Taiwan set to complete the transition to democracy

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
January 16, 2016 (Updated)

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen gives a speech during a news conference to promote her campaign for the 2016 presidential election in Taipei, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen gives a speech during a news conference to promote her campaign for the 2016 presidential election in Taipei, January 8, 2016. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

Taiwan has surged over the hump of its 35-year voyage from a military-ruled, one-party state to one of the most successful and vibrant democracies in Asia.

Tsai Ing-wen, 59, leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, and a highly skilled and experienced politician and diplomat, won a solid victory in Saturday’s national election, taking 56 per cent of the vote in a three-candidate race.

This was sweet redemption for the woman who lost badly in the 2012 election, when President Ma Ying-jeou, leader of the Kuomintang (KMT) won a second term in power on promises of economic revival that failed to materialize.

But probably more significant on Saturday, the DPP for the first time won a majority in the island nation’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan. The DPP took 68 of the 113 seats in the Legislature, the first time the KMT has lost control of parliament since it took over the island in 1945.

Also noteworthy, while Greater Asia has had many woman leaders, Tsai is the first to win power entirely on her own merit. All the others have been propelled to power by public affection for a dead or exiled male relative.

Tsai’s credentials are solid. She got a law degree from the National Taiwan University in 1978, went on to get a masters degree in law at Cornell University in the United States and followed that with a doctorate in law at the London School of Economics in Britain.

She is thus the most worldly-wise senior figure the often parochial DPP has produced. On her return to Taiwan she began work as a law professor. However, in the early 1990s her acumen and global view were recognized by the ruling Kuomintang party (KMT). Tsai worked as a key government negotiator on Taiwan’s entry into the World Trade Organization. She was then transferred into the office of KMT President Lee Tung-hui as a national security advisor.

Although she worked for the KMT, Tsai’s political instincts were more aligned with the opposition DPP. When the DPP won the presidency in 2000, Tsai was hired for the prickly and demanding job of running the Mainland Affairs Council, which deals with the government’s relations with China.

Even American diplomats, worried the DPP administration would cause trouble with China, were impressed by her skills. One leaked United States diplomatic cable said: “Her low-key personality may also disarm her competitors, who would do well not to underestimate her.” Another cable described Tsai as being “viewed as extremely capable and very persuasive.” She has “impressive economic experience,” the cable continued, and is “a tenacious negotiator.”

The DPP winning control of the Legislative Yuan will likely herald a sea change in the often-tortuous transition for the island nation of 23 million people. It could allow for desperately needed constitutional reform. Taiwan’s current constitution and political structure was designed to govern China in the 1940s and has often been described has having the worst elements of both the United States and French systems.

Supporters of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen wait in front of her poster before a campaign rally starts for the 2016 presidential election in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, January 7, 2016. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang
Supporters of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen wait in front of her poster before a campaign rally starts for the 2016 presidential election in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, January 7, 2016. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

The building of a political structure to fit modern Taiwan would be a turning point in the challenging odyssey the islanders have faced for over 70 years. It has been a stormy ride from the “White Terror” of repression in the 1950s, 60s and 70s under the colonial-style rule of the Chinese KMT to the growth of representative and accountable government in the last 25 years.

Indeed, this election could mark the beginning of the end for the KMT as the dominant force in Taiwanese politics. The party’s presidential candidate, Eric Chu, won 31 pere cent of the popular vote. The third candidate, James Soong, got a better-than-expected 13 per cent.

Chu, sensibly, has only taken a leave of absence from his job as mayor of New Taipei City, the suburban reach north of the capital. He has a desk to go back to on Monday morning. And Chu was brought in mid-way through the campaign after the first KMT candidate was so appalling her support failed to reach double figures.

The loss of control of the Legislative Yuan for the KMT would probably be the trip wire to oblivion. Keeping control of parliament when the DPP first won the presidency between 2000 and 2008 enabled to the KMT to foil every attempt by President Chen Sui-bian to govern. And when the KMT regained the presidency under Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, one of its first acts was to the prosecution of Chen for financial skulduggery, his conviction and imprisonment. He has only recently been released from prison on medical grounds.

The withering of the KMT, once the world’s most wealthy political party, is being accompanied by the rise of new political parties in Taiwan. These, such as the New Power Party and the environmentalist Green Party, have strong followings among Taiwan’s ever-increasing cohorts of young voters who have come of age since the political uprising in 1979 – two generations ago – began the transition to democracy.

Young Taiwanese have little interest in the identity politics that have dogged the island since China’s warlord leader and KMT boss, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his defeated army, fled to Taiwan in 1949. The insistence by Chiang and many of his KMT successors that Taiwan is part of China has never sat well with the islanders. One-party military dictatorship and the brutal quashing of all expressions of independence were Chiang’s responses.

