The Tsai Ing-wen Administration: Will it Avoid Role Conflict Dilemma in Movement Government?
By Dongtao Qi

The Tsai Ing-wen Administration: Will it Avoid Role Conflict Dilemma in Movement Government?

Apr. 20, 2016  |     |  0 comments


Taiwan’s first female President Tsai Ing-wen will assume office on May 20, 2016. Not only Taiwan and mainland China, but also the US and the international community, are looking forward to her inaugural speech which will reveal her administration’s promises and blueprint for Taiwan’s next four years. Since Tsai will be Taiwan’s second President from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a comparison between her and the first President from the DPP, Chen Shui-bian, might shed some light on Tsai’s different leadership style. In particular, a review of the Chen administration’s (2000-2008) role conflict dilemma suggests that the incoming Tsai administration is likely to face the same dilemma.


A comparison between Tsai and Chen will reveal that their personal characteristics are significantly different in many respects, which may prompt us to believe that Tsai will have a different leadership style from Chen, and therefore, her administration’s working strategies will be different from the Chen administration as well. However, I contend that both the Tsai and Chen administrations are a special type of government, the so-called movement government, which faces the same role conflict dilemma. As a result, although Tsai may be different from Chen in terms of leadership style, the movement government’s role conflict dilemma may compel her administration to adopt strategies similar to the Chen administration. Furthermore, this might lead the Tsai administration to a destiny similar to the Chen administration in 2008, that is, a significant decline in popular support.


Different Personal Backgrounds of Tsai and Chen


Let’s first look at the differences between Tsai’s and Chen’s personal backgrounds. In terms of family background, Tsai was born and grew up in a rich family while Chen was from an extremely poor family. Some observers attribute Chen’s graft during his presidency to his poor family background, and on the other hand, believe it is less likely for Tsai to do the same because she has never been lacked of money.


In terms of their education background, Tsai received her Master’s and PhD degrees in Law from two world famous universities, Cornell University in the US and LSE in the UK, respectively. Chen graduated first in class from the Law Department from National Taiwan University, the top university in Taiwan. Some tend to believe that Tsai’s academic training, intellectual ability, and international mind-set are stronger than Chen’s, which will also make her a more rational and capable President.


The most important difference lies in their pre-presidential careers. Tsai was first a university faculty member for 16 years, during which she also worked as a legal consultant to the Lee Teng-hui administration, and with her colleagues proposed the Two States Theory to Lee in 1999. In 2000 she joined the Chen Shui-bian administration as the Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council, and she later became a DPP legislator and then the Chen administration’s Vice Premier in 2006-07. After the DPP lost power in 2008, she was elected the DPP’s Chairperson three times.


In contrast, Chen was first a lawyer and joined the democracy movement in 1980 through his defence of pro-democracy activists who had been arrested by the KMT administration in the Kaohsiung Incident. In the 1980s he was a Taipei City Council Member and joined the election for Tainan County Head. In the 1990s he was a DPP legislator and Taipei Mayor, and in 2000 he won the presidential election thanks to the KMT’s split. Therefore, their pre-presidential careers show Tsai to be more of a scholar and technocrat, while Chen has long been a sophisticated politician with long term political experience in the pro-democracy movement and local elections before he became the President.



Tsai was first a university faculty member for 16 years, during which she also worked as a legal consultant to the Lee Teng-hui administration, and with her colleagues proposed the Two States Theory to Lee in 1999.



Tsai and Chen are also different in their relations to the DPP. Tsai joined the DPP in 2004 when Chen began his second presidential term and has no strong connection with any faction within the party. Her practical experience of intra-party politics and electoral politics began in 2008 when the DPP lost power and she was elected the DPP’s chairperson. Under her effective leadership, the DPP has gradually enhanced its connections with society, and emerged from various troubles, including corruption scandals, factional conflicts, and a radical pro-independence line. As a result, the DPP greatly improved its performance in local elections and finally won the presidential and legislative elections in 2016. Tsai represents the DPP’s new generation leadership.


Different from Tsai, Chen joined the DPP in 1988, about two years after the foundation of the DPP, and became the party’s Central Standing Committee Member. He was deeply involved in and also benefited from the party’s factional politics. He represented the traditional DPP’s typical characteristics: grassroots, contentious, aggressive, pragmatic, opportunistic, adventurous, and provocative.


