Taiwan in Transition

This op-ed is published by the China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham: http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/chinapolicyinstitute/2016/05/19/taiwan-in-transition/.

On May 20th Taiwan will inaugurate its first female President, Dr Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Some Western observers like Richard Bush and media such as The Economist have expressed worries about the potential hurdles in cross-Strait relations. While the possibility of increasing tensions between China and Taiwan should not be ruled out, the debate on cross-Strait relations needs to be re-framed more carefully and correctly. With the tremendous transition facing Taiwan politically and economically, it is equally important for the West and Beijing to understand Taiwan’s past to understand what Taiwan might become in the future.

Re-balancing cross-Strait relations

The world is waiting expectantly for Tsai’s inauguration speech, which is expected to provide an outline of her cross-Strait policy and the blueprint for her future governance. Since her party won the presidency and control of the Legislature in January, Beijing has repeatedly called on Tsai to accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” and the notion that “the two sides belong to one China”.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping once said that without the “1992 Consensus”, which he called a “magic compass that calms the sea”, “the ship of peaceful development will meet with great waves and even suffer total loss”. Ever since the 2016 general elections, Beijing and Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) have been launching a series of tactics, demanding Taiwan’s incoming president to accept the “1992 Consensus” in her inauguration speech. Beijing wants to constrain Tsai in this China-centric historical framework as a means to ensure that Taiwan would not claim independence during Tsai’s term. The KMT, on the other hand, is worried that they will lose their key role as a mediator between China and Taiwan. The gloomy state of Taiwan’s economy under the eight year KMT rule has left the party only one card to play; cross-Strait relations. Just a week before Tsai’s inauguration, KMT Chair Hung Hsiu-chu openly said that if cross-Strait relations deteriorate because of the incoming government, the KMT would not avoid the responsibility to help mediate”. In other words, the KMT will invite itself to meddle in cross-Strait relations if their development does proceed in the way they would like.

The magical phrase, “1992 Consensus”, is a term former KMT MAC Minister Su Chi admitted he made up in 2000, and has been defined by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Office (MAC) as “one China, with two respective interpretations”. Despite how President Ma Ying-Jeou and his party have rigorously advocated the importance of the phrase to cross-Strait stability, it is Ma, the most disliked politician in Taiwan according to the latest TISR survey, who buried the magical phrase in the storybook during his meeting with Xi last November. Following this “historical Ma-Xi meeting” many local media expressed concern that Ma did not mention the “Republic of China” and the “respective interpretations” during his opening remarks. To pacify public concern, MAC in an official statement clarified that Ma did mention the “1992 Consensus of one China, two respective interpretations” at the closed-door meeting with Xi. Regardless, actions speak louder than words. This inconsistency cancelled out the historical meaning Ma could have achieved by meeting his Chinese counterpart.

Whilst Beijing has not ceased pressuring Tsai to accept the so-called “1992 Consensus” in her inauguration speech, the latest poll by the Taiwan Indicator Survey Research (TISR) found 51.7 per cent of Taiwanese people said that Tsai should not recognise the “1992 Consensus”, or the idea that “two sides belong to one China”. Should Chinese leader Xi Jinping continue to seriously look to “winning the hearts and minds” of Taiwanese people, perhaps he should adopt democratic rhetoric instead of imposing his “magic compass that calms the sea” on people living on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

Greater public political participation, greater public scrutiny

Like any other relationship, it takes two to tango. In the course of cross-Strait development, Beijing will have to be aware of the fact that Taiwanese people have made it clear that they will not be “forced” to accept the “1992 consensus”, a term discussed by Beijing and a KMT government which was not even democratically elected by the Taiwanese people at the time.

Since Taiwan held its first direct presidential election in 1996, today’s Taiwanese voters are still seeking greater political participation, as direct elections can only be counted as a beginning for democracy to take root in Taiwan. In the past decade, whether Taiwan’s authorities liked it or not, an emerging voice has risen and demanded the government to truly fulfil the rights stipulated in Article 17 of the Constitution, “the People should have the right of election, recall, initiative, and referendum”. Many student-led social movements have mushroomed since 2008. In 2013, a writer and a film director co-founded a recall movement, which later became a nation-wide civic initiative “Appendectomy Project” aiming to recall several “incompetent” legislators.

