China Power

Taiwan’s Topsy-Turvy Cross-Strait Politics

Taiwan’s 2020 presidential candidates hint at a massive gravity shift toward China in both the KMT and DPP.

James X. Morris
Taiwan’s Topsy-Turvy Cross-Strait Politics
Credit: Presidential Office, Republic of China (Taiwan)

If Taiwan’s current field of 2020 presidential contenders is any indicator, the issue of maintaining Taiwan’s self-rule status quo against Chinese interference has passed from the hands of one political party and landed into another. In this topsy-turvy political world in which liberal democracies are facing political realignments left and right, it shouldn’t come as a surprise; however, in Taiwan it appears that the once pro-status quo party has become more polarized, fielding radical candidates who are close with Chinese officials, while the once radical pro-independence party has had to fill in the vacuum, becoming more pro-status quo.

A recent incident may help explain this ideological shift: On April 22, legislator Kung Wen-chi of Taiwan’s opposition Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) challenged the minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, Chen Ming-tong of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), on his statement opposing Beijing’s use of force to integrate Taiwan into China. “On what grounds do you urge China to renounce the use of force against Taiwan? Xi Jinping has actually softened his approach to us[,]” Kung claimed. The statement, which was quickly picked up by Taiwan’s netizens and followed closely by Taiwan News, has been widely panned as KMT capitulation to Chinese threats of force.

The KMT’s potential challengers to incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP are lining up, and the two loudest KMT voices also happen to be the most controversial, buoyed by the 24-hour news cycle and bombastic unpolished approaches to rallying popular support back to the KMT. Han Kuo-yu, the recently-elected mayor of Kaohisung in southern Taiwan, has hinted his interest in the position, but had declined to officially enter the race, despite his enormous popularity, citing his relatively new role as mayor. Han won an insurgent victory in a traditional DPP stronghold in Taiwan’s 2018 local-level elections, and became an immediate darling for the KMT. Despite his reluctance to run, the media has been covering Han non-stop for months, and his popularity has led to the Kuomintang drafting him as a candidate into the race on April 24. More recently, Foxconn chief Terry Gou has stolen some of the media attention away from Han by officially entering the race on April 17, claiming the Sea Goddess Matsu appeared to him in a dream telling him to run.

The KMT was once staunchly anti-Beijing. But today, KMT candidates are facing criticism at home for being too connected to China. Han faced criticism in March for a trip to Hong Kong, Macau, and China, during which he met with China’s director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, Liu Jieyi (China’s counterpart to the aforementioned Minister Chen of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council), and Shenzhen Communist Party Secretary Wang Weizhong. While there, he reportedly signed trade deals for his city valued at US$5.2 billion, including US$30 million on produce and fish.

Gou’s ties with China run much deeper. As the chief of Foxconn, also called Hon Hai, the company responsible for manufacturing parts for Apple, Gou has made billions by operating factories in China. Gou has been criticized for his fortunes being bound up with the Chinese Communist Party. Gou stepped down from his position at Foxconn upon announcing his candidacy.

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Today’s KMT candidates are a far cry from the party operatives of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the DPP candidates are unable to position themselves in any way to make meaningful proclamations of their traditional “Taiwanese independence” platform. Both scenarios are due in part to two recent factors in the cross-strait geopolitical dance: the tectonic rise of China and the integration policy shift of former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016).

A brief history of the parties and ideology in Taiwan is necessary. The KMT was established in 1912 in China following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. Ideologically it sought to establish a republic for the Chinese people, claiming territories once held by the Qing. It arrived in Taiwan as a party-state system in 1945 following World War II and established itself as the sole governing body of the island in 1949 as the government of the Republic of China (the official name of Taiwan) relocated to the island in the closing days of the Chinese Civil War. Martial law was declared for the next 38 years, and the KMT ruled the island with an iron fist under the dictatorship of then-President Chiang Kai-shek. The official policy of the KMT was to retake the mainland and defeat the communists. Any anti-KMT or pro-communist sentiments could cost someone their life; even many KMT officers were executed as traitors for being suspected of having pro-mainland sympathies in the 1950s.

