The January 11, 2020, Taiwan election concluded with an overwhelming victory by the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) over the China Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang, KMT) and its candidate Han Kuo-yu. Tsai actually broke Taiwan’s election record by securing over 8.17 million votes, more than 57 percent of the total votes. The DPP also held onto its majority in the legislature, winning 61 out of 113 seats.
A year ago, Tsai and the DPP’s victory seemed improbable: in the November 2018 local elections, the DPP won in only six out of 22 localities. Arguably the sine qua non that reversed Tsai’s fortune was the deteriorating cross-strait relationship exacerbated by the turmoil in Hong Kong. Ironically, this is evidence of the changing fate of the “1992 Consensus,” previously the foundation of stable cross-strait relations.
The 1992 Consensus refers to the political understanding achieved between mainland China and Taiwan preceding the monumental 1993 Wang-Koo Summit, which signified the end of the Cold War-era standoff. In this consensus, both sides agree that there is only one China and that both sides belong to China, while leaving the exact political meaning of “China” unspecified. In practice, this allows mainland China and Taiwan to each claim that their government — the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC), respectively — represents the “one and only” China. For decades, this intentional ambiguity provided the political room for both sides to engage in official contact. In Taiwan, the consensus is often used together with the term “One China, Respective Interpretations,” although mainland China has never officially adopted this expression.
The 1992 Consensus has long been the cornerstone of the KMT’s cross-strait policies. The KMT was able to use the consensus to demonstrate that it is more capable than the DPP, many of whose constituents favor formal Taiwanese independence, to manage Taiwan’s delicate relationship with mainland China. During President Ma Ying-jeou’s tenure (2008-2016), cross-strait relations improved considerably from the previous DPP administration and the two sides entered into many agreements, especially the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA). Not surprisingly, Han Kuo-yu continued this strategy in the 2020 election, highlighting his ability to ameliorate tensions and maintain favorable economic relations with mainland China under the consensus.
The election result proved that stressing the 1992 Consensus was a huge miscalculation for Han. Throughout the campaign, Han and the KMT had had a hard time defending against charges that their preferred policy would endanger Taiwan’s sovereignty. Tsai and the DPP, by contrast, brandished their determination to “resist China and defend Taiwan” as the main campaign theme. In fact, on the last day of 2019, the DPP-majority legislature passed the contentious Anti-Infiltration Act, whose stated aim is to prevent political interference from outside forces, i.e. mainland China.
Why did the 1992 Consensus turn from an advantage for the KMT into a major cause of its defeat?
In Chinese President Xi Jinping’s January 2019 address to Taiwan, Xi announced that China will explore the “Taiwan plan” within the “One Country, Two Systems” framework on the basis of the 1992 Consensus. The next day, Tsai explicitly rebuked Xi’s message by stating that Taiwan would never accept One Country, Two Systems and that her administration has never accepted the 1992 Consensus, which she criticized as part of Beijing’s unification goal. Five months later, the anti-extradition movement broke out in Hong Kong and shocked the international community with its severity and duration. Yet it also assisted in the revival of Tsai and the DPP as she gave vocal support to Hong Kong’s protesters and used the situation to further justify her refusal of One Country, Two Systems and, by implication, the 1992 Consensus. Indeed, during the campaign the DPP strongly insinuated that a vote for Han and the KMT would equal a vote to turn Taiwan into another Hong Kong, even releasing an advertisement directly contrasting the peaceful and violent scenes in Taiwan’s and Hong Kong’s subways. Last but not least, the Sino-U.S. relationship has deteriorated significantly, providing a helpful international background to Tsai’s harsh rhetoric on China.
