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