President Tsai Ying-wen. Or, like the Sunflower movement, an expression of the discontent of the civil society, expressed independently from the old political establishment. And it could also have been a surge of imagination to create a brighter future, a way out of old, non-participative politics. The May 31, 2016 street movement, in front of the Legislative Yuan, was the first to be organized after Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration on May 20. After only ten days in existence, the government of Premier Lin Chuan was in effect being denied the opportunity to deliver its first address to the Parliament.

Before 08:00 on May 31, one or two hundreds of elderly pig farmers – at least that was how they were identified by speakers on the stage – had converged on Qingdao East Road 青島東路, close to the main door of Taiwan’s legislative body, and one of the main sites of activity outside the legislative Yuan during the Sunflower movement (18 March – 10 April 2014). When they arrived, they found a fun-fair style stage with microphones, ready for a rally. Some in the KMT had informed the press the previous day that the party was planning “a major event”, one that would reveal the difficulties the KMT has in facing up to electoral defeat. Despite the DPP’s victory in “free and fair” elections in January, a big poster on stage claimed that “The DPP cheats votes” (“民進黨詐欺、 騙票”).


Protesters wearing various pig-related decorations and holding signs and banners converged at the intersection of Zhenjiang street 鎮江街 and Qingdao East Road 青島東路, one of the now legendary spaces of the Sunflower movement, to criticize the possibility that Tsai’s government may lift a ban on importing American pork containing traces of Ractopamine, a feed additive that enhances meat leanness used by the US pork industry but banned in Taiwan. A French observer of Taiwanese politics nicknamed the event “OccuPig Legislative Yuan” when he later saw a picture by the Central News Agency of the big polystyrene pig being smuggled into the Legislative Yuan.

Enhancing Food Safety, Protecting Taiwanese

When I arrived on site, at 08:35, the main argument that could be heard was the necessity to protect the health of Taiwanese. When I left at 11:44, it was a long time since talk stopped being about pork imports, food safety and health concerns of “Taiwan Moms” (“台灣媽媽”). For the last half of the event, it had been all about how bad the DPP and the NPP are, and why the KMT was here to help.

What I first noticed on site was the age of the protesters: all of them were old. It was striking: not most people, but all of them. With time passing, bystanders came, intrigued. And as news channels finally arrived, looking for a possible remake of the Sunflower story, a few young journalist faces popped up too. By 10:00, a small group of four or five young men were on stage. They talked, inevitably, about Taiwan’s future. But their allotted time on stage was less than five minutes, and they were sandwiched between old KMT figures who monopolized the microphone. What a striking contrast with the youth-led Sunflower movement.


At 10:00 there were not many politicians on site, and everybody was speaking Taiwanese: the balance later shifted very obviously to Mandarin. The number of demonstrators was still quite low, although a large number of police were blocking two entrances to the legislature. I had expected a greater turnout, but the number probably reached no more than 500. The crowd was subdued most of the time, yet it was marked by an increasingly anger fostered by the stage politicians, loudspeakers, and ‘Taiwan Mammas’ blowing whistles in anticipation of the politicians’ arrival.

It soon became clear that the protest was political, with health concerns, pork imports and policy decisions relegated to afterthoughts. The stage filled up with KMT politicians, of different clans, happily reunited: Mrs Wang Hung-wei 王鴻薇, a KMT city councillor in Taipei, former spokeswoman and close aid to Hung Hsiu-chu; Mr Wu Yu-sheng 吳育昇, a KMT legislator who had just lost his seat in January; Mr Chen Ming-yi 陳明義, city counsellor in New Taipei; a city counsellor from Taiwan, Hsieh Lung-chieh謝龍介; a legislator from Nantou, Mrs Hsu Shu-hua許淑華; and several other KMT politicians including Chiang Ching-kuo’s grandson, the young Chiang Wan-an 蔣萬安. According to the United Daily News, also present were KMT legislators Lee Yan-hsiu李彥秀, Wang Hui-mei王惠美, Wang Yu-ming王育敏.


The ‘farmers’ had apparently not converged spontaneously without organisation, but were alerted by Facebook and social media calls to rally and protest. One speaker on the stage, Legislator Hsu Shu-hua, recognized in the small crowd, “friends from the countryside, coming from Nantou” (“來自南投縣的鄉親”). They were well prepared, decked out in all the relevant street demonstrator paraphernalia: horns, flags, signs, T-Shirts and banners.

