Taiwan’s 2016 Presidential Election: Healing Divides

XIAOYING ZHOU examines a changing political climate in Taiwan.

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Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first-ever female president and leader of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Hundreds of Chinese faces sprouted up the second I walked in. The auditorium of Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington, Massachusetts was packed, inundated in a sea of red for the celebration of Chinese New Year. As I sat down next to my landlady Stella, a Taiwanese expat in her eighties, she observed with a smile that I hadn’t changed at all.

Taiwanese separatists, she said, have forgotten that “blood is thicker than water.”

Two weeks before the celebration, Taiwan had elected its first female president in history, Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the island’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), commonly known as the “Green Party.” Tsai won by a landslide with 56.12% of the votes.

I asked Stella what she thought about the election. She shook her head in disapproval at the victory of the DPP. Taiwanese separatists, she said, have forgotten that “blood is thicker than water,” quoting an old Chinese saying that urges people to always remember blood ties. “We all belong to the same people,” she said. “Why fight with each other?”

The daughter of a Chinese Nationalist officer, Stella left the Mainland for Taiwan when she was nine, after the Communists forced the Nationalists off the Mainland in China’s civil war in 1949. She spent her formative years in Taiwan, before moving to the United States with her husband. For Stella and many Taiwanese with Nationalist ties, both the Mainland and Taiwan are home. Since the civil war ended more than half a century ago, they believe, the Nationalists and the Communists should work together to unify the Mainland and the island of Taiwan, like East and West Germany in 1989. But as the generation of Nationalist immigrants gets older, their children have started to regard Taiwan as their only home, identifying as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.

The generational divide is not the only reason for Taiwan’s rising nationalism. Like in the United States, Taiwanese politics has been plagued by strong partisanship in the last two decades. In a sense, the DPP’s victory in the 2016 presidential election is but an indicator of Taiwanese dissatisfaction with the Nationalist Party (KMT), or “Blue Party,” as it’s more commonly known today.

***

Thanks largely to the KMT government, Taiwan saw much political turmoil in the latter half of the twentieth century. In 1947, the KMT took control of Taiwan following Japan’s defeat in WWII. After fifty years of Japanese colonization, many in Taiwan thought they were finally liberated. But they were soon proven wrong. During the so-called “228 Incident” in 1947, the KMT regime brutally repressed an anti-government uprising, killing tens of thousands of Taiwanese civilians. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek, the first president of the Republic of China (ROC) and then-chairman of the KMT, imposed martial law in Taiwan, beginning a period that would last for 38 years. During this time, known in Taiwan as the “White Terror,” the KMT government killed thousands of political dissidents and intellectuals.

In the 1980s, Chiang Ching-kuo, son of Chiang Kai-shek and third President of ROC, was more tolerant of political dissent and opened up Taiwanese internal politics by inviting non-Chinese to join the KMT and non-KMT to join the government. In 1988, Lee Teng-hui became the first ethnically non-Chinese person to be elected President in Taiwan. After Chen Shui-bian became Taiwan’s first DPP president in 2000, the KMT redefined itself as the explicitly pro-reunification party, reaching a rapprochement with its former enemy, the Mainland’s Communist Party of China (CCP). While the KMT reclaimed the presidency in 2008, its recent policies have been regarded as a failure. A proud member of the “Four Asian Tigers” in the 1970s, Taiwan today is beset with economic stagnancy, which many attribute to the pro-China policies of KMT president Ma Ying-jeou. The youth unemployment rate is high: about 12 to 13 percent, according to a 2014 report by Taiwan Today. In retrospect, Ma’s policies, which promised economic growth by opening up to the Chinese market, are now seen to have benefited only big corporations and elites.

***

But beyond the divide between Blue and Green, there is also a third force developing in Taiwan that seeks to surpass the partisanship on the island. Ketagalan Media, founded three years ago by two Taiwanese-Americans interested in informing and inspiring the “movement of ideas and trends” in Taiwan, is one example of the many new media outlets that have established themselves as moderate voices in Taiwan today. In a recent piece published by Ketagalan, for example, author Calin Brown discussed the subtle but pernicious racism that exists in Taiwan, drawing attention to the unresolved issue of the status of South Asian immigrants and other ethnic minorities on the island. New political groups and parties have emerged as well. For instance, Taiwan’s third largest party in terms of legislative seat count, the New Power Party (NPP), draws many of its leaders from the “Sunflower Student Movement,” which staged protests after the KMT negotiated a new trade pact with the Mainland in 2014, during Ma’s presidency.

“What we need is not one small party after another calling themselves the Third Force. What we need is to build Taiwan’s new post-war political society.”

Rebellious and idealistic, the NPP represents a sizable portion of Taiwan’s disaffected youth. “I’d like to think that they distinguish themselves from the other parties because they never play dirty,” said Chen, a college student and supporter of the NPP. “The NPP may need to mature as a political party, but overall their current existence is proof of a better balance and greater diversity among those in power,” argued Pai, a Taiwanese-American student living in the United States.

While the NPP shares the DPP’s pro-separatist position, it has set its sights on loftier goals, advocating for human rights and the expansion of civil and political liberties. The NPP has also sought to move past the partisan hang-ups that have plagued Taiwan for decades. Recently in Ketagalan Media, former political activist Jou Yi-cheng called for leaders of small parties such as the NPP to look beyond empty political slogans and focus on rebuilding Taiwanese society. After nearly seventy years of first authoritarian and then partisan rule, young Taiwanese are looking to transcend not only the policies of a given party, but also what they view as a broken political system. As Jou wrote, “What we need is not one small party after another calling themselves the Third Force,” referencing the NPP’s popular nickname. “What we need,” he continued, “is to build Taiwan’s new post-war political society.” Whether Tsai Ing-wen will use her mandate to eclipse partisanism and collaborate with the hopeful architects of Taiwan’s new political society, only time will tell.

 

Xiaoying is a first-year master’s student at Harvard Divinity School. You can contact her at xiaoying_zhou@mail.harvard.edu.

Image provided by slate.com

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