Stormy Weather Ahead for Taiwan’s Politics
Photo Credit: The Straits Times
By Dongtao Qi

Stormy Weather Ahead for Taiwan’s Politics

Jan. 20, 2017  |     |  0 comments

On January 16, 2016, Taiwan had its second two-in-one presidential and legislative elections. The chairwoman of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai Ing-wen, won the presidential election with 56.1 percent of the votes to become Taiwan’s first female president. In the legislative election, the DPP captured 68 seats, about 60.2 percent of the total 113 seats, up from 40, while the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) won only 35 seats, down from 64. Two small parties, the newly established pro-independence fundamentalist New Power Party (NPP) and the pro-unification People First Party (PFP) received five and three seats respectively.

The post-election survey conducted by the Election Study Center at the National Chengchi University shows that, except for mainlanders in Taiwan, Tsai received majority support in almost every social group defined by ethnicity, age, gender, education and class. Specifically, among the three major ethnic groups in Taiwan, most mainlanders maintained their stronger support for the KMT, with 62.2 percent of them voting for the KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu, while only 23.5 percent voted for Tsai in the election. In contrast, the votes for Tsai in the Minnan and Hakka ethnic groups and all the age, gender, education and class groups fall into the high support range of 55–70 percent for Tsai, except for the age group of 50–59 (49.4 percent).1

Some other surveys also show that since 2013, the percentage of Taiwanese voters who identify with the DPP has surpassed those who identify with the KMT. In the first half of 2016, Taiwanese voters’ identification with the DPP went up to an unprecedentedly high of 33.9 percent, while that with the KMT dipped to 19.6 percent, the lowest since 2003. Identification with the KMT was even lower in 2001 and 2002 at 15.8 percent and 15.9 percent respectively.

In the 2014 local elections, the DPP took 13 out of 22 local governor positions. Therefore, with stronger support from the public, the legislature, and local governments, Tsai seemed to be in a great advantageous position to start her four-year presidency. However, her administration is a movement government playing two conflicting roles.2

A movement government is a type of democratic government with its legitimacy premised on not only the popular vote it wins in an election but also its commitment to lead an important political movement, such as the movement for Taiwan’s independence. Therefore, a movement government plays the roles of a national government and a movement leader. Under most conditions, the two roles are inherently conflicting. As a government, the general public expects it to develop the economy, and promote social harmony and progress; as a movement leader, the movement supporters expect it to achieve the movement’s goal (e.g. Taiwan’s independence), which is often at odds with the government’s objectives of economic development and social harmony. The movement government thus sways between the two roles to keep a fine balance. However, achieving and maintaining balance is difficult and often leads to frequent shifts in the administration’s policies, jeopardizing political and social stability. Rising instability will cost the movement government dearly in terms of popular support.

The DPP’s domination of the legislature and local governments has greatly empowered the DPP administration to fulfil its government role. The administration’s most serious disadvantage is the deteriorating cross-strait relations due to its role as the independence movement leader. Therefore, the Tsai administration had, in the first seven months since May 2016, clearly attempted to emphasize its role as a government and minimize the movement leader role — a tactic that is similar to Chen Shui-bian’s concessional strategy during the early period of his first term (2000–2004). With much stronger legislative and local governors’ support, Tsai did not compromise on pro-independence issues in 2016 as much as Chen did in 2000.

On the other hand, she repeatedly offered gestures of goodwill to mainland China by promising to conduct cross-strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution and the Act Governing Relations between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, both of which are based on the one-(Republic of) China principle. Tsai also rejected the version of the Cross-Strait Agreement Supervisory Act proposed by DPP legislators that uses terminology implying a state-to-state cross-strait relationship and replaced the sensitive terminology “Taiwan–China” with “cross-strait” in the DPP’s version of the Act.

The important officials tasked with cross-strait relations in the Tsai administration are technocrats not known to hold strong pro-independence stances. This could be viewed as extending a gesture of goodwill to mainland China as well. Tsai’s Premier Lin Chuan — a nonpartisan from a deep-blue (pro-KMT) family — was finance minister in the Chen administration and is known to hold a vague ideological stance on independence issues. Lin formed a cabinet mainly of technocrats and professionals, most of whom had worked for either the Chen or the Ma administration, or both. Many in the green camp were reportedly unhappy with Lin’s cabinet for it included too many former officials from the blue camp.

However, Tsai has certainly not abandoned her administration’s movement leader role and attempted to maintain a balancing act. Her administration has focused mostly on consolidating Taiwan’s de facto independence and promoting Taiwanese nationalism to fulfil its movement leader role. For example, the Tsai administration rescinded the Ma administration’s pro-China and therefore controversial textbook revision guidelines, revised the Academia Historica’s regulations to restrict mainland Chinese scholars’ access to the archives, improved Taiwan’s relations with the United States and Japan, and promoted the “New Southbound Policy” to enhance economic, social and cultural ties with India and Southeast Asian countries to reduce Taiwan’s economic dependence on mainland China.

