Taiwan voters made history on January 16, 2016, choosing the opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen as the island’s first female president with 56 percent of the vote, and simultaneously delivering her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party(DPP) a majority with 68 out of 113 seats in the legislature. This article is intended to review the election with a focus on: political, economic and social reasons behind the DPP’s victory; to discuss the potential impact of Tsai’s China policy on cross-Strait relations; and to interpret Beijing’s consistent position on the island, which China claims as an inseparable part of its territory and threatens to take under control by force should formal independence be declared.
Pro-Independence Left-Wing Party Wins the Election
A former law professor with degrees from Cornell and the London School of Economics, Tsai Ing-wen, 59, is the first female leader of an Asian democracy without a political family background. Tsai, who will take office on May 20, is the second Taiwanese from the DPP to hold the presidency. The progressive, independence-leaning party emerged in the pro-democracy movement in the 1980s to challenge the autocratic Kuomintang(KMT) government, which fled to Taiwan in 1949 when Chiang Kai-Shek lost to Mao’s Communist army in the mainland.
This year’s election came at the worst time for the ruling KMT as Taiwan’s economy was sinking deeper into the mire of failure. Tsai’s triumph over her KMT rival Eric Chu simply reflected the voters’ discontent with outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT and their concerns over lingering economic woes, such as stagnating salaries, soaring housing prices and higher youth unemployment
Despite great improvement on cross-Strait relations over the past eight years, many Taiwanese felt that closer ties with China had done little for their lives, and were wary of Beijing’s growing influence over the island – another major reason that explains the KMT’s loss.
The outgoing president, Ma Ying-jeou, has focused on tighter relations with Beijing, endorsing the so-called “1992 Consensus,” a tacit political understanding reached between Beijing and the ruling KMT on the principle of “one China with each side free to interpret its meaning.”1 During his eight-years in office, President Ying-jeou oversaw the signing of 23 trade deals with China, and even met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Singapore last November, the first summit of the leaders of the two sides over 60 years.
This election highlights the awareness of the public’s self-perception, especially the new generation who are more assertive about being Taiwanese. For example, one day ahead of the election, a dramatic episode struck a chord with the voters. A 16-year-old Taiwanese pop singer named Chou Tzu-yu apologized to the Chinese audience in a posted video for holding a Taiwan’s flag in a South Korea TV program. She had been bombarded by China’s nationalism-minded viewers for supporting independence while profiting from the Chinese audience.
The incident angered the Taiwanese, particularly the young first-time voters who were thought to be a main demographic for the DPP’s win. The flag incident underscores a rift between the Chinese and Taiwanese on the island’s sovereignty. This was demonstrated by Taiwan Brain Trust(TBT), a leading think tank which produced a profile of the island’s youth and their political leanings last November. The findings revealed as high as 98 percent of youth prefer to describe themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and 81.9 percent think Taiwan should declare independence in the future.2
The election result largely reflects the new political landscape, especially the youth participation. For years the most noteworthy development was the student-driven Sunflower Movement in 2014 that protested against the trade and service deal with China. Political rallies attracted thousands of young people and the movement created a new political formation in early 2015. The New Power Party(NPP) represents a generation of youth who favour independence, human rights and political liberties. The one-year-old NPP, aligning with the DPP against the KMT, surprisingly won five seats in the election, becoming the third largest party in the legislature.
The DPP’s massive win triggered China’s renewed skepticism over the pro-independence tendency. As a veiled ‘warning’ the official Chinese media aired footage of the People’s Liberation Army(PLA)’s live-fire and amphibious drills in Fujian province opposite Taiwan. In response to public concerns and to China’s ‘warning’, Taiwan staged small-scale military exercises on the Kinmen island off the Chinese coast on January 26, showcasing the island’s ability to protect itself from an invasion by China. Taiwan maintains a regular army of 210,000 personnel, with the air force and navy defending the first line using advanced weaponry mainly from the U.S. However, due to its lack of in-depth defence capabilities, Taiwan could hardly sustain a war of attrition, and moreover, with fast-growing Chinese military, the island finds it hard to match its adversary in terms of budget, manpower or equipment.