The momentum of Taiwanese public political participation reached fever pitch two years ago with the “Sunflower Movement”, when activists occupied the Parliament building for 24 days. They expressed their suspicion and opposition against opening up service industries to China. The movement resulted in a significant promise of public scrutiny when then Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-Pyng agreed to halt the review on the trade pact until a scrutiny bill for cross-Strait agreements was introduced. With a DPP-dominated Parliament being sworn in this year, the draft cross-Strait scrutiny bill will likely pass the Legislature and inject greater public scrutiny into the parliamentary reviewing process of any formal interaction between Taipei and Beijing.

The implication behind these social movements, greater public political participation and scrutiny will inevitably become a major stakeholder which Beijing has to take into account. Unlike their Chinese counterparts, Taiwan’s dynamic and strong civil society has taken root in democratic soil. Given the complexity of cross-Strait relations, simply holding onto the “1992 Consensus” will not suffice to improve fragile ties. As now the Taiwanese society demands greater public scrutiny over the formation of any cross-Strait agreements, Beijing needs to engage with Taiwanese public, not coerce their leader.

Time to update the cross-Strait narrative

It is nearly a quarter of a century since 1992. Neither China nor Taiwan is the same as they were 25 years ago. China’s rising economic power has repositioned it on the centre of world stage, whereas Taiwan’s economy is in dire need of reform. Under such critical economic conditions, if closer cross-Strait economic ties under outgoing President Ma’s eight years governance could not bring unification any closer, nor will suspending economic and other cross-Strait interactions. It is time for Beijing and Taipei to find a new common ground for sustainable cross-Strait stability. The international community should also re-think the narrative of cross-Strait relations, instead of ignoring China’s provocations while pressing Taiwan to make concessions in the name of “stability”.

In her speech at CSIS last year, Tsai stressed that “the two sides of the Taiwan Strait should treasure and secure the accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges. These accumulated outcomes will serve as the firm basis of my efforts to further the peaceful and stable development of cross-Strait relations”. Here, “the accumulated outcomes of more than twenty years of negotiations and exchanges” clearly included the cross-Strait negotiation held in Hong Kong in 1992 and a supposed understanding reached during the meeting later on that became the “1992 Consensus” coined by the KMT.

While she advocated constructive exchange and dialogue with China, Tsai also promised that she would ensure the process is democratic and transparent, and that the economic benefits are equitably shared. Whilst the ratio of Taiwanese identity stood at record high through the past 20 years at 73 per cent, a majority of 86.7 per cent of Taiwan people also said that they supported maintaining the status quo between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. Furthermore, 68.2 per cent of Taiwanese citizens supported the incoming DPP government to negotiate with Beijing and come up with new grounds to replace the “1992 Consensus”. The collective will represented by Tsai Ing-wen is a voice for self-determination, stability and dialogue.

After inauguration, the ball will be in Beijing’s court. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once stated, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice”. Perhaps it is time for Xi to consider recalibrating his approach in dealing with the Taiwan issue. It doesn’t matter whether it is “1992 Consensus” or “1992 Meeting”, as long as it can contribute to cross-Strait stability. It is now time for Beijing and Taipei to re-engage on a new common ground and seek a new consensus.

A “Green” Legislature: Taiwan’s New Parliament More Different Than Ever

(Note: this article was published in the Ketagalan Media on 17 February).

On 16 January, Taiwanese voters historically elected the very first Legislative Yuan (LY) that was not dominated by the ruling Kuomingtang (KMT). The defeat of the KMT, a party which had controlled Taiwan’s Legislature for over half a century after it fled to Taiwan in 1949, signalled Taiwanese voters’ expectation for a change in the nation’s highest law-making body. During his concession speech, defeated KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu (朱立倫) said that “Taiwan’s political arena cannot exist without the KMT”. However, Taiwanese voters by using their ballot papers strongly showed that, for once, they wanted a Taiwan where the KMT did not hold both the presidency and the parliament.

