Government and governance, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, The World

24 July 2015

The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan shows that the most important rethinking of 21st Century democratic politics is happening in the Chinese-speaking world, presenting a significant challenge for whoever wins January’s election, Mark Harrison writes.

In January 2016, after a tumultuous period in its island politics, Taiwan will go to the polls to elect a new president. The election will be shaped by the international achievements and domestic failures of the two terms of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), the stresses in the politics and economy of mainland China, the renewed focus of the United States on east Asia, and the remaking of democratic politics by a new generation of young Taiwanese activists.

The election is currently being contested by Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) from the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). A third candidate standing, such as veteran politician Soong Chu-yu(宋楚瑜) from the People’s First Party, is also a possibility between now and the election.

Tsai Ing-wen is running for the second time. She led an unsuccessful campaign in 2012 against the current KMT president Ma Ying-jeou. Then, Tsai did much to rebuild DPP confidence after the acrimony of the last DPP presidency under Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) from 2000 to 2008 and she focused her campaign on the domestic economy and social justice. However, she did not have a credible China policy and the United States made its lack of trust in the DPP known by briefing against her in the international media.

This time, Tsai is campaigning again on social and economic issues, especially Taiwan’s growing social inequality, stagnant wage growth and unaffordable housing. But she has also learned the harsh geo-political lessons of 2012 and has worked to reassure the United States about the place of a Tsai administration in its strategic interests. Tsai has emphasised continuity and stability in cross-straits relations and the importance of maintaining Taiwan’s existing constitutional arrangements. Tsai’s position has received tacit acceptance from the US in the context of its wariness towards Chinese president Xi Jinping’s vision of a new regional order under China’s leadership.

While not endorsing the policies of the current KMT government, the continuity Tsai Ing-wen is offering from the Taiwan side builds on the efforts of Taiwan’s previous three elected presidents. Although the DPP would never admit it, Tsai Ing-wen’s position on mainland China is anchored and legitimised by Ma’s key achievement, which is the institutionalisation of cross-straits relations through numerous formal agreements and regular high-level meetings instigated by Ma and the previous Chinese president Hu Jintao.

Tsai’s campaign has benefitted from disarray in the ruling KMT. At its plenary meeting on July 19, after many weeks of public spats between leading party figures, the KMT confirmed Hung Hsui-chu as its presidential candidate. Hung is deputy speaker of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. She emerged as an unlikely leading contender in the aftermath of the KMT’s disastrous municipal and mayoral election results in November 2014. The KMT’s most popular elected official, and chair of the party, the mayor of New Taipei City Eric Chu (朱立倫) promised to serve a full term as mayor and declined to run for the presidency. Other leading contenders like Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), who is speaker of the legislature but also a political rival to Ma Ying-jeou, have faced too much internal party division to be able to stand.

With Ma Ying-jeou’s approval ratings down in single figures, all opinion polling has the KMT in a losing position regardless of the candidate. While a female candidate is a significant moment in Taiwanese politics and the history of the KMT, it is possible Hung is facing the so-called “glass cliff”, in which women leaders are placed in leadership roles by patriarchal institutions at the worst possible time.

Image by MiNe on Flickr.

Image by MiNe on Flickr.

Hung has not helped her own campaign by making a number of comments about her policy position on mainland China that put her out of step with the electorate, and also the KMT’s own policy consensus. She put forward the phrase “One China Same Interpretations” (一中同表) to supercede the current “One China Separate Interpretations (一中各表) used by the Ma government, and therefore implied that she would pursue political negotiations with Beijing for a settlement of the Taiwan issue. Ma Ying-jeou has occasionally floated such an idea and had to walk, or run, back from it, so unpopular is it with Taiwanese voters. Beijing has long held that political negotiations could proceed only from the Taiwanese accepting that there is one China, the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan is part of China, so acceding to the fundamental point of difference before negotiations even began. Understanding this very clearly, Taiwanese voters have distrusted any proposals for political negotiations. They, and successive Taiwanese governments, have long rejected the original formula of One Country Two Systems put forward by the PRC in the early 1980s and now applied to Hong Kong.

Although cross-straits relations are far from the only issue facing Taiwan, they are central to the election campaign and to the policies of any in-coming administration. The intensity of Taiwan’s identity politics means that the electorate see Taiwan’s relationship to the mainland as the foundational metaphor for almost all important issues of economic development, social and cultural policy, and democracy. Many political divides that might be described as conservatism and liberalism in other polities are expressed in Taiwan through the metaphor of pro-Chinese or pro-Taiwanese. Generational politics, north and south, urban and rural, traditional and modern values, the market and the state are all binary categories that intersect with Taiwanese and Chinese identity politics in complex and often contradictory ways. Hung’s position on Taiwan’s Chinese identity carries a range of other meanings about her conservative views, while Tsai’s pro-Taiwanese rhetoric aligns her with progressive politics and a narrative of Taiwan’s identity and modernisation. Hung Hsiu-chu has been dubbed “Taiwan’s Sarah Palin” by the Taiwanese media, and Tsai Ing-wen’s nearest international equivalent would be Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party.

In this context, Hung’s China policies position Tsai as the progressive in the campaign. But Tsai faces specific challenges that Hung does not that will require political skill and acumen to negotiate between now and the election, and beyond.