While the Premier was being prevented to deliver his address to parliament and respond to questions, I wondered how to interpret this sentence by New Taipei City counsellor Chen Ming-yi, telling to the crowed : “The KMT is not against democracy, we are just again Lin Chuan who is oppressing us” (“我們不反對民主,我們只是反對欺負我們的林全”). It was clear by then that the whole event had been planned to stage a protest and prevent the new Premier from his duties. Just the day before, however, the head of the Council of agriculture, Tsao Chi-hung 曹啟鴻 had declared before the Legislature, during his hearing, that conditions were not ripe for lifting the ban. The KMT could not have been unaware of it, and it was reported by the Central News Agency.

The old folks present were mostly passive observers, sweating under a broiling sun. In addition to “pig farmers”, there were obviously some elder women’s organisations, calling themselves the “Taiwan Moms”, among the most vocal. Water had been prepared for distribution. Perhaps to mask the small number of demonstrators, or to incite them, the organizers had rented a small truck with screens on three sides showing pictures of demonstrators. Screens also showed short movies about the politicians vilified at the same moment on the stage: Tsai Ing-wen, Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chü 陳菊 (who was Tsai campaign manager and a veteran democracy activist) and legislators Kuan Pi-ling 管碧玲 and Chen Ting-fei 陳亭妃, all women.


Little by little the attacks became more personal. The most striking attack was on someone’s “brain”. Tsai was not directly mentioned, but the allusion was clear. A speaker on the stage said “The DPP has changed positions, and it now has a pig brain” (“民進黨換位置,就換豬腦袋”). Precautions had been taken not to mention her directly, yet the sentence, in a Taiwanese context, was clear for everyone. In addition, anybody who remembers the verbal attacks launched by some KMT members against Chen Shuibian will remember the officer of the ROC army who said that Chen had a “brain problem” and suggested he be “lobotomized”. The sentence was pronounced several times, in front of everyone. The author was Lin Teh-fu 林德福, convener of the KMT group at the Legislative Yuan. Yet, it would be wrong to imagine that it was just a sentence invented on-stage. As I turned my head to go on watching the crowd, I saw one, two, three banners with the very same words. They had been prepared for the event. The slogan had been designed, discussed, spread, written. It was not an on-site emotional invention. I could infer that, since Lin Teh-fu had been the only one to use this phrase on stage, and that he used it repeatedly, he was probably one of the main organizers of the event. It was confirmed by a press report that he and the notorious Alex Tsai (Tsai Cheng-yuan 蔡正元, probably the politician most vilified by the Sunflowers after Ma Ying-jeou) had indeed both planned the event.


As I was listening to the attacks launched on the DPP and the NPP – linked together – I noticed the re-appropriation and distortion of the Sunflower ethical, tactical, symbolic and rhetorical heritage. It was now clear: the KMT was behind all this, judging from the increasing number of KMT politicians now on stage, and was recycling what its politicians had learnt at their expense two years before:

  • They initially tried to call upon the policemen to side with them (I heard sentences like “Friends from the police, unite with us and open the doors of the LY”). The Sunflowers had called the police to side with them, too; they failed, but did not, in the end, attack policemen verbally for doing their duty, which the KMT politicians did very earlier on;
  • They tried to “invade” the parliament. However, considering the situation, it was doomed to fail, even though protesters were far more numerous than the students who entered the LY on the night of March 18;
  • They mobilized the “black box” rhetoric. Though nothing has been yet decided on the pork issue, and it was announced that more debate and a consensus was necessary, we still could read some placards criticizing “black box decision making”;
  • Flyers and posters portraying President Tsai with a pig nose recalled President Ma depicted with deer antlers by the Sunflowers;
  • A speaker alleged that the police had sent reinforcements from southern Taiwan, reminiscent of what had happened during the Sunflower movement, though in this case a baseless rumour;
  • Last but not least, as the KMT has done many times in recent years, the rhetoric of “protecting the nation” was used to exhort Tsai not to be “a traitor to the nation”…


Unlike the Sunflower movement, where the DPP was largely absent, overtaken by events, here the KMT was all over the protest. The activity all revolved around the stage in a traditional, hierarchical one-way relation, with politicians incensing souls in the very same place where, two years ago, there were stages with continuous debates. The KMT did not depart from a very traditional mode of political mobilization where the crowed is regularly asked “好不好?” or “是不是?” (“right?”), where everyone is invariably supposed to reply by a “yes”.