So Washington, which opposes any attempt to unilaterally change the status quo, is committed to the island’s security in compliance with the Taiwan Relations Act(TRA). As part of strengthening defence cooperation, the U.S. authorized a $1.83 billion arms sale package last December for Taiwan including two frigates, anti-tank missiles and amphibious assault vehicles. As for China, potential control of Taiwan would not just mean reunification, but also a huge breakthrough in the first island chain, which could pose a serious challenge to U.S. primacy in the region. Consequently the U.S. commitment to Taiwan carries a geopolitical implication as well as moral obligation for a vibrant Asia democracy.
President-Elect: Maintain the Cross-Strait Status Quo
The island’s first female president is expected to be pragmatic and balanced on relations with Beijing, given the asymmetry in geopolitical weight between the two sides, especially Taiwan’s heavy reliance on China’s market, where 40 percent of the island’s export is sent. Tsai is no stranger to cross-Strait affairs. An experienced negotiator, she was in charge of the portfolio for two pro-independence presidents, first for Lee Teng-hui of the KMT, and then for Chen Shui-bian from the DPP.
In her victory speech Tsai reiterated the pledge to maintain “the status quo for peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and to “build a consistent, predictable, and sustainable cross-strait relationship.” She stressed, in particular, that Taiwan’s constitution and the will of the people, along with the results of cross-strait negotiations, interactions and exchanges, “will become the foundation for future cross-Strait relations.”3 Tsai’s message is clear: she will take the Strait status quo into full account under Taiwan’s constitution rather than the party’s pro-independence program.
She appealed to Chinese leaders with principled flexibility, saying the two sides “have a responsibility to find mutually acceptable means of interaction that are based on dignity and reciprocity. We must ensure that no provocations or accidents take place.” Taiwan’s “democratic system, national identity, and international space must be respected. Any forms of suppression will harm the stability of cross-strait relations,” Tsai added.4
Given Taiwan’s special ties with the U.S., the president-elect sent her top lieutenant to Washington, detailing her policy framework, particularly on cross-Strait relations. Joseph Wu Chao-hsieh, the party’s Secretary-General, reiterated Tsai’s stance in a speech delivered at a forum hosted by two top American think-tanks. “We will do our utmost to find a mutually acceptable mode of interaction between Taiwan and the Mainland,” Wu said, adding that a moderate and careful approach toward China would be pursued.5
Noticeably, the DPP has fine-tuned its position on “the 1992 Consensus,” which Beijing regards as a prerequisite for developing cross-Strait relations but the DPP had refused to accept ever since. Wu said “the DPP has never denied the historical fact that the cross-Strait dialogues that took place in 1992, and indeed acknowledges that that shared desire of the two sides at that time to advance cross-Strait relations by fostering mutual understanding.”6
Rejuvenating the faltering economy is on Tsai’s top priority too, which is a formidable challenge for the new administration given the severe economic situation at home and abroad.7 With the emphasis on structural reform, Tsai hopes to spur more innovation and entrepreneurship, and bring momentum to the faltering economy by introducing industry projects with a focus on Internet of Things, green technology, biotechnology, smart machinery and national defense.8She plans to boost economic ties with other countries, thus reducing Taiwan’s reliance on the mainland market.
An expert involved in Taiwan’s entry into the World Trade Organization(WTO), Tsai is pushing to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership(TPP). The TPP membership would mean a comprehensive regulatory change and its potential effects, for example, could affect the pork farmers in southern Taiwan counties by opening up the market to American products. Tsai is also under pressure to deliver on her progressive promises, such as affordable housing and poverty-reduction programs.
Beijing Reiterates Strong but Restrained Position
China was relatively restrained to Taiwan’s election, with few personal attacks on the DPP’s candidates, compared with previous elections. State-run media downplayed the election, but social media was flooded with posts reflecting opinions across the political spectrum, including some praising the democracy achieved in the self-rule island.
After the DPP’s victory, Beijing immediately released a statement insisting that China’s major principles and policies on Taiwan are “consistent and clear, and will not change with the results of Taiwan elections.”9The statement was issued in the name of the two Taiwan affairs offices respectively affiliated with the party’s central committee and the central government.
