A year has passed since the Sunflower Student Movement erupted, shifting Taiwan’s political landscape. In March 2014, a group of students in Taiwan occupied its legislature for 23 days to protest a trade pact with the Mainland supported by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). Subsequently, in November, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) routed the ruling KMT, a result seen as a major barometer of the presidential race in 2016.
Having evaluated the changing political landscape in Taiwan, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has started to engage with the DPP, preparing for a scenario in which the pro-independence DPP returns to power next year. Cross-strait relations appear to be no longer an exclusive game for the KMT and the CPC. Still, the DPP will need to be convincing on the challenges of managing relations with China and the U.S. if it is to be victorious in 2016.
Four political phenomena have emerged in Taiwan since the Sunflower Movement, and have the potential to both influence the development of cross-strait relations and play a major role in Taiwan’s presidential elections in 2016.
First, the student movement demonstrates the natural trend towards deeper democracy since Taiwan’s democratization in the 1990s. An increasing number of Taiwanese are willing to express their frustrations and concerns with the government, especially among the younger generation. A post-election survey released in December 2014 by Taiwan Thinktank indicated that the younger generation is no longer indifferent to politics and is willing to come out to vote, and this had a significant impact on the November’s election.
Second, the March protests reflect the public’s accumulating dissatisfaction with the perceived governance failings of the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou. Food-safety scandals and concerns about Taiwan’s economic competitiveness were issues close to people’s daily lives and were seen as priorities that the government needed to address first. While people prioritized bread-and-butter issues such as stagnant salaries and soaring housing prices, the government put too much emphasis on the service trade pact and internationalization, amplified public discontent and placed the DPP in a strong position in the run up to Taiwan’s 2016 election.
Third, Ma’s policy of engaging China also produced two outcomes that many found disturbing. On the one hand, the promotion of cross-strait exchange over the past seven years created the unintended consequence of accelerating people’s detachment from the Mainland. The frequent cross-strait exchanges – more than 10 million Chinese tourists have visited Taiwan since 2008 – have allowed people in Taiwan to personally witness the difference between themselves and Mainland Chinese. On the other hand, some Taiwanese have started to worry that the Ma administration is leaning “too close” to Beijing: The rapid pace of exchanges that started with economic and people-to-people interactions seven years ago appear to portend an early start to Taiwan’s political negotiations with the Mainland. To hold the government in check, Sunflower student protesters called on the government to halt the enforcement of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement before the government creates and passes a uniform supervisory bill covering all cross-strait agreements.
Finally, the Sunflower Student Movement reflected the rise of a Taiwanese national identity. According to a recent poll conducted by the Taiwan Brain Trust in February 2015, if given the option of being “Taiwanese” or “Chinese,” 89.5 percent of the respondents would identify themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese.” This result is not just fallout from the March protest, but is part of a steady trend over recent decades. Annual polls by National Cheng-chi University’s Election Study Center in Taiwan shows that the number of people who would identify themselves as Chinese has dropped from 10.5 percent in 1992 to 3.5 percent in 2014, while the number of people identifying themselves as Taiwanese has grown from 17.6 percent to 60.4 percent in 2014. In contrast to public doubts about the KMT’s engaging China policy, the rising Taiwanese identity and dwindling Chinese identity in Taiwan appear to accord with the DPP’s pro-independence policy, which potentially expands the DPP’s public support for the presidential election in 2016.
In early March 2015, Ma reaffirmed that his administration would continue its cross-strait policy to maintain the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. This policy rests on two pillars: 1) no announcement of unification or independence and no use of force to resolve cross-strait issues; and 2) promoting the peaceful development of cross-strait relations based on the 1992 consensus that accepts the “one China” concept but allows the two sides to have their respective interpretations. As expected, Ma’s position appears to have been welcomed by Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated on March 4 that the “1992 consensus” is the basis of cross-strait trust and that Beijing opposes Taiwanese independence.
However, the KMT needs to face domestic pressure to regain the public’s confidence after its landslide defeat in November’s elections. Polls published in February 2015 by the Taiwan Braintrust suggest that the KMT still lags the DPP in both party favorability ratings and satisfaction with party leaders. To win next year, the KMT’s focus will need to be domestic –a re-examination of its China policy, which has begun to generate concerns among the Taiwanese people that closer ties with the Mainland could alter the nature of cross-strait relations.
While the KMT’s major issues are domestic, the DPP’s challenges mainly originate from outside the island, and concern the CPC and the United States. The DPP needs to clarify its cross-strait policy in a way that is acceptable to both the CPC and the United States, so as to assure the Taiwanese public that relations will remain peaceful and stable.
On the DPP’s relations with the CPC, it is still unclear whether there will be policy compatibility. On April 10, DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen explained that the party’s principle for handling cross-strait relations was “maintaining the status quo” and fulfilling its responsibility to maintain peaceful and stable relations between Taiwan and China.
Although the concept of “maintaining the status quo” appears to be a diversion from DPP’s previous pro-independence plank, which is fundamentally at odds with CPC’s opposition to any attempt to separate Taiwan from China, there have been few concrete explanations of the meaning of the term. Still, the DPP’s continuous rejection of the “1992 consensus,” which Beijing regards as the basis for regular communications between Taiwan and the Mainland, has hindered the development of DPP-CPC relations.
As for the United States, even though it has a strong interest in Taiwan’s continued democratic growth, it has an equally significant interest in preserving the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait. The DPP’s refusal to rule out the option of independence for Taiwan could still spawn concerns for Washington.
Although the DPP does not have to accept the concept of “1992 consensus,” it would benefit from cross-strait stability, which it might achieve by trying to find ways to narrow its differences with the CPC, and to meet the concerns of the United States and the Taiwanese people. The best time for the DPP to explicate its stance on China will be later this year when Tsai visits Washington D.C. If Tsai cannot do this, “she will not be able to pass the test easily,” according to Barbara Schrage, a former official of the American Institute in Taiwan in March 2015.
Emily S Chen is a recent graduate from Stanford University with a Master’s degree in East Asian Studies and a focus on international relations. She is a Silas Palmer Fellow with the Hoover Institution and is also a Young Leader with the Pacific Forum CSIS. Emily tweets @emilyshchen.