Protests by the Movement Society

Tsai’s inaugural speech on May 20, 2016 presented her administration’s blueprint for the next four years. The blueprint’s main goal is to “build a better country for the young generation” through gradually resolving various challenges with reforms. Pension and judicial reforms were prioritized in her speech for immediate action. These were also the only reforms that Tsai specifically proposed to hold national congresses for, in order to allow the participation of the public to reduce controversy. Nevertheless, these and other reforms promoted by the administration in 2016 encountered strong, sometimes violent, protests by the negatively impacted groups.

The movement society perspective could shed light on the Taiwanese society’s protests against these reforms.3 Like many western developed countries, Taiwan has become a “social movement society” characterized by frequent, often large scale and sometimes violent protests organized by various social groups. Many factors, such as the increase in public education and wealth, the development of social movement organizations and professionals, the spread of liberal and progressive ideas, and the decline of government authority, have contributed to the emergence of the social movement society. The rise of social media in the past decade has especially further enhanced the society’s protest tendencies and capabilities.

Taiwan also has a long tradition of social and political movements in which the DPP, as a long-term opposition party, has played a significant role. The DPP has been the leading political force of Taiwan’s democratic and independence movements and has led or supported many other social movements. On the other hand, the DPP has also been supported by many social movement organizations and activists. In contrast, the KMT and its 55-year one party rule has been the major target challenged by not only the DPP but also various social movements.

Taiwan’s vibrant and combative movement society has frequently challenged the party in power — the DPP or the KMT — in the past decades. However, the pattern of protests largely depends on the relations between the two major parties and Taiwan’s social movements. Generally, pro-independence organizations and activists do not organize large public protests against DPP administrations. Pro-independence protests, sometimes violent ones, occur mostly during KMT administrations.

About 117,000 retired and active civil servants, public-school teachers, and military personnel joined the protest against the pension reform promoted by the Tsai administration.

The DPP’s traditional alliance with Taiwan’s social movements however could be a setback in some cases. Some movement organizations hold high hopes for the DPP administration. Higher expectation leads to stronger feeling of frustration when they view the DPP administration’s reforms as “betrayals”, leading to stronger motivation to mobilize more radical protests against the DPP.

A case in point is that of the Tsai administration’s revision of the Labor Standards Act. The DPP has traditionally been a liberal, progressive and center-left party with strong socialist ideology that has won the general support of Taiwanese workers in elections. However, to echo employers’ appeal for improving Taiwan’s investment environment by reducing labor costs, her administration worked with DPP legislators to do away with seven public holidays enjoyed by labor. This greatly angered Taiwan’s labor and youth organizations which launched hunger strikes and large scale protests that led to violent conflicts with the police and DPP legislators. After the DPP-dominated legislature passed the amendments to the Labor Standards Act, over 60 youth organizations that used to support the DPP announced their complete split with the party. They harshly criticized the DPP’s betrayal of labor and youth and vowed to continue their protests against the Tsai administration.

The prioritized judicial and pension reforms also encountered large protests by the judicial community and public sector employees, respectively. In August, Tsai had to replace her nomination of the president and vice president of the Judicial Yuan with new candidates due to the judicial community’s strong opposition. In early September, about 117,000 retired and active civil servants, public-school teachers, and military personnel joined the protest against the pension reform promoted by the Tsai administration. This was the first massive protest after Tsai took office, and was also the first by workers from all the major public sectors in Taiwan’s history.

Even larger protests were staged, this time by opponents and proponents for legalizing same-sex marriage, respectively. Taiwan’s society is seemingly equally divided on this issue. On December 3, about 200,000 opponents protested in Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung against the Tsai administration and DPP legislators’ effort to legalize same-sex marriage. This was countered a week later by a protest by 200,000 to 250,000 same-sex marriage proponents in Taipei.

Amid the protests, Tsai’s approval rating has been on a continuous decline. In November, it slipped to a record low of 26 percent, from 47 percent in June. The Tsai administration’s short honeymoon period is apparently over. Given the many issues at hand, her approval rating is likely to remain low.

The KMT in Crisis

Since its defeat in the presidential and legislative elections, the KMT has been marred by an unpopular leader, open internal conflicts, and the loss of financial sources. After KMT Chairman Eric Chu — who had replaced Hung Hsiu-chu as the presidential candidate — lost the presidential election, Hung has been elected the party’s chairwoman. Hung is the leader of the KMT’s deep blue/mainlander faction. Her China policy of “one China, common interpretation” is even more pro-China than Ma Ying-jeou’s “one China, with different interpretations” and is therefore closest to the Chinese government’s position. However, the deep blue faction is a minority in the KMT, and is even more distant from the general public’s mainstream position which is mainly pro-status quo but anti-China in essence. This explains why her presidential candidacy was extremely controversial in the KMT, and she was finally replaced by Chu in the election.