This old style of politics will surely go on, as if the Sunflower x NTICs x g0v revolution of digital civic consciousness had not happened. g0v, 臨時政府, refers to the galaxy of Taiwanese IT civic geeks who are inventing new forms of popular participation and supervision of governance, deeply engaged in open access government sources, among other reflections on how to transform representative democracy.

At a moment when Taiwan is contributing deeply to a world movement of reinvention of democracy though civic monitoring and deliberative democracy, the KMT acts as if it had no other way to mobilize people than convoying protesters to Taipei by buses, with the promise of free water and bento lunches. And, judging from the number of people present, it failed miserably. But my point here is not, actually, to compare the movements: they are immensely different.

What I want to illustrate is how a particular set of values has been appropriated and reused, and turned by the KMT against those who initiated it – the Sunflower students, and, beyond, the DPP, the NPP which was founded after the Sunflower movement, and the Taiwanese nation.

It is not the first time the KMT has used this strategy of appropriating its adversary’s strategy and discourse. During the 2008 campaign, the KMT clearly appropriated the green camp’s Taiwanese nationalism rhetoric – at least, on the surface. During Chen Shui-bian’s tenure, KMT rhetoric was heavily focused on ousting the supposedly illegitimate Chen. As a result, the 2008 campaign was heavily based on “give us back our Taiwan” (“換我台灣”), “saving Taiwan” (“救台灣”) and “protecting Taiwan” (“保衛台灣”), only to see Ma Ying-jeou’s rhetoric abandoning the word “Taiwan” after being elected, in favour of “the Republic of China” that was seldom heard of during his campaign.

During the Sunflower movement, opponents said they were defending democracy against a horde of students decided to ruin the efforts all Taiwanese had done to build their democracy. During the counter-protest organized on April 1 2014 by the White Wolf, Chang An-le 張安樂, I heard him and others saying that they wanted to “protect democracy” (“捍衛民主”), using the very slogan that the students were shouting in front of the nearby Legislative Yuan.

How do people react when the values they fight for are appropriated by others who then turn those values against them in a discursive conflict? How can they respond, when those who recycle their values, whether sincerely convinced or not that they themselves share such values, consciously avoid mentioning that they borrowed them from their opponent? And isn’t such a strategy precisely aimed at leaving them speechless? I cannot respond for militants, but watching this new development in Taiwanese politics in recent years, I feel a need to name this tactic with a word, or an expression, in order to help scholars studying Taiwan identify it more clearly.

Mimetic distortion and the imposition of silence

What we can see at play is a mimetic strategy, in which distortion is conscious and voluntary; it organizes a rhetorical disconnection with reality, acting as a mirror that sends a deformed image. Mimetic distortion aims at leaving the expropriated ones speechless, after depriving them of the very values that they used and mobilized to build their own legitimacy and discourse. It hopes to stun them with its apparent self-assurance in claiming values, rhetoric and strategies appropriated from them. Hence the fact that the appropriating party remains silent about its theft, as doing so would undermine the legitimacy of its rhetoric and expose its strategy. This reminds me of what anthropologist Jérôme Soldani has described as a legitimisation attempt by the KMT in its appropriation of baseball.

Naming this strategy can help us identify it whenever it is used in Taiwanese politics, by whichever camp. For mimetic distortion blurs lines consciously and confuses minds purposely, and should be considered a factor in political debate in Taiwan. As an example, during the Sunflower movement, when the former gangster Chang An-le was calling for his (very few) supporters on site to “protect Taiwan’s democracy”, some “Taiwan Moms” standing next to me were applauding his declarations. But they were also applauding what students were saying. Both sides were calling for Taiwanese to protect their democracy, but one is known to also advocate openly the unification of Taiwan with the People’s Republic of China.

In Homi Bhabha’s notion of “mimicry”, the colonized imitate colonizers, but never fully become the same. There are substantial differences between “mimicry” and “mimetic distortion”. In the mimetic distortion, the one who appropriates is consciously creating the distortion, while in the mimicry by the colonized, the difference is an automatic result of the impossibility to make an exact replica, and of the strategy by the colonizer to limit this imitation. In addition to this first difference, we see in the KMT case that it is the former dominating minority who appropriates the values of the former majority it used to dominate, and not the opposite. Last, appropriation does not mean that the values are appropriated to be regarded as one’s own, but to deprive the formerly ruled majority of the values that helped it build its national narrative and its legitimacy as his own ruler.