This year, 113 legislators – who compose the 9th Legislature – opened up a new chapter in the history of Taiwan’s national legislative body. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 68 seats in the 113-seat Legislature, terminating the KMT-monopoly and turning them into the main opposition with only 35 seats. Not only is the 9th Legislative Yuan the first DPP-controlled Legislature in history, it also introduces more fresh faces, and a more diverse and gender-balanced combination of representatives, than ever before.

The dynamics of the Legislature will henceforth be very different, according to the President-elect Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). She has promised voters a legislative reform which will make the Legislature more representative. In addition, the first DPP member to preside over Taiwan’s Legislature, Su Chia-chyuan (蘇嘉全),was elected as speaker of the Legislative Yuan on its opening day, garnering 74 votes from the 113 lawmakers and promised an end to backdoor negotiations in the Legislature.

Before the first legislative session commences this Friday on 19 February, perhaps it is timely to ask, what the real changes are, and can the changing dynamic really reform Taiwan’s Legislature?

Generational Shift

The result of the 2016 legislative election not only saw the first DPP majority in the Legislature, but also a generational shift in Taiwan’s political arena. The first aspect of the generational shift can be seen in the seniority of the legislators. The new Legislature has 43 first-time legislators, many of whom have never held public office before.

The 19 KMT incumbents who lost their elections collectively had 68 terms of seniority. Their seats are taken by non-KMT challengers with a collective 6 terms under their belts.

Name Terms Successor Terms
Ting Shou-chung (丁守中) 7 DPP Wu Su-yao (吳思瑤) * 0
Lin Yu-fang (林郁方) 5 NPP Freedy Lim (林昶佐) 0
Wu Yu-sheng(吳育昇) 3 DPP Lu Sun-lin (呂孫綾) 0
Huang Chih-hsiung(黃志雄) 2 DPP Su Chiao-hui (蘇巧慧) 0
Chiang Hui-chen (江惠貞) 1 DPP Lo Chih-cheng (羅致政) 0
Chang Ching-chung (張慶忠) 3 DPP Chiang Yung-chang (江永昌) * 0
Lu Chia-chen (盧嘉辰) 2 DPP Wu Chi-ming (吳琪銘)* 0
Lee Ching-hua (李慶華) 7 NPP Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) 0
Chen Ken-te (陳根德) 5 DPP Cheng Yun-peng (鄭運鵬) 1
Liao Cheng-ching (廖正井) 2 DPP Chen Lai Su-mei (陳賴素美) * 0
Yang Li-huan (楊麗環) 4 DPP Cheng Pao-ching (鄭寶清) 2
Sun Ta-chien (孫大千) 4 Independent Chao Cheng-yu (趙正宇) * 0
Yang Chiung-ying (楊瓊瓔) 5 NPP Hung Tzu-yung (洪慈庸) 0
Tsai Chin-lung (蔡錦隆) 3 DPP Chang Liao Wan-chien (張廖萬堅) * 0
Lin Kuo-cheng (林國正) 1 DPP Lai Rui-lung (賴瑞隆) 0
Lin Tsang-min (林滄敏) 3 DPP Huang Hsiu-fang (黃秀芳)* 0
Cheng Ju-fen (鄭汝芬) 2 DPP Hung Tsung-yi (洪宗熠)* 0
Wang Chin-shih (王進士) 2 DPP Chung Chia-ping (鍾佳濱) 0
Wang Ting-sheng (王廷升) 2 DPP Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) 3
  68   6

(*Was city/county councilors prior to becoming legislators)

Notably even the 24 KMT candidates who won district or indigenous seats only have a total of 48 terms combined. With a DPP majority, and with over one-third of the legislators having no experience in the Legislature before, one can easily expect the dynamics of the Legislature to be considerably different from the past.


