The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Dominic Meng-Hsuan Yang, an associate professor in the Department of History, University of Missouri-Columbia, is the 398th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
What is the impact of Taiwan’s presidential elections on Taiwan’s national identity?
Elections are part of everyday life for the citizens of Taiwan. The debates on TV programs and social media are energetic, fervent, and cacophonous; the campaigns and mass rallies are carnivalesque, intense, and very emotional. People care deeply about the outcome as the stakes are high.
In short, democratic elections have become the common denominator, the single and most important catalyst or adhesive that brings together people from different walks of life and different political persuasions. The electoral process has solidified Taiwan’s national identity vis-à-vis China and the rest of the Chinese-speaking world. The Taiwanese, regardless of their partisan support, take great pride in their political system and the sense that they belong to a league of progressive democratic nations headed by their biggest ally and protector, the United States.
Readers from the “old” liberal democracies, such as the U.S. and the U.K., would underappreciate the role played by elections in shaping identities because they never came under the rule of modern dictatorial regimes. Twenty-five years ago, American political scientist Shelley Rigger wrote a book called “Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy” (Routledge 1999). The book examines Taiwan’s electoral politics in the second half of the 20th century to explain the island state’s relatively smooth transition from a single-party dictatorship to a multi-party democracy. It’s an informative and insightful work. Rigger’s central thesis is the ways in which the KMT-dominated voting process, the system set up by the dictatorial regime to bolster its political legitimacy, ended up becoming the main driving force behind democratization.
In a similar vein but a different take, I would argue that electoral politics has come to define Taiwan’s national identity following democratization. It’s an organic process fostered by the island’s contentious domestic politics as well as its complicated and uneasy relationship with a rising, authoritarian, and increasingly militant China.
What do the voting results reflect about Taiwanese perceptions of national identity?
The Taiwan national identity is a complicated and nuanced phenomenon. It cannot be understood based on a simple China vs. Taiwan dichotomy. The 2024 voting results illustrate the main fault lines. The Taiwanese are united by their shared belief in elections, democratic institutions, and social diversity. They are, nevertheless, divided by conflicting interpretations of Taiwan history, and with that different views on Taiwan’s constitutional polity and its future relations with China.
One focal point of contention is the legacy of the KMT single-party rule/martial law period under the father-son dictators of Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo. The KMT and pan-Blue supporters view this legacy in a more positive light. They point to the contributions made by the authoritarian KMT toward Taiwan’s economic development and democratization. The Blue politicians also work to safeguard the Republic of China Constitution and polity. They hope that these could become a basis for some form of political integration with the mainland in the distant future when the conditions in China change.
The DPP or pan-Green supporters on the other hand consider the authoritarian KMT not only as a brutal police state but also a colonial regime, a regime that suppressed both Taiwan independence and Taiwan identity.
Another point of division that intersects this first division is between the younger generations, who are born after democratization, and people over the age of 40 who were born under the martial law. This second division is economic, between the “haves” and “have-nots.” The older generations are relatively wealthy. They have enjoyed the fruits of Taiwan’s economic miracle. They are also the main beneficiaries of the current state pension and healthcare systems. By contrast, the younger generations are subjected to fewer economic opportunities, widening social gaps, slow-growing wages, soaring housing prices, and the burden of taking care of an aging population combined with declining marriage and birth rates – the same structural issues experienced by other developed countries in the world.
The results from 2024 elections reflect these two intersecting divisions. The KMT diehards are mostly elder people. Many are nostalgic about the good old days of spectacular economic boom under Chiang Ching-kuo. The DPP supporters are more diverse across different age groups and social spectrums – united by their emotional ties to the DPP for what the party stands for: opposition to the once authoritarian KMT and the goal of Taiwan independence. The followers of the newly emerged TPP (Taiwan People’s Party) are mostly young people in their 20s and 30s who are no less determined in their support for Taiwan independence. Many in fact voted for the DPP in the previous elections. Yet the converts to the TPP are disappointed by the reigning DPP’s socioeconomic policies and broken promises.
My overall point here is that the supporters of the three main parties all espouse a version of Taiwan nationalism, with the KMT version being different from the version promoted by the DPP and the TPP. The KMT version keeps the option of political integration with China open in the distant future, but it is largely incompatible with the Chinese Communist version of Chinese nationalism on the mainland.
Examine how Taiwan’s political culture is evolving.
There are two interrelated developments worth mentioning in the 2024 elections with regard to Taiwan’s evolving political culture, and these have implications for electoral politics in other democracies as well. The developments are: (1) the emergence of the TPP, an influential third party supported by youth voters, and (2) the power of social media in winning the hearts and minds of young people. There had been powerful third parties in Taiwan’s electoral scene (e.g. the New Party and the People’s First Party) and Taiwanese politicians are no strangers to the use of social media in attracting support.
What is new in 2024 is that, for the very first time, the TPP demonstrated that a relatively small and weak political party lacking financial resources and more importantly, substantive networks and connections on the ground, could mount a serious challenge to the two powerful and established parties (the DPP and the KMT). The TPP gains a substantial following by utilizing social media and working with popular influencers.