The May 31 appropriation attempt of the Sunflower legend by these KMT politicians shows how the defeated KMT is unable to accept that Taiwan doesn’t belong to them any more. It shows that the colonial minority they represent does not accept Taiwan’s new political order. For them, party change is an aporia, a crisis, and not an occasion to rebuild its platform, rejuvenate its elite, and adapt to new socio-political realities. After all, the new government was inaugurated just 10 days before the event, and one of the protesters’ demands was the Premier’s resignation. This part of the KMT has never accepted democracy. I wrote a long paper on this in the aftermath of the KMT’s campaign for the 2004 presidential election, speaking of the bitter taste of democracy for those who do not believe in it.

Managing a trauma

Why did the KMT politicians of this May 31 movement seem so concerned with mimicking the Sunflower movement? Why did they explicitly re-use some of the most fundamental elements, themes and gestures of the Sunflowers’ symbolic memorabilia, such the hyper-iconic “black box” (黑箱) theme?


Is this strategy of mimetic distortion simply a sign that the Sunflower culture of street occupation is now so powerfully imprinted on Taiwanese politics that the KMT itself, the primary target of the Sunflower movement, had no other choice than appropriating, re-enacting, transforming, and diverting (some would say ‘perverting’) the set of values it has been a “victim” of?

The artificial nature of the show, and the fact that, beyond appearances, the KMT rally was in fact typically traditional suggests not. The KMT has yet to find a platform and vehicle for mobilizing the youth behind its ideas. It can’t count on popular mobilization self-organized by social media, and instead relies on the old tactic of bussing people in from Taiwan’s south (a tactic the DPP used to great effect many years ago).

The reason why the KMT chose to organize a rally mimicking (or mocking) the Sunflowers may have more to do with the psychology of politicians so used to monopolizing power in Taiwan that being an opposition party is difficult to conceive for them as a normal process of democratic alternation. In addition, never has the KMT experienced such an enormous defeat since 1949, at every level of government, local and national, executive and legislative. After the January 2016 defeat, the KMT has been taken over by the faction of the party which is the most out of touch with Taiwanese society and its leading identity trends regarding unification with China. We should forget about pig farmers and pork meat imports. The KMT – at least those of the KMT represented here – was simply seeking symbolic revenge and psychological relief. In the coming period it will seek many others.

I witnessed on May 31 a form of trauma management – not representing the whole KMT for sure. The mock re-enactment of the Legislature siege, because it had no chance to succeed and because the organizers knew it, was an outlet for this trauma, a post-electoral revenge that required those politicians to seize the tools of the green camp, to express through the adversary’s own language their contempt, and, most importantly, to externalize their anger and their sense of crisis.

Considering that no decision has been taken on US pork imports, and in view of what has been described above about the organization of a non-spontaneous protest, it can be argued that the movement had nothing to do with a civic movement, and was pure political show. The KMT organized the protest, recruited protesters, asked for the legal permission to stage a protest, designed slogans and posters, and built a stage in advance. The police was informed early enough to be prepared and in position by the time the protest started. At the most heated moment, five rows of officers in front of the main entrance protected the Legislature.

It seems clear that no organizer imagined that penetrating the Legislative Yuan would ever be possible. In fact, the re-enactment of the invasion of the chamber did not fail, because no invasion was ever planned. Who could imagine ageing “pig farmers” (who were probably not pig farmers at all), storming the legislature and occupying it? With the precedent of the Sunflowers, the legal declaration of the protest a day in advance, and the important police deployment, there was not a single chance for any protester to climb the fence and successfully penetrate into the compound. I hence witnessed an organized simulacrum. Several KMT Legislators, among whom Huang Chao-shun 黃昭順, repeatedly called for the police to “take away the barbed-wire barricades” (撤拒馬). Yet, there was no barbed wire, and with the small number of persons on site, everyone could easily see it. The play was supposed to end at 12, and it ended at 12:00 sharp.

How should Taiwanese consider incumbent legislators calling for a crowd to besiege and occupy the very Legislature to which they were elected?

Dr Stephane Corcuff is Associate professor at the University of Lyon, France, and researcher at CEFC, Taipei office. He tweets @stephanecorcuff. All images by the author.

Taiwan in Transition

Written by Gwenyth Wang.

On May 20th Taiwan will inaugurate its first female President, Dr Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Some Western observers like Richard Bush and media such as The Economist have expressed worries about the potential hurdles in cross-Strait relations. While the possibility of increasing tensions between China and Taiwan should not be ruled out, the debate on cross-Strait relations needs to be re-framed more carefully and correctly. With the tremendous transition facing Taiwan politically and economically, it is equally important for the West and Beijing to understand Taiwan’s past to understand what Taiwan might become in the future.