Another aspect of the generational shift lies in the election of a new generation of representatives. This year, more legislators under 40 take office, making the average age of 50, younger than that of the previous Legislature, which was 52. The youngest legislator is 28-year-old Lu Sun-lin (呂孫綾) of the DPP, who beat KMT legislator Wu Yu-sheng (吳育昇), a 57-year-old veteran politician who sought his fourth consecutive term.

In the previous Legislatures, only 8 out of then 48 candidates under age 40 were elected. In this year, there were 101 candidates under 40, and 12 of them won legislative seats. At a forum on a “New Era in US-Taiwan Relations” held the day after the elections, Dr. Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌) of the Academia Sinica said that a “new generation of politics was reflected in the victories of the New Power Party (NPP)”.

Hsiao is right.

Looking into the five NPP legislators, three are under 40 years old. In Taipei, 39-year-old Freddy Lim (林昶佐) beat six-term KMT legislator Lin Yu-fang (林郁芳). 33-year-old Hung Tzu-yung (洪慈庸) defeated five-term KMT legislator Yang Chiung-ying (楊瓊瓔) and gained her party the only seat out of northern Taiwan. On the party-list, the 1st-ranked Kawlo Lyun Pacidal (高潞 以用) is 38 years old.

In fact, compared with other parties, the NPP provides young people with more opportunities with 9 of their 12 candidates (75 per cent) being under 40. Unlike some under-40 DPP and KMT legislators who are second-generation politicians, the NPP candidates have no political family background, but possess extensive experience in academia, human rights, and civil movement.

In this year’s Legislature, 12 of the under-40 legislators were born in the late 70s when Taiwan was still under martial law. A lot of them were born around 1977, a year when the KMT for the first time lost four city/county heads in local elections. Before then, the KMT had never before lost seats in any elections. Davidson University Professor Shelly Rigger once described 1977 as a “turning point” for Taiwan as the election result revealed that the KMT could no longer control its electoral machine.[1] The Taiwanese born in the post-martial law period, with their victories in the 2016 elections, demonstrated that a new generation had risen and broken the KMT-dominated political landscape.


On gender balance, the percentage of women in the Legislature has increased to 38 per cent (43 seats), from 34 per cent (38 seats) in the previous Legislature. The outcome of the legislative race is described by Dr. Nathan Batto as “a victory for diversity”, with Taiwan now ranking 10th in the world in the proportion of women in its national legislature. The steady increase in Taiwanese women’s representation in the parliament shows that women are gradually gaining power in Taiwan’s political institutions.

National Elections 1995 1998 2001 2004 2008 2012 2016
Seats of Female Legislators 23 43 50 47 34 38 43
Total Seats in Legislative Yuan 164 225 225 225 113 113 113
% ofFemale Legislators 14% 19% 22% 21% 30% 34% 38%

The new Legislature also achieved another milestone, which is indigenous representation. In addition to the six reserved seats for indigenous legislators, two more were elected on the party lists of the DPP and the NPP. Although indigenous peoples only make up about 2 per cent of Taiwan’s total population, the eight seats account for 7 per cent of the Legislature. As Batto commented, “this effort to give voice to women and minorities speaks to the pride that Taiwanese have in their diverse and pluralistic society”.

Friend or foe?

The last change of dynamics is the introduction of a new, third ranking party in the Legislature, the NPP. It is not the first time for Taiwan to see a young party enter the Legislature. For instance, two years after its establishment in 1993, the New Party (NP) garnered 21 legislative seats and became the third-largest party. In 2001, the third-largest party was the People First Party (PFP) which won 46 legislative seats just one year after its formation in 2000.

However, it is the first time in Taiwan that a party can become the third-largest party in the parliament with all of its legislators being first-time politicians. The victory of the five NPP legislators, who had never been elected to public office before, shows that Taiwan’s civil society is taking solid steps in shaping up Taiwan’s political landscape. Two of the NPP legislators – Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) and Freddy Lim – were deeply involved with the 2014 student-led Sunflower Movement. Their effort was awarded with voters’ support and, two seats in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan.

