In Taiwanese politics, the DPP is taking over the KMT’s stable narrative niche

Now that the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has begun her second term as President of Taiwan and her defeated KMT opponent Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) has successfully been recalled as Mayor of Kaohsiung, it is useful to look at the changes in the Taiwanese political landscape in recent times. Six years after the Sunflower Movement protests against then President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) over his rapprochement to China and four years after the Democracy Progressive Party (DPP, 民主進步黨) captured the majority in the Legislative Yuan for the first time in history, it seems that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT, 中國國民黨) is no longer the risk-free default choice during elections. In its early years, the DPP had to fight against a negative reputation of its members as provincial rabble-rousers seeking to overthrow the state, more skilled at throwing chairs in the legislature than steering Taiwan’s development. But things have changed. The dynamics of the January 2020 presidential elections and the unrest in Hong Kong only confirm that a sovereign Republic of China Taiwan (中華民國台灣 zhōnghuá mínguó táiwān) is now the status quo in Taiwanese politics. Moreover, the Tsai government‘s globally praised response to the Covid-19 pandemic is the last step in the KMT losing its monopoly on the claim to providing reliable governance, even facing the first successful recall of a mayor. I argue that, in terms of political narrative, it is no longer the case that the DPP’s goals that ask Taiwanese voters to support radical change, but rather that the KMT’s views of Taiwan now require the reporters to risk an uncertain future.

Historically, a substantial part of the varied Dǎngwài (黨外) democracy movement called for the KMT’s ‘colonial’ Republic of China to be overthrown, aiming to replace it with a new Republic of Taiwan. The DPP came out of this movement and suffered from its association with upheaval and negative perceptions of unruly local Taiwanese (本省人 běnshěng rén) perpetuated by the elite Mainlanders (外省人 wàishěng rén). At the same time, Taiwanese then still lived under the strictures of martial law and the party-state of the KMT, which told them that they lived in Free China. The ROC was too impossibly ‘Chinese’ and impossibly authoritarian for the Green Camp, to which the DPP belongs. The radical wing of the party called for an independent Taiwanese republic to replace the ‘foreign’ imposition, and managed to have it codified in 1991 in its programme’s famous ‘independence plank: ‘Based on the principle of popular sovereignty, the standpoint of founding a sovereign, independent, and self-governing Taiwanese Republic and establishing a new constitution should follow the decision by method of a popular referendum of all Taiwanese residents.’ (基於國民主權原理,建立主權獨立自主的台灣共和國及制定新憲法的主張,應交由台灣全體住民以公民投票方式選擇決定。)

However, that standpoint did not do well in the elections and the party partially attributed its losses to voters’ fear of its independence ‘extremism’. It required voters to choose giving up the successful developmental state they knew and risk war with China for an uncertain replacement. Yet, the Cold War-era ‘Free Chinese’ state was no longer suitable for Taiwan. As Shelly Rigger observed in From Opposition to Power (2001), it was then that both the DPP and the KMT ‘discovered’ the existing sovereignty of the ROC on Taiwan. The DPP added an explanation to its party platform in 1999 that recognised that Taiwan, for now, was the Republic of China, separate from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), stating: ‘Taiwan, though according to the present constitution named Republic of China, is not subject to the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China. Any change to the present situation of independence has to be decided by a public referendum of all Taiwanese residents.’ (台灣,固然依目前憲法稱為中華民國,但與中華人民共和國互不隸屬, 任何有關獨立現狀的更動,都必須經由台灣全體住民以公民投票的方式決定。)

What followed the end of martial law was the gradual ‘localisation’ of the ROC state without tearing it down, begun by Taiwan-born KMT President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who has supported pan-Green candidates since he was expelled from the KMT. This localisation included the ROC’s relation to China across the Taiwan Strait. When Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) succeeded Lee to become the first non-KMT president since 1949 in 2000, the DPP government did not attempt to declare a new republic. But Chen did expand on his predecessor’s ‘special state-to-state relations’ (特殊的國與國關係 tèshū de guó yǔ guó guānxì), with his ‘One Side, One Country’ (一邊一國 yībiān yī guó). KMT President Ma Ying-jeou’s term saw some reversion, symbolised by bringing the ‘1992 Consensus’—which says that there is only one China—into government policy for the first time. However, while the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen still mentioned the 1992 Consensus as a mere ‘historical fact’ in her first inaugural speech in 2016, in 2020 she no longer brought it up and, furthermore, for the first time in that space, explicitly rejected the CCP’s ‘One Country Two Systems’ model and used the phrase ‘Republic of China (Taiwan)’. Gradually, the ROC(Taiwan) distinction from China as the PRC is made more explicit, even when Tsai does not pursue formal Taiwanese independence (台獨 tái dú).