Although it comes as no surprise that a DPP candidate would strongly criticize the 1992 Consensus, the 2020 election results suggest that the negativity associated with the consensus transcends beyond mere partisan disputes. Interestingly, Han and the KMT did not perform that terribly. Han’s vote tally of around 5.5 million was much better than the 3.6 million received by KMT candidate Eric Chu in 2016, and the KMT in fact gained three more seats in the legislature while the DPP lost seven seats. This suggests that a significant portion of Tsai’s 8.17 million supporters did not necessarily approve of her and the DPP’s performance. After all, Tsai presided over multiple high-profile political scandals and a subpar economy. However, for these voters the fear of mainland China’s encroachment trumped other concerns. Another noteworthy development is that this election was heavily divided along generational lines. Analysis has shown that about 72 percent of voters under the age of 40 support Tsai while the majority of Han’s supporters are over 40. Clearly, Tsai’s “resist China and defend Taiwan” stance resonated strongly with Taiwanese youth.
In fact, the status of the 1992 Consensus is being challenged by each of the three major forces shaping cross-strait relations: Tsai’s supporters, the KMT, and Beijing. Tsai’s record-breaking victory means that the vast majority of Taiwanese youth oppose any kind of political connection with mainland China. For them, the 1992 Consensus is diametrically opposed to their political inclination.
For the KMT, the consensus (perhaps shockingly) led to a net drain of votes in this election. Although the KMT secured votes from its traditional base, that was not enough. The party has a dim political future if it wants its candidate to become Taiwan’s leader or seeks to control the legislature again. The KMT’s support base will continually shrink as fewer and fewer voters have historical and emotional connections with mainland China. In order to remain politically relevant, the KMT will have to establish trust among Taiwanese youth. As such, the KMT is unlikely to defend the 1992 Consensus vocally in the future. Indeed, amid strong voices within the KMT to review and reform its strategies, younger KMT members are demanding that the party re-examine its existing cross-strait policies represented by the consensus. Some have even called for the KMT to remove the word “China” from its official name.
After the election, the Chinese State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office re-emphasized its position that Taiwan belongs to China and reaffirmed the importance of the 1992 Consensus. However, it takes two to make a consensus. As Taiwan drifts further and further away from the consensus, the term will increasingly become synonymous with Beijing’s other unilateral claims on Taiwan. It is entirely conceivable that China might not sustain its policies under the rubric of the 1992 Consensus either. China’s many policy concessions to Taiwan, which helped Taiwan to reach a $83.2 billion trade surplus with mainland China in 2018, are clearly insufficient in promoting its cause in Taiwan. Meanwhile, China’s growing military advantage and the perception that Taiwan eagerly chose to be a pawn of the United States in its geopolitical competition with China have damaged Taiwan’s image in Chinese society. The Taiwan Affairs Office has admitted that the call for “unification through force” (as opposed to “peaceful unification”) is getting stronger within the Chinese public. With economic enticement failing and an increasingly impatient public, Beijing has reason to re-examine its Taiwan policies going forward.
Two events deserve special attention in the near future. The first is Tsai’s May 20 inauguration speech, in which she is likely to outline her administration’s cross-strait policy in her second term. The second is whether Beijing will renew the ECFA that is due to expire this year. ECFA’s expiration would bring considerable uncertainty to cross-strait ties and Taiwan’s economy. A worsening cross-strait economic relationship will in turn raise the likelihood that international companies will face the dreaded “either/or” situation: either explicitly state that Taiwan belongs to China or risk losing access to the Chinese market.
As of now, it is uncertain how the vacuum left by the retreating 1992 Consensus will be filled. Tsai did express her willingness to negotiate with China after the election, but Beijing has few incentives to talk to someone who rode to victory on an anti-China wave. For her part, Tsai also has few incentives to alter her stance as she just gained record-level support. The KMT will be reluctant to act as a messenger and a stabilizer given its urgent need to erase its pro-Beijing image. Therefore, the cross-strait relationship is unfortunately being marked by increasing mutual disdain and is once again entering uncharted waters. While an all-out conflict remains unlikely, rising instability will make Taiwan re-emerge as a geopolitical hotspot.
Zihao Liu is an M.A. candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he focuses on the intersection of International Security and International Business. He holds a B.A. in History from Cornell University.