The party’s deep connection with the Sunflower Movement has brought itself international attention. Still, the NPP needs to turn the public’s attention into real admiration; otherwise it can easily be replaced by any other party deriving from social movements.

To continue their momentum, its five legislators will have to show the voters that they are not merely junior partners to the DPP, but a real “third force” in the political spectrum different from the KMT and the DPP. During the 2016 elections campaign, DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen lent her support to the NPP with herself and several DPP heavyweights, including the Tainan and Kaohsiung Mayors, attending many rallies held for NPP candidates. The close collaboration between the NPP and the DPP will be the “baggage” that the legislators will have to get rid of first, should they want to be a real alternative to the traditional blue and green camp rivals. As Dr. Hsu Szu-chien (徐斯儉) of Academia Sinica commented, the NPP has to walk its own path because society is looking expectantly towards the NPP, to see whether they can be a real watchdog in the parliament.

First showdown: the cross-Strait agreement supervisory draft bill

As Huang and Lim both have been advocating public scrutiny over cross-Strait negotiations during the Sunflower Movement, it is expected to see the NPP take an aggressive role in reviewing the cross-Strait agreements supervisory draft bill in the Legislature. Earlier this month, Huang Kuo-chang said that because the DPP last year already expressed support for a version of such a bill proposed by civil groups, “the DPP will have to offer an explanation if they change their mind in the new Legislature”. Huang’s remarks indicate that there might be a rift emerging between the two parties. Similarly, on meetings between cross-Strait leaders, Huang firmly noted that the NPP would not oppose such a meeting. However, he added, it has to be authorised by the Legislature prior to the meeting.

The attitude of Huang shows that his party will not be content with just being a pan‑green party. During their campaign, Huang and Lim both reiterated that they are aiming at totally marginalising the KMT’s political influence. Now, as the KMT has lost the presidency and the Legislature, what is next? It will be interesting to see how the NPP approaches its priority bill, and their stance on major issues as these events will define their real niche market in Taiwan’s political landscape.

From the street to Parliament floor

As Taiwan’s electoral system tends to favour a two-party system, it isn’t sufficient for a party to rely on endless media exposure to consolidate its support. As the NPP has successfully brought social activists outside the Parliament into the offices of its five legislators, they are now under the same public scrutiny as the KMT which they vigorously protested against. Public opinion can change swiftly, especially in response to domestic issues. Calling itself the “Third Force” or recruiting young people from recent social movements does not necessarily mean that the party can adequately represent a new political trend underneath the two-party rivalry. Rather, their actions in the upcoming months in the Legislature and in front of the cameras will determine what they are.

(Feature photo of Huang Kuo-chang, by Watchout on Wikicommons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

[1] Rigger, Shelly (2002) Politics in Taiwan. London: Routledge.

When Taiwanese Identity Awakens

(Note: this post was published in the Ketagalan Media on 30 December, before the 2016 Presidential election)

Amid the Star Wars craze, the DPP released a poster mimicking the style of The Force Awakens with a slogan “People Awaken” in between the faces between Tsai and her running mate, former health minister and Academia Sinica vice president Chen Chien-jen.

With 16 days until Taiwan’s January 2016 presidential and legislative elections, almost all local polls indicated that opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chair and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen is poised to be elected as Taiwan’s first female president.

The election is important for Tsai, as she had helped revive the DPP and led her party to strong showings in the 2009 and 2014 local elections, but she has never won a race herself. After she lost to incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou by six per cent four years ago, Tsai hopes that this time Taiwanese voters will turn their disappointment over the ruling Kuomingtang (KMT) into support for the DPP.

But if she successfully wins the presidency next year, the “awakened Taiwanese youth” might be more difficult than the declining KMT for her to deal with.

Changing political landscape

Four years ago, the KMT still dominated Taiwan’s political landscape. Academia Sinica Assistant Research Fellow Nathan Batto pointed out that the outcomes in the 2012 presidential and legislative elections were almost identical to the party line results.[1] The KMT camp won 30 of 33 seats in the North and Mid-north Taiwan, while the DPP camp won 18 of the 23 seats in the Mid-South and South.