While Tsai has shown discretion on cross-straits relations, her approach may not be shared by the government in Beijing. Xi Jinping has proved to be an uncompromising leader. As Hong Kong learned in 2014 during the Umbrella Movement, he is entirely uninterested in accommodating the political concerns of citizens on the periphery. At the same time, he has also occasionally revealed himself to be impulsive. He clearly desires and understands the need to project confidence and authority, and has purged the Chinese Communist Party to that end. However, he has also presided over short-term policy responses to China’s economic problems that take China further from, rather than closer to, the long-term goal of a balanced economy on a path of sustainable growth.

Although it must recognise the possibility of a DPP administration in Taiwan from 2016, which would be a policy failure in Beijing’s terms, the Xi government continues to present high-profile party-to-party dialogue with the KMT as its definition of the norms and the bilateral structure of the Taiwan issue and as a sign of stability and progress in cross-straits relations. It has not signalled that it has an alternative approach in readiness. The risk for regional security is that a Tsai victory in January will trigger an ill-considered response from Beijing. Unfortunately, as the international community looks to the stable management of cross-straits relations as the key policy measure for Taiwan’s government, however unfair this may seem, rising cross-straits tension would be a disproportionately greater challenge to a Tsai administration.

However, Tsai’s most significant challenge as president may not be China at all but the constituency who would seem to be her strongest supporters.

The last several years has seen a new era of student movements in Taiwan. Starting with campus activism that led to the successful Anti-Media Monopoly Movement of 2012, then a series of smaller campaigns over urban development, it culminated in the Sunflower Movement of 2014. Hundreds of student activists occupied the legislative assembly building in Taipei for 18 days in protest over a free trade in services agreement with mainland China. The Ma government had tried to implement the deal without legislative oversight, and the movement argued that it was driving cross-straits relations in the narrow interests of the KMT and its corporate supporters.

The Sunflower Movement undermined the authority of the KMT government and gave an enormous boost to the DPP. But while the relationship to the mainland was the foundational metaphor for the movement, the Sunflower activists were not simplistically anti-China, nor anti-capitalist. Rather, they were responding to the way the current international order is being transformed by new flows of global capital, new information technologies, and the rise of China.

Image by tenz1225 via wikimedia commons.

Image by tenz1225 via wikimedia commons.

The DPP’s natural constituency are the many Taiwanese people marginalised by this new global order. But like other traditional political parties, especially of the centre-left, it has not developed the policies and political practices that articulate its meaning and empower citizens within it. Taiwan’s student activists have done far more, and along with their Hong Kong equivalents the Umbrella Movement, show that the most important rethinking of 21st Century democratic politics is happening in the Chinese-speaking world.

Understood in one way, the Sunflower activists were practicing a politics of the internet age in which the cost of information, measured as both economic or political capital, has fallen to zero. The traditional institutional structures that exist to make political and economic value out of information and ideas, including the mainstream media and political parties, find themselves less and less necessary in the era of the ubiquitous connectivity of new media. With no need of formal party structures, the Sunflower student activists created a political movement on their mobile phones. But their key achievement was to recognise that connectivity is not sufficient in itself. It quickly reduces to mere so-called “clicktivism”. Rather, they used new media to remake the meaning of Taiwan’s existing political institutions to illuminate new ways of doing politics for all Taiwanese people. The Sunflower activists did not merely stage a sit-in in the Legislative Yuan to disrupt political process, nor did they merely generate a multitude of Facebook status updates, but rather they turned the Legislative Yuan’s location in Taipei as the current centre of politics into a new political centre from which new kinds of information and ideas emanated across the city and the island in new ways. The Sunflower activists briefly showed what democratic institutions might look like in the internet age without the traditional political party structures and the media.

The DPP is working actively to coopt student activism. However, the political practices being developed by politically active youth in Taiwan will not remain constrained by the traditional party structures of the DPP. Although a Tsai victory seems the most likely result from current polling, and although her presidency would be celebrated by young Taiwanese, Tsai and the DPP may well find themselves struggling to keep up with Taiwan’s new politics as much as the KMT. Far from ending the era of activism, a DPP government of Taiwan may only see it getting started.

Taiwan’s location on the world’s geo-political faultlines between the US, China and Japan mean that its politics and economic development is more important than its size would suggest. In 1958, under the tutelage of the United States, after several years of then standard development policy, the Taiwanese government implemented a radical program of economic reforms called the Statute for the Encouragement of Investment. It laid down the principles of its export-oriented economic model of low taxation and free capital flows, and created its hypergrowth economy. Decades later, Taiwan’s policy formula became global economic orthodoxy. It was implemented in Western economies in the 1980s, and then enough of it in China in the 1990s to create China’s economic boom. A DPP government led by Tsai Ing-wen will usher in a new era of cross-straits relations with a potential impact on regional security. But the experiments in new democratic political practices by young Taiwanese are likely to be far more significant in the coming decades.

You can learn more about Taiwan in the below video by Dr Mark Harrison recorded at the ANU Centre on China in the World, titled ‘Art, Violence and Memories’. 

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One Response

  1. Truthseeker says:

    Fascinating. The “new democratic political practices by young Taiwanese” the author describes which circumvent established media and political institutions are anathema to the authoritarian regime across the strait. Just the type of Internet group connection among citizens the regime fears as a threat to its existence.

    I wonder if American citizens, frustrated with the two-party system could learn a thing or two?

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