The statement highlighted the joint efforts by the two sides, saying they have explored a path for the peaceful development, set up an institutional framework for cooperation, and maintained peace and stability over the past eight years, in reference to Ma Ying-jeou’s tenure in office. “Such hard-won good momentum should be cherished,” it said. “We will continue to adhere to the 1992 Consensus and resolutely oppose any form of secessionist activities seeking ‘Taiwan independence.'”10 At a recent annual parliamentary meeting, China’s top leader once again reiterated “1992 Consensus,” saying China will “never allow the historical tragedy of the nation being split to happen again.”11
Meanwhile, the PLA sent stronger warnings against what’s called “pro-independence forces.” One of them was a commentary by Luo Yuan, a retired PLA general who often publishes hard-line opinions over geopolitical issues. “We have promised that Chinese people never fight against Chinese people, but if the pro-independence forces continue to press us, we will have no other chance but to seek reunification through use of force,” said Luo, warning Taiwan that “unification means peace and independence means war, and independence would never be equal with peace.”12 The PLA, exclusively controlled by the Communist Party, holds sway over sovereignty issues, and often showcases influence through strongly-worded statements as well as regular drills.
Anti-independence campaign also expands into the cyber world. After the election an online crusade against a victorious Tsai Ying-wen created an Internet sensation. On January 20 Tsai’s Facebook page was suddenly swarmed with anti-independence posts. By the next day more than 70,000 comments had been posted by legions of young members from a forum run by Baidu, a Chinese Internet giant. Apparently, most of the Facebook commenters who were from the mainland bypassed China’s cyber-border.13 The well-coordinated online mission also targeted the pages of pro-independent media outlets in Taiwan.
After the bombardment of the Facebook page, Tsai continued to welcome the interaction of views, saying “the greatness of this country is that everyone has their own rights.”14 The online campaign, which seemed to echo the flag incident before the election day, once again highlights a rift between the Chinese and Taiwanese on social values as well as cross-Strait relations. It’s interesting to note that all those foreign web-pages under attack are blocked in China, where what’s called “jumping the cyber-wall” is deemed a breach of law. When suspected of garnering official support, the campaign organizers insisted it was a self-organized cultural communication by members, adding they “aimed to close the cognitive gap between the two sides.”15
Media waits for Tsai to unveil the cross-Strait policy in her inauguration address May 20, but tackling the ailing economy is actually a much harsher challenge for the new administration. The island’s first female president is expected to walk a fine line on relations with Beijing. She will emphasize Taiwan’s constitution that states Taiwan and the Mainland are both part of one China. As for “the 1992 Consensus,” Tsai is likely to adopt a neutral, measured tone, neither rejecting nor taking a clear-cut stand on it.
Given her recent remarks, Tsai’s Mainland policy would be not much different from her predecessor’s, more likely continuing the KMT’s pragmatic approach but with a newly-coined name. Already, the DPP is reportedly toning down the independence rhetoric in the draft for the new legislature on establishing an oversight mechanism for the cross-Strait relations. Tsai’s pro-independence left-wing party would eventually move toward the political middle, in spite of the pressure from disappointed left allies and independence-minded supporters.
Taiwan and China maintain that their peace and stability should be retained and so does Washington, a significant player in the cross-Strait relations. Hence, maintaining the status quo is undoubtedly in the best interest of the parties concerned. In fact, under no circumstances could each side afford a confrontation, given the highly-integrated economies, and social-psychological factors, along with geopolitical challenges in the region such as North Korea’s nuclear movement and territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. To sum up, despite some uncertainties, the status quo is expected to continue.
- "What does '1992 Consensus' Mean?" Apply Daily, Nov.7, 2015
- "More Than 80 Percent Taiwanese Youth Support Independence," Liberty Times Net, November 19, 2015
- "Tsai's victory speech at international press conference," Focus Taiwan News Channel, Jan.16, 2016
- Assessing the Outcomes and Implications of Taiwan's January 2016 Election," Center for Strategic and International Studies China Power Project, and the Brookings Institution Center for East Asia Policy Studies, Jan. 19, 2016
- "Tsai to Focus on Five Industries," SETN.COM, Mar.4, 2016
- "Tsai Ing-wen wins Taiwan leadership election," Xinhua News, Jan.16, 2016
- "President Xi warns against "Taiwan independence" in any form," Xinhua News, Mar.5, 2016
- Luo Yuan, "Unification: Our Unshakable Iron Will," Global Times, Jan.25, 2016
- "Chinese flood Taiwan president-elect's Facebook," Jan.22, 2016, Reuters
- "U.S.Media: DiBa Online Crusade Against Facebook," Jan.22, 2016, DWNEWS.COM