Taiwan’s democracy grows stronger as KMT falters

Author: J Bruce Jacobs, Monash University

Polls strongly suggest that Taiwan’s vibrant democracy will have its third change of government in 16 years when elections are held on 16 January. The first change of government took place in 2000 when the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidency against the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), which had split before the election. The second occurred in 2008 when President Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT won a landslide victory.

Yet, despite winning re-election in 2012 with a reduced majority, the Ma government has garnered remarkably low approval ratings. Its many domestic political errors and poorly conceived policies toward China have worried Taiwan’s citizens.

The KMT suffered a stunning setback at the polls in the local elections of November 2014. As a result, Ma resigned as Chairman of the KMT and Eric Chu, mayor of New Taipei, took his place. At the time pundits agreed that the KMT would lose the presidency unless it undertook meaningful reforms.

In the absence of reform, the KMT, and its presidential campaign, has become a shambles. As they expected to lose, none of the KMT heavyweights were willing to run for the presidency. Hung Hsiu-chu, the deputy parliamentary speaker, announced her candidacy and was nominated. But Hung’s campaign proved disastrous, due in no small part to her unilateral announcement of a pro-China policy that even KMT conservatives found intolerable. KMT legislative candidates felt they could not win with Hung as presidential nominee and she was removed after some delay.

Eric Chu then became the KMT presidential candidate. To his detriment, Chu picked a poor vice-presidential candidate, Jennifer Wang, who had privately purchased military housing as an investment and sued workers as Council of Labor Affairs minister. Her apologies fell on deaf ears and Chu’s campaign declined, diminished further by his unpopular policies towards China. Chu is now competing with the third candidate, James Soong, to see who will take last place in the race.

Meanwhile, DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen has greatly improved from her relatively poor showing in 2012. Back then she appeared naïve and failed to attract voters. Now, she listens to a much wider group of advisers and has become a sophisticated and well-liked political figure. In a three-way race, Tsai will probably attract close to 50 per cent of the vote, and possibly even more.

In the simultaneous legislative election, the DPP will likely win an absolute majority of seats for the first time. As a result, they will not need to rely on friendly legislators from minor parties. This would facilitate a much smoother path for a new DPP government.

There will naturally be competition for leading positions, but Tsai has demonstrated her ability to think carefully and strategically about appointments. Her choice of running mate, Chen Chien-jen — a public health specialist and former vice president of Taiwan’s premier research institution, Academia Sinica — has been widely praised.

The question of relations with mainland China featured heavily in the two televised presidential debates. The vast majority of Taiwanese citizens are more than happy to have good relations with China. But most Taiwanese oppose China’s claims that Taiwan belongs to it. And China continues to threaten Taiwan militarily, with approximately 1500 missiles currently targeting the country.

Whether relations between China and Taiwan can continue as they are, or even improve, depends on China’s attitude. If China is not hostile, relations could be excellent. But if China continues to threaten Taiwan, relations will not improve.

President Ma’s government has insisted that the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’ — the alleged agreement in 1992 that there is ‘one China’, with the mainland and Taiwan each having their own interpretation — is the basis of China–Taiwan relations. The controversial phrase has only been in use since 2000 when Su Chi, a KMT official, invented the term. China, which had hitherto rejected the ’92 consensus’, agreed to it as a basis for cross-Strait relations only in 2005 during a visit from then KMT chairman Lien Chan.

President Ma and KMT candidate Eric Chu have repeatedly emphasised the importance of the 1992 Consensus. Yet Tsai has replied that there was and is no such consensus and she notes that Taiwan and China have negotiated without any agreed consensus prior to 2005. She has argued instead for a continuation of the status quo. China’s leaders will have to accommodate this stance if her administration comes to office as expected.

President Ma’s China plans have fallen apart. His Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, signed with China in 2010, has not produced the forecast economic prosperity. Ma’s attempt to pass the poorly planned Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement failed due to the government’s refusal to answer simple questions about the agreement. The inadequacies of the Ma government in initial negotiations are one important reason for the KMT’s decline.

For Taiwan’s government, several possibilities lie ahead. Either the KMT will revitalise itself with new leadership, or it will fade from history, to be replaced by a fresh, more Taiwan-centric opposition. Time will tell whether an incoming Tsai government will meet the challenges facing Taiwan. For now, it is clear that for many Taiwanese citizens, only the DPP offers solutions to the economic and security problems facing Taiwan.

J Bruce Jacobs is Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lintong Feng
7 January 2016 9:26 pm

In the second last paragraph, it is stated: “President Ma’s China plans have fallen apart. His Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, signed with China in 2010, has not produced the forecast economic prosperity.”
What are the main reasons for this failure of producing the forecast economic prosperity? Do they have anything to do with the slowing Chinese economy and difficulties/challenges international economies have faced?
Realistically, would Taiwan be better off or worse off economically when it have a better relationship with China, given the size and its regional and international role of Chinese economy?

