Features | Politics | East Asia

No, Taiwan’s President Isn’t ‘Pro-Independence’

Calling Tsai Ing-wen “pro-independence” isn’t just lazy; it’s wrong.

By Lev Nachman and Brian Hioe for
No, Taiwan’s President Isn’t ‘Pro-Independence’

Tsai Ing-wen gestures during Taiwan’s National Day celebrations, Oct. 10, 2019.

Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan)

As Taiwan enjoys the global spotlight thanks to President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the articles that have praised their public health efforts have described their political platform as “pro-independence.”

This piece of journalistic shorthand, however, isn’t just an oversimplification: It’s a factual inaccuracy that falsely portrays Taiwan and its leaders as provocateurs out to “anger” China. To report on the situation accurately and truthfully, that trope must be challenged and left behind.

In Taiwanese politics, the main dividing line is drawn along relations with China. At one end of the spectrum is Taiwanese independence, and at the other is unification with China; but in between lies support for what is known in Taiwanese politics as the “status quo,” referring to Taiwan’s ambiguous position as a de facto independent state that lacks de jure statehood.

What exactly is the DPP’s position on independence? It might surprise some to learn that the DPP does not advocate for formal independence. Rather, it considers Taiwan to already be independent as the Republic of China (ROC). The DPP advocates for the status quo, meaning it does not pursue any sort of formal change to Taiwan’s status.

Historically, in the 1990s the DPP did propose a platform seeking formal independence, but in 1999 the party wrote within its own charter that it would no longer push for this. Known as the “Resolution on Taiwan’s Future,” this superseded the DPP’s former “Independence Clause.”

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In the resolution the party acknowledged the name “Republic of China” as Taiwan’s official name and governing system. Rather than seeking formal independence, the party articulated that Taiwan was already independent as the Republic of China. If there were to be any major changes to the ROC system, it would have to be done through public referendum. There are those within the party who do wish the DPP advocated for a more direct form of independence, but they do not pursue changing the party’s charter or official stance.

Being pro-status quo, however, does not preclude advocating for Taiwan, and DPP politicians push for more global rights through maintaining the status quo. This is qualitatively very different than Taiwanese independence (Taidu 台獨), which calls for formally changing Taiwan’s constitution and its institutions to pursue recognition as an independent State of Taiwan (Taiwanguo 台灣國). Taiwanese independence supporters argue that Taiwan will not be independent until it becomes a Taiwanese state without the ROC framework defining its existence. It is the ideological divide between pro-status quo and pro-Taiwanese independence that separates the so-called “light green” and  “deep green” camps on one side of Taiwan’s political spectrum.

DPP politicians including Vice President William Lai — someone frequently depicted by the Chinese government as ardently pro-independence — have expressed the view that “Taiwan is already an independent country as the ROC, so we do not need to push for any other sort of formal independence.” During the 2020 election, Tsai herself repeatedly emphasized that she was running for president of the Republic of China, with the specification that this refers to Taiwan. Some reports in English note that Tsai often does say “Taiwan is an independent country,” but when she does so she says in Mandarin it is an independent country as the “Republic of China (Taiwan)” (中華民國 (台灣)), not as the State of Taiwan. It is imperative to report this distinction lest her meaning and intentions become misconstrued.

From a policy perspective, the DPP has also not proposed any policy or bills that change Taiwan’s status. As is written in their party charter, the only way for such a policy to come forth must be through public referendum, not from the party itself. Over the last four years, Tsai has pushed for policies that help diversify Taiwan’s trading partners like the New Southbound Policy, but even these kinds of bills only help uplift Taiwan’s current existence rather than change it. Even if you disregard Tsai and Lai’s rhetoric as lip service, under her administration there has not been any legislation that either directly or indirectly seeks to change Taiwan’s status.

Many Taiwanese independence activists also tolerate maintaining the status quo despite their eventual goal of formal independence. Among independence supporters, however, a generational gap sees younger activists more amenable to tolerating the status quo, while older activists who lived through the ROC’s long one-party rule may take a more hardline position on the issue.

By contrast the KMT, the “pro-unification” party in Taiwanese politics, also pushes for a “status quo.” However, this is a status quo that is tolerated with the goal of eventually pushing Taiwan closer to China in some form. Members of the KMT such as former President Ma Ying-jeou have lashed out at the Tsai administration for the use of the term Republic of China (Taiwan) with the view that this is a form of “de-sinicization” (去中國化) aimed at eroding the ROC’s institutions through localization.

But ultimately for Taiwanese independence activists, the ROC — or any connection to “China” — is seen as undesirable. For example, the New Power Party, which formed out of the 2014 Sunflower Movement, is far more pro-independence than the DPP.

They recently conducted a survey which found that over 70 percent of respondents are in favor of removing “ROC” or “China” from the country’s passport. This sentiment is further reflected in the most recent survey by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which showed that 36 percent of respondents want some form of independence — the highest number in a decade.

Why does it matter that Tsai is not actually advocating for Taiwanese independence? Describing Tsai and the DPP as “pro-independence” puts a false frame around cross-strait relations, one within which any action Tsai or her party makes will inevitably “anger” Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party. In reality, both Tsai and her party are pro-status-quo — a stance that allows them to advocate for more global status without actually saying Taiwan is not China — it is just the ROC, rather than the PRC. They do not want to provoke Beijing any more than they have to.

The “pro-independence” canard also dismisses the actual variation that exists within Taiwan’s political spectrum. Far from a binary of pro-independence versus pro-unification, there are actually dozens of different stances on the issue. For example, the NPP pushes for constitutional change and more aggressive normalization of Taiwan as a country than the DPP does.

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Of course, Taiwanese politics is full of complex subtleties that not every news report can include. But if reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it is that accuracy matters. A simple change, describing Tsai and the DPP as “pro-status quo” instead of “pro-independence,” gives readers a more accurate and nuanced account of Taiwan’s reality.

Lev Nachman is a Fulbright research fellow in Taiwan and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of California Irvine. 

Brian Hioe is one of the founding editors of New Bloom, an online magazine covering activism and youth politics in Taiwan founded in 2014 in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. He has an MA in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University and was Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy from 2017 to 2018.