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Taiwan’s Biggest Problems Are at Home (Not Across the Strait)

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China Power

Taiwan’s Biggest Problems Are at Home (Not Across the Strait)

Domestic struggles, not cross-strait relations, are contributing to Tsai Ing-wen’s falling approval ratings.

Taiwan’s Biggest Problems Are at Home (Not Across the Strait)
Credit: Taiwan Presidential Office

The first half year of Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency has seen her approval rating steadily fall among Taiwanese. A close look at her performance reveals a somewhat surprising fact — troubles in domestic governance, rather than the much-expected cooling-off in cross-strait relations, have been the primary driver of her diminishing popularity. Given her limited options in improving ties with Beijing and promoting Taiwan’s international status, Tsai must prioritize domestic tasks and quickly ensure some positive policy outcomes to turn the tide. If she fails, the stability of the Taiwan Strait, East Asia, and the Sino-U.S. relationship will eventually face greater danger.

Tsai’s External Predicament 

The Tsai administration’s current setbacks on the external front were expected, despite her substantial efforts. Ever since victory for her traditionally pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in January’s elections became a near certainty, Tsai has been managing the daunting challenge of maintaining stability over the Taiwan Strait — or, in plainer terms, preventing cross-strait ties from deteriorating significantly. Maintaining the status quo replaced the “Taiwan consensus” promoted in the 2012 presidential race as the slogan of her cross-strait policy. Tsai made additional efforts to narrow the gap between the DPP and Beijing. In her inauguration speech, she acknowledged the 1992 meeting between the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (semi-official organizations authorized by the Taipei and Beijing governments) as an undeniable “historical fact,” vowed to rule “in accordance with the Constitution of the Republic of China,” and called for talks with Beijing. She reiterated these points in her national day speech on October 10.

Sadly, the gap was simply too wide to bridge, with Beijing insisting on her acceptance of the “1992 Consensus,” a political euphemism referring to the “agreement” that both sides belong to “one China” while having different interpretations of “one China” means. Accordingly, in the wake of Tsai’s inauguration, Beijing suspended official communication with Taipei, reduced the number of Chinese tourists to the island, and took measures to shore up the DPP’s political rival, the Kuomintang (KMT).

Given Beijing’s current clout on the regional and global stage, Taiwan is keenly feeling the repercussions of the cooling in cross-strait ties on its participation in international organizations. Despite support from the United States, both the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) have snubbed Taipei’s requests to attend assembly meetings.

Depressing as they are, these setbacks fell largely within analysts’ predictions. And Tsai’s low-profile approach has given Beijing no excuse to significantly raise the pressure. More importantly, Tsai’s cross-strait policy represents Taiwanese society’s “greatest common denominator” — leaning toward either direction (independence or unification) could backfire tremendously. As long as she sticks to this path, Washington would not view her as a Chen Shui-bian-like troublemaker and hence will, collectively with Tokyo and other regional members, check Beijing’s excessive assertiveness.

In a word, the responsibility for setbacks to cross-strait ties and Taiwan’s participation in international organizations lies largely with Beijing, and space for Tsai to make a difference is fairly limited. Therefore, Tsai should not expect breakthroughs in these areas to boost domestic support for her new administration. But by the same token, she also should not be overly concerned about further deterioration if the current approach persists.

The Real Challenge: Domestic Hurdles

For Tsai, the real challenge, and the area that awaits meaningful change, is internal governance. Her unsatisfactory performance on the domestic front is the major driver of her rapidly dropping approval rating. Since her May inauguration, she has encountered a series of thorny domestic incidents (such as the scandal over Mega Bank’s alleged money-laundering), and waves of protests from the tourism industry, retired military personnel, civil servants, public school teachers, anti-forced eviction activists, and, most recently, laborers protesting against the DPP’s controversial bill to revise the Labor Standards Acts.

People across the political spectrum are complaining. Greens criticize her for sluggishness on pushing forward “transitional justice,” blues mock her “hairpin turn” on policies such as incorporating mainland Chinese students into Taiwan’s health care system, and social activists lambaste the DPP’s failure to deliver on pre-election promises.