Re-balancing cross-Strait relations

The world is waiting expectantly for Tsai’s inauguration speech, which is expected to provide an outline of her cross-Strait policy and the blueprint for her future governance. Since her party won the presidency and control of the Legislature in January, Beijing has repeatedly called on Tsai to accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” and the notion that “the two sides belong to one China”.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping once said that without the “1992 Consensus”, which he called a “magic compass that calms the sea”, “the ship of peaceful development will meet with great waves and even suffer total loss”. Ever since the 2016 general elections, Beijing and Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) have been launching a series of tactics, demanding Taiwan’s incoming president to accept the “1992 Consensus” in her inauguration speech. Beijing wants to constrain Tsai in this China-centric historical framework as a means to ensure that Taiwan would not claim independence during Tsai’s term. The KMT, on the other hand, is worried that they will lose their key role as a mediator between China and Taiwan. The gloomy state of Taiwan’s economy under the eight year KMT rule has left the party only one card to play; cross-Strait relations. Just a week before Tsai’s inauguration, KMT Chair Hung Hsiu-chu openly said that if cross-Strait relations deteriorate because of the incoming government, the KMT would not avoid the responsibility to help mediate”. In other words, the KMT will invite itself to meddle in cross-Strait relations if their development does proceed in the way they would like.

The magical phrase, “1992 Consensus”, is a term former KMT MAC Minister Su Chi admitted he made up in 2000, and has been defined by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Office (MAC) as “one China, with two respective interpretations”. Despite how President Ma Ying-Jeou and his party have rigorously advocated the importance of the phrase to cross-Strait stability, it is Ma, the most disliked politician in Taiwan according to the latest TISR survey, who buried the magical phrase in the storybook during his meeting with Xi last November. Following this “historical Ma-Xi meeting” many local media expressed concern that Ma did not mention the “Republic of China” and the “respective interpretations” during his opening remarks. To pacify public concern, MAC in an official statement clarified that Ma did mention the “1992 Consensus of one China, two respective interpretations” at the closed-door meeting with Xi. Regardless, actions speak louder than words. This inconsistency cancelled out the historical meaning Ma could have achieved by meeting his Chinese counterpart.

Whilst Beijing has not ceased pressuring Tsai to accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” in her inauguration speech, the latest poll by the Taiwan Indicator Survey Research (TISR) found 51.7 per cent of Taiwanese people said that Tsai should not recognise the “1992 Consensus”, or the idea that “two sides belong to one China”. Should Chinese leader Xi Jinping continue to seriously look to “winning the hearts and minds” of Taiwanese people, perhaps he should adopt democratic rhetoric instead of imposing his “magic compass that calms the sea” on people living on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Greater public political participation, greater public scrutiny

Like any other relationship, it takes two to tango. In the course of cross-Strait development, Beijing will have to be aware of the fact that Taiwanese people have made it clear that they will not be “forced” to accept the “1992 consensus”, a term discussed by Beijing and a KMT government which was not even democratically elected by the Taiwanese people at the time.

Since Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996, today’s Taiwanese voters are still seeking greater political participation, as direct elections can only be counted as a beginning for democracy to take root in Taiwan. In the past decade, whether Taiwan’s authorities liked it or not, an emerging voice has risen and demanded the government to truly fulfil the rights stipulated in Article 17 of the Constitution, “the People should have the right of election, recall, initiative, and referendum”. Many student-led social movements have mushroomed since 2008. In 2013, a writer and a film director co-founded a recall movement, which later became a nation-wide civic initiative “Appendectomy Project” aiming to recall several “incompetent” legislators.

The momentum of Taiwanese public political participation reached fever pitch two years ago with the “Sunflower Movement”, when activists occupied the Parliament building for 24 days. They expressed their suspicion and opposition against opening up service industries to China. The movement resulted in a significant promise of public scrutiny when then Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-Pyng agreed to halt the review on the trade pact until a scrutiny bill for cross-Strait agreements was introduced. With a DPP-dominated Parliament being sworn in this year, the draft cross-Strait scrutiny bill will likely pass the Legislature and inject greater public scrutiny into the parliamentary reviewing process of any formal interaction between Taipei and Beijing.

The implication behind these social movements, greater public political participation and scrutiny will inevitably become a major stakeholder which Beijing has to take into account. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Taiwan’s dynamic and strong civil society has taken root in democratic soil. Given the complexity of cross-Strait relations, simply holding onto the “1992 Consensus” will not suffice to improve fragile ties. As now the Taiwanese society demands greater public scrutiny over the formation of any cross-Strait agreements, Beijing needs to engage with Taiwanese public, not coerce their leader.