Batto described the races as “maintaining the election” as it would be “difficult to fundamentally readjust the central cleavage line without some major change in the relationship with China.”

Even at that time, it was difficult to imagine that central cleavage line changing. Indeed, the political camps were described as “tectonic plates.” However, somehow, President Ma Ying-jeou’s China-friendly policy, which has increasingly brought Taiwan closer to the other side of the Strait, became itself the driving force changing the dimension of cross-Strait relations, and indirectly altered Taiwan’s political landscape.

In Ma’s 2012 re-election campaign, he promised voters a prosperous future hinged on closer economic ties with China. Nonetheless, to an increasing portion of the populace, Ma’s policy did not deliver the bright future he envisioned. Instead, wages stagnated, wealth gaps worsened, and housing prices surged, which exhausted the voters and left a strong impression on the general public that the Ma’s administration was not capable of resolving social issues, and to some extent, even aggravated some of them.

In the latest survey conducted by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research (TISR), the percentage of the populace polled who identified themselves “pan-green” surpassed that of those identifying themselves “pan-blue” for the first time since 2004. As Batto noted, the KMT lost nearly 40 per cent of its identifiers between early 2012 and late 2014. The monumental shift has impacted last year’s local elections with a 55-40 per cent result in favour of the pan-green camp.

The voters’ frustration with Ma’s administration resulted in the KMT’s landslide defeat in the 2014 nine-in-one local election and a political breakthrough for the DPP. The 29-year-old DPP, led by Tsai, won five cities and counties in Northern Taiwan, a traditional stronghold for the KMT.

The poll showed that since last year’s Sunflower Movement, the DPP party identification has been leading that of the KMT by five to 10 per cent. Batto suggested that the 2016 election results might not look similar to those from previous years, and that it is clear that we are no longer in the old 50-45 per cent world.

The rising DPP party identification might not necessarily lead to a DPP-dominated political landscape. However, It might, in the long run, signal another shift in Taiwan’s political arena.

A new dawn; a new day

Professor Tao Yi-feng of National Taiwan University called last year’s Sunflower Movement a “watershed moment” for Ma’s 8-year tenure in office. She argued that prior to the unprecedented 24-day occupation of Taiwan’s parliament, widespread dissatisfaction over other social issues had already been simmering, and eventually boiled over to the movement.

Tao argued that the “old politics” of KMT-DPP rival could not solve the new problems facing Taiwanese youth. As a result, we have seen several newly established parties join the 2016 legislative election, with the New Power Party (NPP), headlined by Sunflower Movement leader legal scholar Huang Guo-chang and heavy metal musician Freddy Lim, leading other small parties in most polls.

For the short run, it seems likely that the decline of support for the KMT might not fully translate into votes for the DPP in the 2016 elections. Pro-DPP paper Liberty Times found that among Tsai’s supporters, 34.34 per cent of them planned to vote for non-DPP legislative candidates. Similarly, 31.76 per cent of KMT supporters also indicated that they would vote for non-KMT legislative candidates.

If the NPP wins three to five legislative seats as some polls suggest, the DPP should not underestimate the potential of this new party. If the NPP passes the legislative threshold and form a caucus in the future Parliament, as Professor Alexander Huang of Taiwan’s Tamkang University commented, they could “hamstring Tsai’s plan to keep the cross-Strait status quo.”

The Awakened Youth Political Force

After the Sunflower Movement, Taiwan’s younger generation is replacing Taiwanese-independence-as-a-movement with Taiwanese-independence-as-a-way-of-life. The next administration will have to be able to shed new light on the elephant in the room—the definition of future relations with China.

Those young faces in last year’s Sunflower Movement are not new to political engagement. Back in 2008, these youth born between 1981 and 1990 started peaceful demonstration and marked the island’s first large scale student movement in the 21st century. The protest, known as the Wild Strawberry Movement, expressed concern that President Ma is moving too close to Beijing and compromising Taiwan’s de facto independence. It was just the beginning of an awakening for their generation.