Chiang died in 1975, and was eventually succeeded by his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, who slowly initiated liberalization on the island before his death in 1988. The younger Chiang developed a “Three Nos” policy in 1979 with regards to the mainland — no contact, no compromise, and no negotiation — maintaining the ROC as the rightful governing authority of all of China. Following the reforms and leading up to democratization in the 1990s the KMT took a more realistic approach, agreeing to disagree with their adversaries over who was the rightful ruler of both Taiwan and China (i.e. the “1992 Consensus”).

Meanwhile, in the 1980s the DPP rose as an illegal party, following a platform of nativization and Taiwan independence from China, and eventually became the mainstream opposition to the KMT following liberalization. Ever since, an increasing portion of Taiwan’s demographics have identified as Taiwanese-only while increasingly rejecting the idea of unification with China, mainly favoring maintaining the status quo or eventual independence.

Here’s where China’s rise and the Ma administration have created a hiccup in the observable trends. In the three decades since liberalization, the number of Taiwanese living, studying, or working in China has increased. Even Taiwan’s generally pro-DPP youth will go to Shanghai, Xiamen, or Shenzhen to make some easy money for a little while. Taiwanese investment in China increased during this time, and soon a sizeable portion of Taiwan’s manufacturing was being done across the strait, contributing to China’s rise. In 2010 the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) Free Trade Agreement was signed between the two economies, attempting to remove trade barriers and reduce costs, hopefully bringing back Taiwan’s manufacturing operations. At the same time, Ma moved the KMT’s ideological goalposts: if they could not retake the mainland, they would integrate their economies with Taiwan being the leader. If the plan worked, Taiwan would placate Beijing, Taiwanese business would dominate China’s economy, and the KMT would seize a major victory. Unfortunately the genie got out of the bottle and Taiwan’s economy drained into China’s coastal provinces, weakening the island’s position. The sweeping victory of the DPP in Taiwan’s local elections in 2014 and presidential and legislative elections in 2016 were a result of backlash to these policies.

But China too was rising. In 2005, in response to Taiwan’s first DPP president, Chen Shui-Bian (2000-2008), the mainland had passed an Anti-Secession Law in which Beijing declared it reserved the right to use military force against any attempt by territory it claimed to secede or declare independence. With China’s greater military strength and more bellicose proclamations about regional policy, the current Tsai administration has had to shift into the unsustainable “no-man’s land” of status quo, once the policy of the KMT. In the past two decades the DPP has had to take up the cause of the status quo even while the KMT has shifted toward China.

Tsai was handed a weak Taiwan in 2016. Her administration has had to patch up the economy, shore up its remaining diplomatic allies, and pursue a “New Southbound” policy meant to counteract the flight of its real economic activity to China by encouraging greater links with Southeast Asia. Even this policy echoed the “Go South” project of former KMT President Lee Teng-Hui (1988-2000). The challenge facing Tsai has been daunting, and although a recent report indicates some Taiwanese businesses are coming back home, dissatisfaction with Tsai among the DPP base has led for some calls for a challenger to the DPP nomination. The DPP’s former premier, William Lai, registered to challenge the incumbent president in March, citing his desire to protect Taiwan against Chinese annexation. Lai has pulled ahead of Tsai in polls for the DPP primary nomination.

Meanwhile, some DPP legislators have proposed amending terms in Taiwan’s anti-treason laws to include cooperation or coordination with China. The current wording for treason refers to collusion with an “enemy state,” and a legal loophole in the ROC-PRC conflict precludes Beijing from being labeled an “enemy.” The new language would define an enemy as a “country, political entity, or organization that engages in armed conflict or a military standoff with the Republic of China” or poses “a military threat to the nation.”

While not necessarily shifting its core ideology toward China, the DPP is now having to play defense and maintain a traditionally KMT position while the KMT shifts closer into China’s orbit, further polarizing its own politics. Those changes raise the stakes for Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election.