The above comparison between Tsai’s and Chen’s personal backgrounds gives us the impression that Tsai would be a very different President from Chen, which further implies that the Tsai administration would be much cleaner and more neutral, rational, and moderate, with a better international mind-set. Therefore, the Tsai administration would be able to avoid the series of turmoil experienced by the Chen administration and maintain high popular support.


The Movement Government’s Role Conflict Dilemma


Although Tsai and Chen are different in their personal characteristics, they both lead a special type of government, the so-called movement government. “Movement government” is the concept used in my new book, The Taiwan Independence Movement in and out of Power (World Scientific, 2016) to analyze the evolution of the Chen administration’s strategies in dealing with its dual and conflicting roles. This concept proposes that a movement government is constrained by its role conflict dilemma, and as a result, it tends to shift its strategy in dealing with the dilemma, which often leads to social instability and a decline in popular support. Tsai’s appealing personal characteristics and leadership style might not be able to break the dilemma and avoid the destiny that trapped the Chen administration.


The movement government is a type of democratic government. The distinction between a movement government and an ordinary democratic government is that the former’s legitimacy is based not only on the popular election results, but also on its commitment to leading an important political and/or social movement. Therefore, the movement government plays a dual role as the national government and the movement leader. Unfortunately, there is usually an inherent tension between these two roles. As the government, it is expected by the whole society to develop the national economy and promote social harmony and progress; while as the movement leader, it is expected by the movement’s supporters to achieve the movement’s goal which is often at odds with the government’s goal of economic development and social harmony.


Under different circumstances, the movement government will choose to emphasize either its governmental role or its movement leader role and try to keep a good balance between the two roles. However, this balance is hard to achieve and in effect it often leads to frequent shifts of the administration’s policies, which usually causes political and social instability. As a result of the political and social instability, the popular support for the movement government may drop significantly.


In the case of the DPP government, both the Chen and the incoming Tsai administrations play the dual roles of the national government and the pro-independence movement leader. The following review of the evolution of the Chen administration’s strategies will reveal the movement government’s role conflict dilemma. Hopefully, it may shed some light on the Tsai administration’s future development.


The Chen Administration’s Role Conflict Dilemma


Based on the Chen administration’s changing emphasis on its movement leader role, the administration’s two terms may be divided into three periods: compromise (2000-2002), confrontation (2002-2004), and radicalization (2004-2008).


The Chen administration was a typical minority government when it started in 2000: Chen was a “minority president” with less than 40% of popular support in the election and the DPP had only one-third of the seats in parliament. The international community, especially mainland China and the US, together with the opposition KMT, worried about the DPP government’s quick move towards Taiwan’s complete independence and imposed heavy pressure on the Chen administration. Therefore, it was not surprising to see Chen adopt a series of compromise strategies to pacify and co-opt opposition at the beginning of his presidency. For example, he promised “four noes and one without” in his inauguration to compromise on the administration’s movement leader role and appointed the former Defence Minister of the previous KMT government as his Premier to form a coalition government.


Furthermore, the Chen administration also initiated a series of reforms to liberalize Taiwanese investment in mainland China and lifted some restrictions on the economic and cultural exchange between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. The most important reform during this period was the abolition of the “no haste and be patient” investment policy which had restricted significant Taiwanese investment in mainland China since 1996. In 2001, the DPP government replaced this highly restrictive policy with a more liberal one called “pro-active liberalization and effective management” to free Taiwanese investment to mainland China to a much greater extent.


All these actions indicate that the Chen administration had tried to downplay its movement leader role and instead emphasize its government role, which constrained the development of the Taiwan Independence Movement. The public opinion surveys showed that in 2000 the constantly increasing pro-independence sentiment, indicated by the percentage of people self-identified as Taiwanese-only and the percentage of pro-independence people, had started to decline.


On one hand, the Chen administration’s compromise on the movement leader role was not able to reduce the pressure from the opposition forces; on the other hand, it faced additional dissatisfaction from movement supporters. In July 2002, on the exact day of Chen’s inauguration as the DPP chairman, Nauru terminated its official diplomatic relations with Taiwan and embraced mainland China instead. This greatly reinforced the movement supporters’ dissatisfaction and they pressed Chen harder to change the compromise strategy. About ten days later, Chen declared that the relation between Taiwan and mainland China was “one country on each side (of the Taiwan Strait),” and that Taiwan needed a referendum to determine its future.