Time to update the cross-Strait narrative

It is nearly a quarter of a century since 1992. Neither China nor Taiwan is the same as they were 25 years ago. China’s rising economic power has repositioned it on the centre of world stage, whereas Taiwan’s economy is in dire need of reform. Under such critical economic conditions, if closer cross-Strait economic ties under outgoing President Ma’s eight years governance could not bring unification any closer, nor will suspending economic and other cross-Strait interactions. It is time for Beijing and Taipei to find a new common ground for sustainable cross-Strait stability. The international community should also re-think the narrative of cross-Strait relations, instead of ignoring China’s provocations while pressing Taiwan to make concessions in the name of “stability”.

In her speech at CSIS last year, Tsai stressed that “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should treasure and secure the accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges. These accumulated outcomes will serve as the firm basis of my efforts to further the peaceful and stable development of cross-Strait relations”. Here, “the accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges” clearly included the cross-Strait negotiation held in Hong Kong in 1992 and a supposed understanding reached during the meeting later on that became the “1992 Consensus” coined by the KMT.

While she advocated constructive exchange and dialogue with China, Tsai also promised that she would ensure the process is democratic and transparent, and that the economic benefits are equitably shared. Whilst the ratio of Taiwanese identity stood at record high through the past 20 years at 73 per cent, a majority of 86.7 per cent of Taiwan people also said that they supported maintaining the status quo between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Furthermore, 68.2 per cent of Taiwanese citizens supported the incoming DPP government to negotiate with Beijing and come up with new grounds to replace the “1992 Consensus”. The collective will represented by Tsai Ing-wen is a voice for self-determination, stability and dialogue.

After inauguration, the ball will be in Beijing’s court. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once stated, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice”. Perhaps it is time for Xi to consider recalibrating his approach in dealing with the Taiwan issue. It doesn’t matter whether it is “1992 Consensus” or “1992 Meeting”, as long as it can contribute to cross-Strait stability. It is now time for Beijing and Taipei to re-engage on a new common ground and seek a new consensus.

Gwenyth Wang is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. Her research focus includes political communication, democratisation and youth’s political engagement in Taiwan. She is a longtime political observer and frequently shares her analysis on radio shows at Taiwan’s biggest English radio station, ICRT. Follow her on Twitter: @GwenythWR

Why Did the Ruling KMT Suffer a Humiliating Defeat in Taiwan’s 2016 Presidential Elections?

Written by T.Y. Wang.

Taiwan concluded its 2016 combined presidential and legislative elections on January 16. In a three-way presidential race, Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who was rejected by voters four years ago, won a landslide victory to become Taiwan’s first female president. Her opponent, Eric Chu of the ruling Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or the KMT), lost the election by a substantial margin of 3 million or 25 percent of the 12 million cast votes. The third presidential candidate, James Soong of the People’s First Party (PFP), garnered about 12 percent of the vote. The rout of the KMT also extended to the legislative election as the DPP secured a majority in the 113-seat legislature. For the first time in the Taiwan’s democratic history, the DPP took control of both the executive and legislative branches. Immediately after the election, Chu resigned the chairmanship of the Nationalist Party, as supporters of the DPP celebrated their historic victory. While the DPP’s electoral success should be credited to Tsai’s efforts of revitalizing the party since its humiliating defeat in 2008, the KMT’s disastrous setback in 2016 was more of its own doing.

Reasons for the KMT’s Crushing Defeat

 1. President Ma’s Low Approval Rating[1]

When the outgoing President, Ma Ying-jeou of the ruling KMT, won the election for his first term in 2008 and re-election in 2012, he promised to bring peace and stability between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, as well as economic prosperity to the Taiwanese people. For the past eight years, the Ma administration adopted an engagement policy toward China and expanded economic relationships between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. While cross-Strait trade and tourism have boomed, the economic reality is far from Ma’s campaign promises. Even as big businesses make profits, wages are stagnant, economic inequality has worsened and home ownership is beyond the reach of most citizens. Although the unemployment rate has finally dropped below 4% since 2014, it is higher than those of neighbouring countries. In particular, youth unemployment has been hovering around 12-13 percent between 2010 and 2015.[2]  The harsh economic realities have left many to feel that it is mainly businesses, not ordinary people, which have benefited from the expanded economic exchanges with China. With a stagnant economy and plateaued wages, the younger generation faces a grim prospect.

