Looking beyond Tsai’s big election win


Author: Gerrit van der Wees, George Mason University and George Washington University

President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) momentous election victory on 11 January 2020 represents a significant turning point for Taiwan. It marks the culmination of a democratic transformation that started with the end of martial law in 1987 and the commencement of democratic reforms by former president Lee Teng-hui in the early 1990s. Since then, the government has changed hands three times. But a persistent public fear exists that a return of the Kuomintang (KMT) will cause Taiwan to backslide away from democracy and towards China.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen listens to a speaker in New Taipei City, Taiwan, 26 December 2019 (Photo: REUTERS/Ann Wang).

This happened in 2008 when Ma Ying-jeou regained the presidency. His pro-China stance led to the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement, which changed the political landscape, and led to major defeats for the KMT in the local 2014 and national 2016 elections.

The overwhelming mandate received by President Tsai and her party significantly reduces the danger of such a pro-China agenda. The KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu lost by a margin of almost 20 per cent, demonstrating that the KMT’s pro-China approach is losing ground, especially among younger voters. In its recent search for a new chairman, the candidate elected on 7 March 2020, ‘Johnny’ Chiang Chi-chen, campaigned on the theme that he would ‘bring back’ the young voters. It remains to be seen whether he can bring about changes that appeal to young voters.

As Mark Harrison and Huong Le Thu wrote, ‘Han’s campaign machine was dysfunctional and the KMT was beset by an identity crisis. In the second half of 2019, the protests in Hong Kong left few in Taiwan under the illusion that Beijing would honour any arrangements that would respect any form of autonomy. The younger generation in particular saw an urgency to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty, maintain their democracy and refuse a future like Hong Kong’s’.

The overwhelming victory also represents a clear mandate for President Tsai and her DPP, which — in combination with several smaller parties — holds a majority of 70 seats in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan. Tsai will be able to push through legislation and continue reforms initiated by her government in its first term. These reforms include much-needed judicial reform, transitional justice measures, further economic and industrial reforms, streamlining of the economy and strengthening substantive ties with the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia, India, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

A question remains: how will Taiwan’s relationship with China develop moving forward? If Beijing continues or intensifies its current approach of pushing Taiwan into a corner, it will increasingly find the United States and other democratic countries in the way. The democratic world has now clearly seen that President Tsai has a broad popular mandate and will be much more supportive of Taiwan and its democracy.

In this context it is important to understand that President Tsai and the DPP are the political descendents of the native Taiwanese democracy movement that brought about Taiwan’s transition to democracy in the 1980s and 1990s. Rowan Callick emphasises that the youth vote focused on issues of identity in place of issues of living standards. The majority of Taiwan now identifies as Taiwanese and not Chinese, with only 13 per cent of the population descended from those who came from mainland China in the 1940s.

This distinction is essential for understanding the Taiwan of today, as the China–Taiwan relationship has until now almost exclusively been cast by media and governments alike in terms of the historical rivalry between Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China (ROC). This narrative asserts that Taiwan ‘split off’ from China in 1949, and that Taiwan and China were perpetual rivals dating back to the Chinese Civil War.

That may have been the case from the 1950s through the 1980s when Chiang Kai-shek’s government imposed ruthless martial law on the island while still claiming to rule all of China. During that period, ‘Taiwan’ became synonymous with Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC. But after the momentous transition to democracy in the late-1980s and early-1990s, the Taiwanese developed their own narrative, very different from  Mao Zedong’s PRC or Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC — an open and inclusive multi-ethnic identity, emphasising that all people who identify with Taiwan are Taiwanese.

A new and democratic Taiwan should prompt the international community — including China — to see Taiwan in a new light. Democratic Taiwan in 2020 is very different from the old and repressive ROC of 1979, when the United States broke relations with the regime in Taipei as it was still claiming to be the government representing all of China. Taiwan demonstrably and rightfully claims to represent itself, and it is only rational and reasonable to welcome it as a full and equal member of the international community.

Gerrit van der Wees is a former Dutch diplomat. From 1980 through 2016 he served as chief editor of Taiwan Communique. He teaches history of Taiwan at George Mason University and Current Issues in East Asia at George Washington University.

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