But modern Taiwanese have won the identity contest. They know they are an independent, distinct people and are comfortable in their own skins. Their only interest in relations with China is as a business opportunity. It was outgoing KMT President Ma’s promise in the 2008 campaign to improve political, and therefore economic relations with China that got him elected. His signing of a basic free trade agreement with Beijing in 2010 and the hauling down of several barriers to trade that had existed since the Communists came to power in 1949 won Ma re-election in 2012.

Since then, however, the chickens have come home to roost. Taiwanese have found that free trade with China means that only the island’s already wealthy business elite benefited and have become even more rich. Meanwhile the standard of living of Taiwan’s middle class has stagnated, jobs have fled to China, and Beijing’s state-owned investment houses are casting lascivious eyes over the island’s world-class high-technology industries.

Ma’s approval rating plummeted to near single figures soon after his re-election and has hardly stirred since.

When in 2014, Ma’s administration tried to bulldoze through the Legislative Yuan an expanded trade pact with China, thousands of young Taiwanese occupied the parliament building for nearly a month. The protesters, in what became known as the Sunflower Movement, contended the new deal would leave Taiwan dangerously vulnerable to Chinese economic imperialism. The government was forced to back down and the KMT got a drubbing in local elections later that year.

The Sunflower Movement has bred a new strain of young Taiwanese political activists focussed on economic and social justice, the enhancement of democracy and strict observance of human rights. It was members of the Sunflower Movement that founded the New Power Party (NPP), which in the future may well become a challenger to the DPP. The NPP tends to get irritated by the DPP’s equivocation over China’s very effective campaign to block most nations from recognizing Taiwan as what it is; an independent nation state. The NPP wants to push for the United Nations to recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country.

Even though this election and its results will represent a landmark coming-of-age for Taiwan, the island’s odyssey is far from over.

Always looming over Taiwan since the Communists seized power in China in 1949 is Beijing’s claim to own the island nation 180 kilometres off the South China coast. Beijing has never abandoned its threat to invade the island if Taiwan does not pledge its sovereignty to China. Much of China’s huge investment in military modernization in the last 20 years has been aimed at gaining the capacity to successfully invade Taiwan and to deter U.S. forces from coming to the islanders’ aid.

The election of Tsai and the DPP by Taiwan’s 18 million voters is a direct challenge to China’s President and Communist Party boss, Xi Jinping. Since coming to power in 2012, Xi has fomented crude and intense nationalism among Chinese as part of a strategy of maintain the Communist Party’s right to govern. To that end, Xi has pursued China’s territorial claims in the East China and South China seas, with aggressive confrontations with neighbouring states Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

These claims are spurious as is the one to own Taiwan. But Beijing’s claim to Taiwan is now so deeply embedded in the Communist Party canon that Xi cannot abandon it without irreparably damaging his right to rule.

The election of Tsai and the DPP will also cause some concern in Washington, where the United States is bound by 1979 legislation to aid in Taiwan’s defence if the island is attacked.

But the Americans’ cable traffic indicates that they, like others think Tsai has a safe pair of hands and that she is well able to maintain Taiwan’s integrity without goading Xi into calamitous adventures.

Tsai has always been careful in her statements about Taiwan status and its relationship with China. Beijing mistrusts her because in the late 1990s she was author of the concept of the Taipei government’s concept of a “state-to-state” relationship between Taiwan and China. Beijing insists the island is a renegade province.

She was careful in her victory statements on Saturday, saying Taiwan’s citizens have shown they expect “a government than can lead this country into the next generation and a government that is steadfast in protecting this country’s sovereignty.” Tsai said she would “work towards maintaining the status quo” in the relationship with China in order to “bring peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

It is unlikely that Tsai will roll back the existing economic agreements with Beijing, though public disquiet will probably push her administration to try to reverse the income disparity and stunted employment opportunities created by those deals. In the same vein, Tsai probably will not encourage any new trade deals with Beijing or expansion of the old ones. Anything that smacks of a political accord with Beijing will be a non-starter.

Instead, Tsai can be expected to pursue stronger economic and political links with Taiwan’s natural allies, such as the neighbouring fellow democracies of the Far East and Southeast Asia.

Beijing, as always, will try to bully countries into limiting relations with Taiwan by threatening to close the China market to them. But Beijing’s ranting about Taiwan has become a tired and tiring refrain, and the Chinese market is not the attraction it once was.


Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.”

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Please address queries about syndication/republishing this column to jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Related on F&O:

Taiwan frontrunner says she wouldn’t provoke China, by Reuters


Facts and Opinions relies on the honour system: enjoy one story at no charge. If you value our independent, no-spam, no-ads journalism collaboration, please support us. We suggest a minimum of .27 per story, or $20 per year. Click here for details.

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

Real journalism is not free. If you value evidence-based, non-partisan, spam-free information, please support Facts and Opinions, an employee-owned collaboration of professional journalists.  Details here.


F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.