Underlying such phenomena are the structural hurdles that Tsai faces concerning domestic governance. First is the changing relationship between the DPP and social movement groups. Social movements blossomed under the previous Ma Ying-jeou administration, with diverse motivations: against nuclear power, forced evictions, and judicial injustice; for environmental protection, procedural justice, and government openness and transparency. The impact of these social campaigns was profound. Taiwan’s political landscape shifted fundamentally — the then-ruling party KMT, which awkwardly handled these movements, suffered successive debacles in elections, while new forces such as the New Power Party and the Social Democratic Party gained solid ground in the island’s political stage.

To take down the KMT, the DPP, although not fully in agreement with the claims of these social activists and new political forces, was delighted to form a de facto alliance with them and incorporate many of their proposals into the party’s platform. However, once the DPP and the KMT switched roles, Tsai had to hew to a much broader combination of interests and adjust the party’s stance. Many social activists, however, view her policy modification as retreat or betrayal. This pattern is very likely to persist and so is the question of how to strike a healthy balance between fulfilling pre-election promises and implementing necessary policy modification.

Another major hurdle is the apparent gap between Tsai’s stability-oriented policy and the expectations from the radical stream of the green camp, or the green fundamentalists. Tsai and the green fundamentalists have different priorities in their policy agenda: the former would like to bridge different interest groups and to tackle the imminent economic and social issues first, while the latter are eager to accelerate the project of “normalizing Taiwan” — re-evaluating Taiwan’s history, political institutions, and constitutional order, and eventually getting rid of the current “Republic of China” architecture. Tsai’s appointment of Lin Chuan as premier and Lin’s appointment of people from the previous administration have already invited harsh criticism from the “deep greens.” Predictably, they will continue to view a variety of social and economic issue through their ideological lens and will pressure Tsai on politically sensitive issues. Tsai cannot ignore them, as they comprise the DPP’s staunchest supporters, but neither should she bend to their every request.

Besides, there is the Beijing factor. Beyond the power to limit Taiwan’s international space, during the past eight years, Beijing has significantly increased its levers for creating domestic divisions and disturbances for the Taipei government by cultivating deep ties with certain groups inside the island. Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the KMT chairperson held a high-profile meeting, reaffirming their shared support for the 1992 Consensus and their commitment to fighting against Taiwanese independence — a clear message to Tsai.

Fortunately, Tsai has still enough cards at her disposal to reach a breakthrough in the current predicament in internal governance. Her first advantage comes from the DPP’s control of both the presidency and the Legislative Yuan. Unlike the previous DPP administration, the Tsai government has 68 out of the 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan on her side while the KMT has a mere 35. Secondly, the Taiwanese people’s falling approval of Tsai does not translate into support for the KMT. The majority of Taiwanese people are still critical of the KMT and wary of the cozy relationship between the KMT and the Communist Party of China. Meanwhile, the KMT itself seems to be caught in fierce internal debates over Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu’s cross-strait policy, which seeks to “deepen the 1992 consensus” and explores the possibility of a peace deal with Beijing. Finally, despite falling approval ratings, Tsai still holds a large reserve of trust. Consecutive polls have shown that the majority of Taiwanese continue to show confidence in her ability to run the country.

However, if Tsai cannot quickly concentrate her political capital to ensure some visible achievements in domestic governance and consolidate her power base, she will face the risk of losing control of the green fundamentalists, who might significantly distract the administration’s attention and even hijack certain government policies. A domestically besieged president would simultaneously have less freedom of action on cross-strait and foreign policy, making it even harder to compromise in negotiations with China and friendly nations. Such circumstances would undoubtedly reinforce the hyper-paranoid Beijing’s suspicion of Tsai, and the Taiwan issue would once again become a hotspot in East Asia and the U.S.-China relationship.

Chiang Kai-shek’s famous political slogan, “Internal unity before external dangers,” should serve well for Tsai. But there is not much time left for her to waste before the chance for “internal unity” slips away.

Pengqiao Lu is an editorial assistant at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Asia Program.