Despite the set-backs during the 2008–16 term of pro-‘Greater China’ President Ma, the ‘Taiwanisation’ project has continued in fits and starts ever since the start of democratisation. ROC nostalgists as well as Chinese officials and scholars regard the baleful spectre of de-sinicisation (去中國化 qù zhōngguó huà) as an attempt by a supposedly small group of independence ‘extremists’ to poison the minds of Taiwanese, especially the young. But—although the process is of course political—much of it flows naturally from unshackling the way most people in Taiwan have always viewed themselves, creating a self-reinforcing cycle. Taiwan has been separate from China since 1895. It has developed its own society, governed by its own state since 1949. The end of authoritarianism has put an end to the political and cultural dominance of the minority of Taiwanese whose families moved to Taiwan after 1945, the so-called wàishěng rén. It has now been 33 years since the end of martial law in Taiwan, and 28 years since merely advocating independence is no longer sedition. Young Taiwanese who have grown up after 1987 naturally regard Taiwan as their home and have even less affinity with China. The DPP was in charge of the central government from 2000 to 2008 and has been again from 2016 until now, giving it plenty of opportunity to localise the central government. The result is that the ROC is is no longer as oppressive nor as oppressively Chinese as it was when the DPP adopted its independence plank. This has reduced the pressing need to overthrow the state now that the words ROC and Taiwan have become increasingly interchangeable. When President Tsai remarked that the ‘Republic of China Taiwan’ is already sovereign in an interview with the BBC after she won the January 2020 elections, that barely caused a stir.

Meanwhile, the KMT hardliner’s stance on ‘China’ no longer reflects Taiwan’s status quo, but instead constitutes a call for change that seems threatening to many Taiwanese. Since the onset of democratisation, the KMT has lost its chokehold over public discourse and can no longer prevent society from wandering from ROC orthodoxy, giving greater play to the Taiwanese element in people’s identity. But economic elements have an important role too. After many Taiwanese manufacturers went all-in on China during the eras of the presidents Lee, Chen, and Ma, in the eyes of many average Taiwanese stuck with the island’s persistently low wages, economic relations with China have are no longer seen as an unqualified good. Moreover, as the perception of Taiwan as its own state has become commonly accepted in public discourse, the relations of Deep Blue KMT figure with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) United Front groups and how they talk about China and Taiwan has become alienating. When KMT legislator Wang Hongwei (王鴻薇) referred to President Tsai as Taiwan’s ‘leader’ (領導人 lǐngdǎo rén), on Chinese state television last May, in line with CCP propaganda department guidelines, that caused a stir.

In the past, voters were afraid of the prospect of the DPP in power, because its Republic of Taiwan ideal was a scary unknown. Since then, it has replaced that ideal with supporting the existing—now localised—state voters already know. Now, KMT politicians’ are the ones scaring people with talk about peace treaties with Beijing and by pushing further economic or even political integration with China. Ma Ying-jeou’s power was crippled after massive protests over his proposed trade agreements with Beijing. The KMT’s choice of questionable pro-Beijing figures for its 2020 party list scared away many voters. Populist appeals to the glorious ROC past under President Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) by KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu during his 2020 presidential campaign may not only have scared off people who feel that going back would undo many of Taiwan’s social achievements, but it also does not appeal to the post-1988 generations, people who cannot be nostalgic for what was in effect a different country.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also finally put an end to the DPP’s other structural disadvantage, that of its perceived lack of competence. Apart from the fact that Taiwan so far has not burst into flames under either President Chen or President Tsai, the more measured and steady rule of Tsai compares favourably, not only to Chen, but also to the tension under Ma. What’s more, her government receives world-wide praise for the handling of the pandemic ravaging the world, and Taiwanese voters value global attention. Meanwhile, the KMT has difficulty projecting the image of the stable party of experienced governance. The DPP’s legislative majority has allowed the party to actually pass legislation rather than face the bruising grid-lock of President Chen’s era or the relatively powerless protests it was forced to resort to under KMT rule. It has also allowed the government to begin dismantling the KMT’s questionable business empire and patronage networks, in part via the under-appreciated Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee (不當黨產處理委員會), leaving the once fabulously rich KMT with fewer tools to fund itself or control groups in society. Additionally, the Transitional Justice Commission (促進轉型正義委員會) does not only help to symbolically exonerate victims of persecution under martial law, but also works to declassify files that help paint a more complete picture of the KMT’s era of absolute power.

But more importantly, to demonstrate that it is a reliable administrator, the KMT needs to be in power and govern. That is not going so well. The protests against President Ma showed he misread the public mood. Out-going Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu was a terrible presidential candidate. After losing the election with a landslide, has now been recalled as mayor, with significantly more votes supporting his recall than he received for his candidature in 2018. But Han also represents another dent in the KMT’s polished image of capable elitism: the rise of populism. Railing against the bureaucracy, at times repudiating elitist Ma, his side of the KMT looks and sounds a lot more populist activist than statesman. It is yet to be seen if current party chair Johnny Chiang Chi-chen (江啟臣) will be able to tame the forces that threaten to keep the party in disrepute. Apart from populism, there is the fact that the KMT still has no China policy that reassures the younger voters. A series of unhinged pro-Beijing fringe figures, from former withdrawn presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) to party-list legislator Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷), have already caused considerable electoral damage. But their Deep Blue faction shows no sign of disappearing from the KMT.