On the positive side of things, this speaks to generational change and the diversification of media outlets, opinions, and information flow, which are good for democracy. On the negative side, social media produces insular and divided political communities. Internet platforms are susceptible to misinformation spread by unscrupulous bloggers and politicians for both commercial and political gains, and the Chinese government trying to sabotage and discredit the Taiwanese democracy. We should keep an eye on this.
Analyze Taipei’s priorities in shaping the narrative of post-election Taiwan national direction to domestic and international audiences as well as to China.
Knowing that all eyes would be on Taiwan, what the Taiwanese government wants to project through the elections, both domestically and internationally, is solidarity, resilience, and steadfastness in the face of growing pressure and interference from China. The elections are also a tangible illustration of national sovereignty – people vote into office a leadership that governs their territory.
By all accounts, the effort has been successful. The Taiwanese once again demonstrated that they are not going to buckle under pressure. They called China’s bluff on its military threat by choosing a leader least favored by Beijing. That shows a lot of character. The world should have a standing ovation for Taiwan.
Taiwan’s message to the PRC remains the same: We are an independent nation of people and you can’t continue to deny us and compel others to do the same. We are ready to talk as equals and without a predetermined agenda to sort out the difficulties and differences between us. Beijing, on the other hand, also remains obstinate: Don’t bother to call us again unless the talk is about unification. You do that by first accepting Chairman Xi’s definition of the 1992 Consensus and Xi’s version of “One Country, Two Systems” program for Taiwan.
One interesting development in the 2024 elections is the presence of a considerable number of overseas Chinese social media influencers, the so-called “internet big Vs.” Some were invited by liberal-minded civil organizations and business leaders in Taiwan to observe the elections with some assistance by Taiwanese government. Others came of their own accord. Most of these internet celebrities are dissidents from the PRC. They hope that China could one day adopt democratic institutions similar to the ones in Taiwan. Their coverage of the 2024 elections is thus overwhelmingly positive. This reportage will create some ripple effects on Chinese-speaking audiences overseas.
Assess the role of the United States and like-minded partners in differentiating Taiwanese and Chinese national identities in international affairs discourse and diplomacy.
In recent years, the United States and Western democracies are doing a much better job of differentiating Taiwanese and Chinese national identities in international diplomacy. It’s a healthy development. It wasn’t the case in the past. The world had essentially turned a blind eye to the emergence of Taiwan national identity when things were going well with China.
The Taiwanese themselves had been complicit in maintaining this façade. After all, Taiwanese businesses were among the chief beneficiaries of China’s rise, so why rocked the boat? Furthermore, most people in Taiwan, regardless of their political stance, thought that trade, exchange, and economic integration with the PRC would reduce tension, maintain peace, and perhaps lead China down the path of political liberalization or even democratization (many of the Blue voters and politicians apparently still think so today). As it turns out, the neoliberal ideal of globalization – countries that trade with one another and have stakes in one another’s economic well-being would not go to war to resolve their differences – is probably wrong. Or, it just doesn’t apply to Taiwan and China.
In any case, the United States and like-minded partners should do more for Taiwan. What’s been done is not nearly enough. The United States says that it does not support Taiwan independence and will adhere to the parameters laid down by the Three Sino-American Joint Communiqués. At the same time, Washington assures Taipei via the Taiwan Relations Act, the Six Assurances, and by rejecting the PRC’s idea of the “One China Principle.” This ambiguous position was taken up to prevent war in the Taiwan Strait. It has done so successfully for decades. Whether it could continue to do so remains to be seen.
If anything, Beijing is bent on twisting the U.N. General Assembly Resolution 2758. The CCP leaders knew that if the same set of principles were to apply, the government that actually governs Taiwan should be introduced into the United Nations and recognized as the political authority representing Taiwan. In that sense, the Chinese Communists act like their old sworn enemies, the exiled KMT leaders on Taiwan during the Cold War. Both the CCP and the old KMT have refused to accept reality. Rather, they use their power and international influence to forestall and limit the other side at every turn.
Taiwan has now democratized. It no longer sees itself in a civil war with the CCP for nationalism and political legitimacy in China. It simply wants to be left alone. If what was done to the PRC internationally before 1971 constituted a great injustice, what’s been done to Taiwan after 1971 constitutes another great injustice.
Unification or any form of political integration with China is currently not the popular choice in Taiwan, and for obvious reasons. However, the Taiwan side never says that as an option, it cannot be openly discussed and considered. In Taiwan, one is free to advocate unification with China, but in in the PRC one could be locked up for advocating Taiwan independence or even the KMT version of modern Chinese history. Beijing should be pressured to rethink its approach on Taiwan. Its current policy is counterproductive to the CCP’s own self-professed goal of peaceful unification.
Liberal democracies should find ways to support Taiwan internationally. They should do so prudently, innovatively, and strategically instead of concentrating their energy on “not angering China” with regard to Taiwan.