In the following years between 2012 and 2014, the island has seen the “Anti-Media Monopoly Movement” (反媒體壟斷運動), which campaigned around the issues of media freedom and democracy, protests against forced demolitions in Dapu and Huaguang Community, anti-nuclear demonstrations, anti-labor exploitation and aboriginal rights movements, all leading up to the Sunflower Movement. During Ma’s second term, Taiwanese youth went through a period of civil unrest which has come to occupy the Taiwanese public consciousness.

As a Taiwan Braintrust think-tank poll suggested, the new generation express stronger Taiwanese identity, with only 2.4 per cent of those aged 20-29 identifying themselves as Chinese. This year’s student-led protests against “China-centric” history textbook revisions and a campaign redesigning Taiwan passport covers with “Republic of Taiwan” stickers are not isolated incidents under Beijing-friendly Ma administration.

Those polls and movements not only reflect the rising Taiwan identity, but also the muddled central cleavage line. After the Sunflower Movement and independent Ko Wen-je’s victory of winning Taipei City, the capital which was only under the DPP’s rule for four years in the 90s, we have seen the spontaneous rise of collaborative actions by young Taiwanese. The sea of information and the power of the Internet are corroding the government’s ability to “correct” the view of Taiwanese on the island’s history and their identity.

You only find this new dimension of Taiwanese society if you look hard for it. For instance, four young Taiwanese born in the 90s used crowd funding to produce a documentary of Su Beng (史明), a Taiwanese historian and independence revolutionary. They raised 40 per cent more than their original target and received NT$7 million in the end. At this year’s Expo Milan 2015, a group of Taiwanese with an average age of 27, with ten month’s preparation, opened the Taiwan Pavilion in downtown Milan. When Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs chose to walk away from the international event, it was those youthful Taiwanese people who chose to persevere and bring Taiwan back on the stage.

Blurred lines

With the 2016 elections just around the corner, 1.29 million first-time voters who will be eligible to vote in January’s elections will bring these new dimensions into Taiwan’s political arena.

As mentioned before, for most of Taiwan’s two-party democratic experience the major cleavage has been on national identity. While the two major parties the KMT and the DPP fight about unification versus independence, they both also promise economic growth through subsidizing select industries and trade liberalization.

The KMT often claims itself the foundation of Taiwan prosperity. But while President Ma is still picturing a future with peace and profit across the Taiwan Strait (note: he mentioned “prosperity” seven times in his opening remarks at the Ma-Xi meet), Taiwanese youth are pursuing a future where their democratic island can proudly call itself “Taiwan” and they are doing so by new forms of political engagements and new forms of self-expression with an aim, in the long run, that the world will recognise where they come from.

This is what Tsai meant when she said at last year’s DPP National Congress that Taiwan’s independence has already become a “natural ingredient” in the character of the young generation. But this also means that if she wins the presidency and her party garners the majority of the Parliament, her leadership will be contested in her management of the thorny cross-Strait relations and the rising youth political force.

Academic Sinica Associate Research Fellow Chen Chih-jou in his recent research found that contrary to their elder generations, Taiwanese youth attach greater importance to national autonomy than economic benefit. If the KMT, and indeed the DPP as well, only subscribes to the idea that economic development trumps all other interest of Taiwanese voters, then they will push away young voters.

As we can no longer use the old politics of “KMT-DPP” rival to gauge Taiwan’s political landscape, it is difficult to predict exactly where the new underlying central cleavage line will be. Behind the blurred lines, the growing awakening force will pay close attention on next Taiwan government’s stance on the island’s national autonomy. And, if necessary, they might not hesitate to shake the political landscape further.

(Feature photo of DPP presidential and vice presidential candidates, from DPP Facebook)


[1] Nathan Batto (2009), ‘Continuity in the 2012 presidential and legislative elections’, in Political Changes in Taiwan under Ma Ying-jeou, ed Jean-Pierre Cabestan and Jacques deLisle, pp 15-36, Rouledge: Oxon