Chen over-emphasized his administration’s movement leader role at the expense of the administration’s governmental role. As a result, the DPP was trounced by the KMT in the 2008 presidential and legislative elections.


This showed Chen starting to emphasize his administration’s movement leader role and changing the compromise strategy to be more confrontational. Although the new emphasis of the movement leader role won back the hearty support of the pro-independence people, it also brought instability to not only Taiwan’s political and economic realms but also its relations with mainland China and the US. Nevertheless, Chen soon realized that the new confrontational strategy could effectively mobilize nationalistic sentiments which could contribute greatly to his re-election campaign in 2004. Therefore, he continued the confrontational strategy with a series of provocative moves during his campaign for re-election. The nationalistic sentiment promoted by the confrontational strategy indeed helped Chen win re-election in 2004, but its negative consequences of political and social instability were also apparent to society.


During the Chen administration’s second term, Chen and his family were troubled by a series of corruption scandals, which became the underlying cause for him to further radicalize the confrontational strategy. He hoped the radical strategy could save him from his failed role as government leader by emphasizing his role as movement leader. Therefore, he replaced the relatively liberal “pro-active liberation and effective management” policy with the conservative “pro-active management and effective liberation” policy to re-impose tighter restrictions on Taiwanese investment to mainland China; broke his “four noes and one without” promise by abolishing the National Reunification Council and National Reunification Guidelines; released the draft of the Second Republic Constitution; promoted the referendum for Taiwan’s UN membership; declared “four wants and one without,” that is: “Taiwan wants independence; Taiwan wants the rectification of its name; Taiwan wants a new constitution; Taiwan wants development; and Taiwanese politics is without the question of left or right, but only the question of unification or independence”; and under his leadership the DPP passed the Normal Nation Resolution for pursuing Taiwan’s de jure independence.


The radical strategy was a double-edged sword. It contributed to the development of the Taiwan Independence Movement, but on the other hand, constrained cross-strait relations, especially cross-strait economic relations, increased political and social conflict in Taiwan, and deteriorated Taiwan-US relations. To put it differently, Chen over-emphasized his administration’s movement leader role at the expense of the administration’s governmental role. As a result of these negative consequences of the radical strategy, the DPP was trounced by the KMT in the 2008 presidential and legislative elections.


Will the Tsai Administration Avoid the Role Conflict Dilemma?


The above review indicates that the major reason for Chen to prioritize the movement leader role over the government role was his failure on the government role. In other words, when he was losing popular support due to his administration’s poor performance and especially his family’s corruption scandals, he hoped that emphasizing the movement leader role with various radical moves might help him maintain popular support, at least among movement supporters. Therefore, it is sensible to suspect that if the Tsai administration’s performance were not good (which is highly possible given the lasting unfavorable economic conditions in Taiwan, mainland China, and the world), she might resort to emphasizing the movement leader role as well, which may lead to similar negative political, social, and economic consequences followed by declining popular support.


There is another reason that the Tsai administration might prioritize the movement leader role over the government role, which is the increasing pressure from movement supporters. Compared to eight years ago when the DPP lost power in 2008, the social base for the Taiwan Independence Movement has significantly expanded, which might embolden the Tsai administration to emphasize the movement leader role. Taiwanese youth especially have stronger nationalistic sentiments and often uphold the radical pro-independence line.


Tsai might wish that her emphasis on the movement leader role could avoid various negative consequences because of new favorable conditions, such as the enlarged social base of the Taiwan Independence Movement. However, the consequences of the radical pro-independence strategy would be out of her control, because she would not be able to foresee exactly and manage effectively the possible opposition forces’ reactions toward the radical pro-independence strategy, especially when these forces involve not only the domestic opposition KMT, but also mainland China and the US.


As a movement government, it is impossible for Tsai to completely give up the movement leader role. It remains to be seen whether she will be able to keep a good balance between her administration’s dual roles and avoid repeating the Chen administration’s destiny.

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