8 January 2016 12:33 pm

What about the intelligence/security structure/law enforcement system on Taiwan with regards to respecting and defending the democratic system? Even though the KMT fell from power after the end of the Cold War, it is very hard to reform those agencies and its personnel that back up the KMT for many years since they had free rein for far too long and too many of them are hardcore KMT members who will not change their ways.

8 January 2016 7:57 pm

The author’s claim that “Whether relations between China and Taiwan can continue as they are, or even improve, depends on China’s attitude” has no merit.

In their historic meeting on 7 Nov 2015, between President Xi and President Ma in Singapore, the former had already, unequivocally, stated that “China and Taiwan are brothers. The bones may be broken but we are united by flesh.”

Taiwan’s provocative response was to announce in mid Dec 2015 that it will purchase another US$1.83 billion of arms from the United States.

Therefore, it is clear that ‘whether relations between China and Taiwan can continue as they are, or even improve’, depends not only on Taiwan’s attitude but whether Uncle Sam will continue to interfere in the internal affairs of China.

In the Shanghai Communiqué, signed by President Nixon on 28 Feb 1972 in Beijing, “The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a province of China. The US Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its position in the peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves.”

Although, it is now clear that the US position, negotiated by Henry Kissinger, was predicated on a deliberate constructive ambiguity that secured the Detente, it did represent the United States’ “One China” policy” ( I bet with the faint hope that one fine day, in the distance future, with US Machiavellian machinations, the Government of Taiwan could end up to be the de jure Government of China).

The ‘One China’ policy of the US was again confirmed in the Joint Communiqué, on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations on 1 Jan 1979, issued by the US and the PRC Governments.

This Joint Communiqué clearly stated that “The United States of America recognized the Government of the People’s Republic of China as the sole legal Government of China, and it acknowledged the Chinese position that there is but one China and Taiwan is a part of China. Within that context, the two sides agreed that the people of the United States would maintain cultural, commercial, and other unofficial relations with the people of Taiwan. On this basis, relations between the United States and China were normalized.”

But it is now clear that the US had no intention to keep its words and three months later, on 10 April 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) to sell arms to Taiwan and defend it in the event of a conflict with the PRC.

The TRA shows that the United States cannot be relied upon to honor its treaties with China or with any country, for that matter.

In 2015, China launched the 57-member AIIB and will launch the multi-Billion dollar ‘One Belt and One Road’ mega projects.

The One-Belt ‘Old Silk Road’ will link Chongqing, Xian, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, Russia, Poland, Belarus and Germany, by a double high-speed railway system, creating a new Renaissance in Eurasia and untold wealth.

The ‘One Road’ Maritime Silk Road will link China to 10 Asean nations, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Oman, Iran, Africa, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and the EU, creating seaborne trade of major proportions and generating great opportunities and fortunes in the participating nations.

Taiwan has a pole position to participate in the ‘One Belt and One Road’ mega projects to jump-start its moribund economy.

The polls show that the DPP candidate is slated to win the presidential election next weekend but hopefully, if elected, she won’t revert to the provocative, pro-independence rhetoric of the disruptive 2000–2008 years.

But if the new Taiwanese President defies conventional wisdom and foolishly rejects the ‘Detente” created by the recent Xi-Ma meeting, all bets are off and Taiwan may end up between an economic rock and a hard place.

12 January 2016 4:36 am
Reply to  KTTan

Spoken like a practiced China apologist. Do you honestly think that China is not in complete control of the tenor of China-Taiwan relations? Taiwan is barely a member of any major global forums (it’s part of the World Health Assembly and can participate in the Olympics under a fake name), it has hardly any diplomatic recognition, and it has hardly any offensive military capability. What could Taiwan possibly do that would actually disrupt China in any significant way? According to increasingly clear poll results all Taiwan wants is to not be absorbed by China and China is unwilling to budge on that. Taiwan’s only bargaining chip is to make forceful annexation to painful to be worth it (hence the smallest arms package Taiwan has received in decades you groused so much about) and that’s it.

So yeah, the idea that the tone of the relationship depends almost entirely in China does actually hold quite a bit of merit.

12 January 2016 7:06 pm
Reply to  Char

If the nuance escapes you, apologists seldom use their real names. They hide behind monikers like ‘CHAR’.

And according to Arthur Schopenhauer “All Truth passes thru three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.”

If China is in complete control of the ‘tenor of China-Taiwan relations’ Taiwan would not have its own legal tender or its own presidential elections.

Since Taiwan is not an independent state, like Tasmania, why would Taiwan wish to be a member of any global forum?

Does Tasmania need to purchase arms from the United States? No. Will Canberra sit on its hands if Tasmania declares its independence? No.

China and the United States are whales and Taiwan, for your info, is a shrimp.

Playing the “only bargaining chip is to make forceful annexation to painful to be worth it” and creating a war between the whales will guarantee that the shrimp is squashed.

The only alternative for Taiwan is a peaceful co-existence by adhering to the ‘1992 consensus’ of ‘One China’.