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.