Lessons from Taiwan

Recent Features


Lessons from Taiwan

With the dust having settled after Taiwan’s election, it’s clear Taiwanese want the status quo. Do China and Washington get it?

The first big election of 2012 took place in Taiwan last month. For nearly 12 hours, the gaze of the island’s electorate and the international community were glued to the tallies reported by the Central Election Commission. Supporters of the ruling-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) amassed at their respective headquarters, international observers shuffled from voting station to voting station, and waves of people were nestled at bars and restaurants to wait for the results.

Around 13.2 million Taiwanese voters cast ballots, representing about 74 percent of the eligible voters – a number that any nation would be proud of. So what can we learn from the 2012 elections that would better prepare us for the next four years? Perhaps more importantly, what do the 2012 elections portend for 2016?

In the lead up to the vote, many local and international commentaries fueled the public imagination by throwing into sharp relief each and every difference between the candidates, parsing every statement, facial expression, and syllable uttered. To be sure, the candidates weren’t the same, but while the differences are clear, the similarities in the solutions offered by the two major political parties got buried in the hype.

Most political analysts were expecting a very close race, so it came as something of a surprise that President Ma Ying-jeou won by six percentage points, with 51.6 of the vote, compared to DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen’s 45.6 percent. The third candidate, James Soong of the People First Party (PFP), performed more poorly than many analysts expected and received only 2.8 percent.

Ostensibly, the election results may well have exceeded even the KMT’s own expectations. In his victory speech, Ma announced:

“The people of Taiwan have also given me a clear mandate: they want me to do all I can to complete Taiwan’s new historic mission.”

Explaining this “historic mission,” Ma added:

“We have been re-elected because the people affirmed our efforts to reject corruption and adhere to clean governance. They also affirmed our efforts to open up, liberalize and revitalize the economy. The public has also affirmed our setting aside disputes to secure cross-Strait peace, turning crisis into business opportunities.”

While the result was a far cry from a “clear mandate,” the election still represented an important benchmark in cross-Strait relations. However, Ma was careful to tread carefully around this issue:

“Once I begin my second term of office, at least once every six months I shall invite political leaders not in government to jointly discuss national affairs, in the hope that we can really identify policies that benefit the people, so that everyone strives together on Taiwan’s behalf.”

Ma’s re-election was interpreted by some outside observers as an endorsement of the so-called “1992 Consensus.” Yet if his re-election was a clear mandate, then why did he extend this apparent olive branch? One reason may be because the KMT knew that the election results weren’t an endorsement of the “1992 Consensus.” Indeed, at most it demonstrated the public’s confidence in his capabilities to manage Taiwan’s future for the next four years.

For Beijing and Washington, the stakes in Taiwan’s 2012 elections were stacked unreasonably high. To be sure, a lot rode on the elections – the winner of the presidential race holds the top executive office for the next four years. And a sweep by either political party in the parliamentary elections would have given it control over the legislative agenda (although no one really expected that to happen). However, an unattributed statement by an unnamed senior U.S. official in September raising questions about Tsai’s ability to lead and the barrage of verbal assaults on the DPP’s presidential candidate by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office gave the impression that the elections were, at least from Washington’s and Beijing’s perspectives, a zero-sum game.

This is a dangerous misreading of the election, and prompted misleading conclusions about what the results of the elections would actually mean for cross-Strait relations. Certainly, the bifocal lens used by Washington to analyze the election overlooked the many nuances that emerged through this election.Tsai’s concession speech threw these subtleties into sharp relief:

“Taiwan can’t afford to be without an opposition voice or be without checks and balances. Even though we won’t be able to achieve our ideals from a governing role in the next four years, this doesn’t mean that the opposition will have no power.”

Too many observers saw a false dichotomy in this election, believing that anything that happens in Taiwan either leads Taiwan toward “independence” or “unification.” This conceptualization of cross-Strait development tends to push people to overreact and miss one of the most important points: Since 2008, there has been a fundamental shift in the orientation of the Taiwanese electorates’ away from unification or independence.

An interesting case in point: Taiwanese identity, which drove a wedge through the electorate in previous elections, was becoming less and less of an electoral issue. This doesn’t mean that Taiwanese identity is decreasing – on the contrary, according to a poll released by TVBS in early 2011, when respondents were asked whether they were Chinese or Taiwanese, 72 percent responded “Taiwanese,” while 17 percent responded “Chinese.” This compares with a poll by researchers at Academia Sinica in 2004, in which 45.7 percent of respondents identified themselves as Taiwanese, which itself was an increase from 1991, when just 13.6 percent did so.

Such polling data is significant because it shows that despite the rapid expansion of economic, cultural and political ties between the island and the mainland, the people increasingly identify themselves as Taiwanese. Taiwanese identity has, it seems, been consolidated into the mainstream consciousness of the voters.

The fact is that Taiwan isn’t on an inevitable path of unification under the People’s Republic of China, nor is it headed on a path toward independence. The status quo, at least in Taiwan, has therefore seen an emerging societal consensus, prompting a corresponding consensus among the DPP and KMT on Taiwan’s sovereign status.

Of course, if Taiwan’s sovereign status is threatened, or at least seen to be at risk, then people’s attitudes could change and both parties’ policies may shift from this more pragmatic approach.  After all, democratization is a dynamic process. The danger for the United States in the meantime, though, would be to draw the wrong conclusion from the 2012 election result, one that could lead to more misguided knee-jerk reactions.

Ultimately, the onus is on Ma to live up to his re-election promise to include the opposition in formulating a “national” cross-Strait policy. But Washington should take active measures to shore up Taiwan’s sovereignty, while the Chinese Communist Party should think out of the box and engage the DPP. If all fail to hold up their end, then the U.S. and China shouldn’t be surprised if they face two very different political parties – and electorate – when Taiwan heads to the polls in 2016.

L.C. Russell Hsiao is a senior research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute in Washington. H.H. Michael Hsiao is a distinguished research fellow and director of the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica in Taipei.