Surveys by the Election Study Center (ESC) of the National Chengchi University in Taiwan reflect this sentiment. As Figure 1 shows, since September 2012, Taiwanese citizens have consistently rated Ma poorly for his ability in handling matters related to the economy, as less than 20 percent of the public expressed satisfaction with his performance. Based on the results of another survey conducted only one week before the election, 65 percent of the citizens felt that the economy was worse than it was a year ago and such a feeling was prevalent across all age groups.[3]

 Wang_Fig 1

The public dissatisfaction with Ma’s performance is not limited to the economy. Shortly after he won re-election in 2012, several policy reforms the Ma administration initiated encountered fierce public opposition. These included permitting a rise in both gas and electricity prices, imposing a capital gains tax on securities transactions, and lifting restrictions on importing U.S. beef products.  All of these policy initiatives were perceived as hurting the public’s livelihood, contradicting his campaign promises. A series of food safety scandals between 2013-14 also led many to lose confidence in the government’s ability of providing a safe and prosperous living environment for its citizens. Moreover, in June 2012, a bribery scandal involving a major cabinet member, who had been repeatedly promoted by Ma, erupted. The scandal dealt a serious blow to Ma’s image as “Mr. Clean,” and the public further questioned his ability to appoint the right persons to key cabinet positions. The Ma administration was seen as incompetent, inefficient, and lacking intergovernmental coordination. As Figure 2 shows, Ma’s approval ratings suffered significantly, which dipped to as low as 11 percent between 2012 and 2015.

 Wang_Fig 2

Empirical research has shown that presidential popularity is the “causal agent” of presidential effectiveness. A high approval rating not only indicates more power and a greater ability to govern, it also affects the electoral fate of a president’s party members. Ma’s low approval rating thus became the KMT’s liability in the 2016 elections.

 2. China: the Silent Player

To its credit, the Beijing government restrained itself during the 2016 elections. Learning lessons from Taiwan’s 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, Chinese leaders realized that their sabre-rattling could only backfire. In both instances, candidates who they disapproved won the election as Beijing’s actions only hardened Taiwanese citizens’ resistance. Chinese leaders have since based their Taiwan policy mainly on economic exchanges, hoping that would lead to political integration. When Ma took office in 2008, he endorsed the “1992 Consensus,” a tacit understanding that the notion of “one China” should serve as the basis for cross-Strait interactions, without specifying precisely what it means. By accepting the notion of “one China”, along with his proclamation of the Three-noes policy, “no unification, no independence, and no use of military force,” Ma essentially reversed the pro-independence policies of his predecessor, former President Chen Shui-bian of the DPP. The Chinese government naturally has welcomed Ma’s policies. More than 20 agreements were reached between Taipei and Beijing during Ma’s presidency, including a landmark trade deal, in which the Chinese government made significant economic concessions. China is now Taiwan’s largest trading partner and the top destination of Taiwanese investments. Along with these economic activities, many business people shuttle routinely between the island and the Chinese mainland, while more than 3 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan in 2014. Chinese leaders, nevertheless, continue to treat Taiwan as a renegade province and refuse to renounce the use of military force against Taiwan. They also continue to impose diplomatic isolation on Taipei in the international community.

In this context, deepening cross-Strait economic relations raise the concerns of Taiwanese citizens, fearing that intense economic interactions with the Chinese mainland may increase Taiwan’s vulnerability. Beijing’s economic concessions, despite being quite generous, are viewed as a sugarcoated scheme aiming to annex Taiwan. Surveys by the Election Study Center (ESC) at National Chengchi University in Taiwan (Figure 3) show that support for expanding economic activities with China gradually declined from 44 and 56 percent between 2004 and 2008, to 37 and 42 percent between 2011 and 2015. But opposition to expanding cross-Strait economic ties grew during the same period and reached as high as 43 percent in 2013. Meanwhile, as Figure 4 shows, public disapproval of Ma’s engagement approach towards China reached 60 percent in 2014, culminating in a massive protest known as the Sunflower Movement. The lasting effect of this anti-China sentiment has contributed to the KMT’s disastrous loss in the 2014 local election and extended to the 2016 elections.