As the new party leader, Hung has persisted with her pro-China position and consequently enjoys only marginal support among both the party heavyweights and ordinary members. The KMT under her leadership seems to be going against the current mainstream public sentiment of rising Taiwanese nationalism. Tension within the KMT was intense prior to Hung’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 2016 annual forum between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Hung was subject to heavy criticism for her strong pro-China position from the light/local blue faction and her potential competitors for next year’s party chair election.

The 2016 annual forum was renamed “Peace and Development Forum” from the previous “Economic, Trade and Culture Forum” to show a shift in priority to peace instead of economic and cultural exchange in cross-strait relations. Hung downplayed the China card during her meeting with Xi, with the non-mention of either her or Ma’s interpretations of the One China principle. The meeting not only failed to boost either Hung’s or the KMT’s popularity in Taiwan, but also exposed divisions within the KMT. The lack of solidarity remains one of KMT’s largest obstacles to revival.

The KMT was further hit by The Act Governing the Handling of Ill-gotten Properties by Political Parties and Their Affiliate Organizations passed by the legislature in July. The Act authorized the DPP-controlled Ill-Gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee to freeze the KMT’s bank accounts in September, incapacitating the KMT’s ability to pay its salaried staff, and forced it to rely on donations from party cadres and supporters. To reduce expenses, in November, the KMT dismissed all its 738 workers and re-hired 310 of them. Without strong financial support, the KMT’s revival will not be anytime soon.

Unstable Taiwan-China-US Relations

There is obviously a mismatch in expectations on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. While Tsai’s China policy is non-provocative and offered some goodwill gestures towards mainland China, they are not in line with the requirements laid out by the mainland Chinese government. For the PRC, acceptance of the “1992 consensus” or its core connotation of the One China principle is imperative for it to resume official connections with Taiwan.

Economically, the most visibly negative impact on Taiwan is the rapidly decreasing number of Chinese tourists to Taiwan, which has hit Taiwan’s tourism industry badly and triggered a demonstration by about 10,000 tourism workers in September demanding for assistance from the Tsai administration.

Politically, the Chinese government adopted the “one island, two systems” strategy to reward supporters and punish dissenters. In September, Taiwan’s eight blue camp local governors, seven from the KMT and one nonpartisan, had a meeting with the CCP’s politburo standing committee member Yu Zhengsheng in Beijing. Subsequently the Chinese government announced eight programs such as sending Chinese tourists and investment solely to these eight counties and cities in Taiwan.

On the international front, the Chinese government blocked Taiwan’s participation in several international conferences, such as an OECD steel symposium and the International Civil Aviation Organization meeting. On December 26, Taiwan lost a diplomatic ally, São Tomé and Príncipe, to mainland China, reducing the number of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to 21 and signaling the return of the diplomatic war between Beijing and Taipei which had paused during the eight-year Ma administration.

The phone call between Tsai and US President-elect Donald Trump on December 2 was applauded by pro-independence supporters within and outside of the administration as a breakthrough. However, to pacify the Chinese government, Tsai told a group of American reporters that it should not be viewed as a major shift in US policy. In the United States, Trump continued his provocation on December 11 by suggesting that the United States could use the One China policy as a bargaining chip in trade and other areas against China. However, with an assertive Xi at the helm, the overplaying of the One China card by the United States and Taiwan may result in serious retaliation from China. The Taiwan-China-US triangular relations are hence set to undergo changes during the Trump presidency, which will bring more challenges than opportunities to the Tsai administration.

A Tougher 2017

While the Tsai administration’s first seven months in 2016 have shown signs of predicament, 2017 will be even tougher. One of the root causes of the predicament is the “movement” nature of both the Tsai administration and Taiwanese society. Because the administration will not completely stop playing its role as pro-independence movement leader, the Chinese government will further enhance its political, economic, and diplomatic pressure on Taiwan. As a result, Taiwan will witness a more divided and chaotic politics, a weak economy, and more defecting allies in 2017. On the other hand, due to the strong resisting nature of the movement society, the Tsai administration’s reforms will trigger more protests by the impacted groups, which will lead to a more divided society and less efficient governance.

External factors in 2017 will also not be in favor to the Tsai administration. The two strongmen Xi and Trump are especially likely to lead China-US relations into a series of conflicts. As China’s core interest and the US’ bargaining chip, Taiwan is doomed to become the flashpoint in the region and the victim of big power conflict. The only favorable condition seems to be the increasing Taiwanese nationalism, especially among Taiwanese youth, which might help Tsai maintain basic and fundamental support amidst the worsening political, economic, and diplomatic predicament. However, if she overplays the nationalism card through pursuing Taiwan’s independence more aggressively, she might eventually share her predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s doom.


1. Author’s calculation based on TEDS2016.

2. Qi, D. (2016). The Taiwan Independence Movement in and out of Power. Singapore: World Scientific.

3. Meyer, D. S., and Tarrow, S. G. (1998). The Social Movement Society: Contentious Politics for a New Century. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *