As politics in Taiwan are often viewed through the prism of the island’s relationship with its larger neighbor across the strait, the landslide victory by Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the January 16 presidential and legislative elections was proclaimed by many Western analysts as a resounding defeat for mainland China. The election was undeniably an unequivocal defeat for China, but not for the reasons most people think.
Polls showed that the Taiwanese electorate, much like the U.S. electorate, is more concerned with domestic matters—especially economic ones that affect them personally—than issues outside of the island’s borders, including relations with mainland China. The DPP tailored its campaign strategy with this in mind and cruised to victory in large part by avoiding the topic of the island’s relationship with China and focusing instead on domestic problems.
President-elect Tsai Ing-wen personally insisted time and time again during the campaign that she would not take any “provocative” action toward China if elected president. In a post-election speech, DPP Secretary General Joseph Wu also specifically cautioned against seeing the election results as “China’s defeat,” stating that neither China itself nor Taiwan’s relations with it were the focal point of the election.
Beyond economic and other domestic issues, the internal problems of the opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), contributed in no small part to its defeat and the DPP’s victory. Only 66.3 percent of Taiwan’s electorate voted in this election, a much lower turnout than in the island’s five previous presidential elections. The likely reason for the drop in voter turnout was KMT supporters’ disillusionment with their own party, which they demonstrated by abstaining from voting entirely.
Furthermore, James Soong of the People First Party, a party that generally favors closer ties with China, emerged with a comparatively strong performance in this election—receiving 12.8 percent of the votes—relative to the votes he received four years ago, a mere 2.8 percent. Traditional KMT supporters’ decision to not participate in the election or to vote for another candidate that also favors closer relations with China—both of which contributed to the KMT’s defeat and thereby assured the DPP of victory—cannot be seen as intentional decisions by voters to unequivocally reject ties with China. In this sense, the voting behavior of the traditional KMT base in this election supports what the DPP has openly asserted—that this election was not all about China.
Rather than casting ballots with the singular intent of demonstrating anti-China sentiments, the Taiwanese electorate appears to have gone to the polls with little or no thought of China at all. It is well known that polls in Taiwan show an increasing number of people identifying as “Taiwanese” only, which correlates to the shrinking number of people who see themselves as “Chinese.” Although this survey question does give respondents the option of identifying as “both Chinese and Taiwanese,” more often than not, Taiwanese identity has been conceived of as antithetical to a Chinese identity—in other words, to be “Taiwanese” has correlated with the notion that one is “not Chinese,” or at least “not mainland Chinese.”
But this election may serve as this reminder: to see the “Taiwanese” identity as wholly or even primarily in terms of what it is not gives too much credit to China, in the same way that viewing the 2016 election solely or primarily in the context of “China’s defeat” would be attributing too much importance to the role that China plays in the lives and decisions of people in Taiwan.
Just as U.S. voters traditionally go to the polls thinking much more about their own economic security than relations with other countries in the world, it appears that the mentality of Taiwanese voters has become not much different. In other words, when people in Taiwan go about their day-to-day activities and think about whom to vote for in terms of how that candidate will impact their daily lives, relations between mainland China and Taiwan are not at the forefront of their thoughts.
China, in the minds of Taiwan’s electorate, may be just another country with whom ties can help the Taiwanese economy, no different in that regard from Japan, Singapore, Korea, the United States or any other country in the world with whom Taiwan could have beneficial economic relations. In essence, just as one identifies as “American” not only because he or she does not feel a sense of belonging to Canada, Britain or any other country, one should remember that to be “Taiwanese” increasingly does not merely mean “not Chinese.”
This is bad news for the People’s Republic of China. Winning the hearts and minds of a group of people for whom “Taiwanese or Chinese?” is still a valid question means that at least the battle is ongoing and thus can still be won by the Chinese side. But trying to win over a group of people who see China as foreign a country as Canada or Britain is to Americans today is a different matter.
For China’s unification ambitions, this defeat is perhaps even worse than if Taiwan’s electorates had cast their ballots for the DPP with the desire to roll back ties with the mainland, as this election demonstrated instead that China was and is becoming less and less of a presence in the very hearts and minds that it is trying to win.
Euhwa Tran is a senior associate at the EastWest Institute. This article has previously been published on the EastWest Institute Policy Innovation Blog.