The numbers back this up. The DPP used to be a non-Mainlander business. According to 1995 polling of who supported what party, DPP was mainly a ‘Taiwanese’ party, whereas the KMT drew both from Local and Mainlander Taiwanese. But barriers to supporting the DPP seem to be decreasing now. The poll analyses of political scientist Nathan Batto helps understand the challenge to the structural support for the KMT. His analysis of the January legislative vote shows that the DPP’s vote is expanding in the urban north, where most Mainlanders live, whereas the KMT was unable to move beyond its committed but minority Deep Blue core voters, dragged down in part thanks to Han. Moreover, he argues that a MyFormosa poll of public opinion in May demonstrates that one long-term drag on DPP performance is decreasing; the number of people expressing antipathy to the formerly rather divisive party is continuing to decline. It appears that aversion to the provincial troublemakers is decreasing as they stop being provincial or troublemakers.

A READr survey of attendees of Tsai and Han rally attendees during the campaign for the January elections made clear the demographic problems of the KMT: Han Kuo-yu’s fans were older than average. But even among this group, which strongly supports cooperation with China and opposes ‘independence’, very few Han fans only identified as Chinese; most identity as both Chinese and Taiwanese, or as Chinese Taiwanese. Depending on pro-China voters is not a winning electoral strategy in Taiwan these days, no matter what content you give that ‘China’. An Academica Sinica poll published June 2020 shows that 73% of respondents think that China is not a friend of Taiwan, up from an already high 58% in 2019, with higher numbers under younger people. In a survey by Pew only 35% of the Taiwanese respondents saw China favourably, again more negative among younger Taiwanese. Support for closer political and economic relations is significantly lower among people under 30 compared to their seniors, showing that China will only become more of an electoral drag as time goes on. The much-referenced surveys from the NCCU Election Survey Centre have been showing a negligible Chinese-only identity for years and a majority of respondents has identified as Taiwanese-only ever since 2009. In the ESC numbers, support for formal independence or status quo was 84.5% in 2019, leaving only 8.9% calling for unification with China now or in the future. Although support for immediate independence saw no change year-on-year, there was a large decline of 5.3% in support for eventual unification and a jump in support for indefinite status quo and eventual independence. A different survey also found 71.1% support for the claim that Taiwan is already an independent country and that the PRC and ROC have been separate since 1949. Support for questions asking whether Taiwan or the ROC was sovereign received the same response, showing that many Taiwanese regard these as synonyms.

Of course, you have to avoid taking this too far. The KMT still has a sizeable number of voters among its core loyalists and, though many may be elderly, one should remember that Taiwanese live long. Fear of upsetting China remains a powerful force. Support for formal Taiwanese independence only gets a majority in surveys on the condition that China does not intervene. Part of the changes I have described simply stem from the diminishing of the KMT, as the old party-state and patron-client networks disappear, not from the DPP’s work: some of the changes in public identification may simply result from the slow disappearance of preference falsification. Moreover, in the eyes of many voters, the KMT generally still retains a more conservative image, whereas the DPP appears to be more progressive. Conservative voters may not default to the DPP. It is yet to be seen what role the other parties, notably the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台灣民眾黨) and the New Power Party (NPP, 時代力量), will play. As the original DPP 2018 loss in Kaohsiung shows, the Green Camp can also be endangered by getting too comfortable with its default position. Most important is what direction the future China policy of the KMT will develop as it struggles with itself. The same analysis by Nathan Batto I cited earlier also shows that the DPP lost votes in the south and in rural areas compared to 2016, and that Han Kuo-yu was a drag in the KMT votes. A more capable KMT candidate able to tap conservative votes outside the northern cities may yet have credible claim to the default position so many conservative parties around the world have among voters who see themselves as the ‘common people’. However, one can also argue that the very fact that candidates like Hong Hsiu-chu and Han Kuo-yu get selected for the KMT’s presidential ticket result from systemic issues in the party that have not gone away. Moreover, the January 2020 elections and the June 2020 recall vote show the broader Green Camp has a lot of youthful energy behind it.

In the light of the survey data, Johnny Chiang Chi-chen (江啟臣)’s overtures towards younger KMT members pushing for a re-evaluation of the KMT’s cross-Strait policy make sense. Chiang probably realises that the party needs to learn to tell a story that fits within the reality of the majority of Taiwanese voters or else it will lose out. It will have to find a new narrative. In the past, the KMT could point to its stewardship of Taiwan during its highly successful developmental stage and its commitment to stability as proof that it was the reliable party of government. This has now shifted: Taiwanese people live in a self-confident Taiwan under the stable stewardship of President Tsai, while populists run amok in the increasingly geriatric KMT, the members of which keep coming up with all sorts of plans to increase Taiwan’s exposure to Xi Jinping (习近平)’s hostile China. Now the DPP is taking over the KMT’s place as low-risk choice. If this frame stick, any threat from Beijing will only consolidate the DPP’s position.

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