Wang_Fig 3 Wang_Fig 4

 3. A divided KMT

The KMT is notoriously susceptible to internal division. Indeed, it was a divided KMT that delivered the slim victory to the opposition DPP in the 2000 presidential election and thereby passed political power at the national level to another political party for the first time in the country’s democratic history. The KMT during Ma’s presidency was no exception. In September of 2013, Ma accused parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng of obstruction of justice and tried to expel Wang from the party. Although Ma’s attempt was not successful, it was perceived as a power struggle between factions, and severe strife within the party has since surfaced. Meanwhile, only four months before the 2016 presidential election, the KMT decided to drop the party’s first female presidential nominee, Hung Hsiu-chu, following a series of poor ratings in opinion polls. While Hung was officially nominated through a party-sanctioned procedure, she was replaced by the party’s chairman, Eric Chu. The episode, again, left many KMT core supporters feeling betrayed.

The demoralization effect of this series of events was clearly shown in the aforementioned ESC Survey conducted one week before the elections. Out of 2000 respondents, close to 2 percent of the KMT-led pan-Blue alliance supporters indicated that they would not vote or cast void votes if they had shown up at the polls at all. This translates into a loss of more than 300 thousand votes lost to the KMT.  More importantly, the PFP, which shares the same electoral base with the KMT, received a substantial boost to 12.8 percent of presidential votes from just 2.76 percent four years ago.  It is plausible to speculate that many pan-Blue alliance supporters switched their backing to the PFP.

In summary, the crushing defeat of the KMT in the 2016 combined presidential and legislative elections was mainly due to Ma’s poor performance, the party’s China-friendly policy and internal strife.

Looking Ahead

Both the KMT and the DPP are facing serious challenges in the coming period. For the KMT, the humiliating electoral defeat suggests the party needs to do some serious soul-searching. Should it adjust its engagement policy with China? How should it connect to the younger generation and energize its base? It will need a strong leader who can help the party to identify a direction and navigate through this troubling time.

As the ruling party of Taiwan, the DPP will have to deal with two closely related issues: the economy and cross-Strait relations. As previously indicated, Taiwan’s economy has suffered slow growth, wages are stagnant and economic inequality worsens. The political gridlock during Ma’s tenure has created an unfriendly investment environment, despite Taiwan’s highly skilled workforce and strategic location in East Asia. The Tsai administration will need to take serious measures to revitalize investors’ confidence. Complicating the matter is  the Taiwanese economy’s dependence on the Chinese market. As a trade-dependent economy, about 25% of Taiwan’s annual exports go to China. A stable cross-Strait relationship with Beijing will be important not only for its own right but also for Taiwan’s  economy.

Tsai has made it clear that she will not endorse the “1992 consensus.” Beijing leaders have been alarmed by Tsai’s stance because the core of the Consensus is an acknowledgement of the notion of “one China.” In their view, a rejection of the “1992 Consensus” is a step toward Taiwan’s independence. They therefore warned that cross-Strait relationship would suffer catastrophic consequences should the Consensus be rejected. In her post-election speech, Tsai pledged that her administration “will build a consistent, predictable, and sustainable cross-strait relationship… [that is based on] the Republic of China’s constitutional order, the results of cross-strait negotiations, interactions and exchanges, and democratic principles and the will of the Taiwanese people.”  Unlike former President Chen, who adopted a series of pro-independence policies that angered Beijing and irked Washington, Tsai is cautious and her statements are moderate and reassuring.  The essence of her message is the maintenance of status quo. The challenge is finding a proper formula, whatever it is, that would meet Beijing’s perceived needs and satisfy her domestic constituencies. Given that the DPP controls both the executive and the legislative branches of the government, she will need to resist the domestic pressure from her fundamentalist supporters who are likely to take advantage of the newly found political power to pursue their more provocative objectives. Otherwise, cross-Strait relationships during Tsai’s tenure as Taiwan’s president could get very messy.

T.Y. Wang is professor of political science at Illinois State University. He is the co-editor of Journal of Asian and African Studies. He was the Coordinator of the Conference Group of Taiwan Studies (CGOTS) of the American Political Science Association.

[1] For a systematic analysis of Ma’s popularity, see T.Y. Wang and Su-feng Cheng. “Presidential Approval in Taiwan: An Analysis of Survey Data in the Ma Ying-jeou Presidency.” Electoral Studies, v.40 (2015): 34-44.

[2] The 2015 unemployment rates for Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea were 2.0%, 3.3%, 3.6%, and 3.5%, respectively. <;. Accessed Jan. 20, 2015.

[3] Su-feng Cheng. 2016. “Generational Differences of Taiwan Citizens’ Identity and the Political Implications.” Election Study Center, National Chengchi University.

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