Eight years ago today I opened an unsigned editorial about outgoing president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) with the following lines from former Czech president Vaclav Havel: “As you know, the president must carry out his responsibilities to the best of his abilities and conscience, but it must be done with taste and skill, otherwise one might become an object of ridicule, or provoke general hostility.” Those words are no less true today than they were when Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who will be stepping down on May 20, was about to take office in 2008.
Whether Ma succeeded in meeting Havel’s benchmarks is debatable; many would argue that he didn’t, and that this is why his party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), suffered such a setback in the January elections. One unquestionable accomplishment of his, though—and this may very well be an unintended outcome—is that after eight years in office, Ma leaves Taiwan much more unified than it was before, much more so, in fact, than when Chen stepped down. However, this unity should not be taken for granted and could be ephemeral; it must be cultivated lest this unique moment be overshadowed by a return to divisions of old.
What is this unity that I speak of? How can I speak of unity in Taiwan at a time when the “blue” KMT and incoming president Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) “green” Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) continue to wage their scorched-earth battles in the legislature, or on evening talk shows?
But that misses the point altogether. The unity that has come into being in recent years is a much more subtle phenomenon; in fact, it is one that, though experienced on an everyday basis, rarely gets acknowledged. At its core, it stems from the liberal-democratic values and the way of life that define this place and which the great majority of people in Taiwan, regardless of their voting preferences, have embraced. Those overlapping values have been internalized over time and exploded onto the scene, in a great rallying—and “colorless”—cause, with the Sunflower Movement in March 2014.
More than anybody else, it was president Ma who made that consolidation possible with policies of rapprochement with China that brought the differences between the two societies into sharper contrast. Although most Taiwanese were in favor of liberalizing ties with China to some extent, more frequent contact with their Chinese counterparts and with Chinese society also help to define Taiwan’s own sense of identity—the classical approach to patriotism being in part defined by what one is not.
Another factor that played a major role in that consolidation in Taiwan was the ebullient nationalist sentiment and Mao-style ideological drive that has gripped China under President Xi Jinping (習近平) and the disastrous consequences that this has had for Chinese civil society, members of the press, visible minorities and human rights activists. Chinese militarism and expansionism, as well as the great power narrative that aliments the discourse about China’s place in the world, also are grand narratives that have little, if any, traction among the people of Taiwan. Meanwhile, the deterioration of liberties in Hong Kong and the demonstrable failure of the “one country, two systems” formula—the same formula offered Taiwan for future unification—also compounded the sentiment of resistance among Taiwanese; more than ever, it was clear that the mores and system that prevails in China isn’t suitable for the people here—not only for DPP supporters or independence activists, but for most of those who vote for the KMT as well. Only the outliers, marginal groups that will never win a seat in elections unless they buy the entire electorate, continue to espouse the view that Taiwan’s future passes through unification with China.
Therein lies Taiwan’s resilience as well as the foundations upon which the incoming administration should build a new Taiwan. For Tsai to be able to do so, however, she and her cabinet will have to deliver on their promise made during the last election campaign to change the way politics are conducted in Taiwan by rejuvenating the government, empowering youth, and cooperating much more closely with civil society.
Although Tsai gave every indication that she intended to do so while running for office—and to her credit her approach did succeed in creating a much more activist and representative legislature, what with her tactical alliance with the Third Force—the composition of her cabinet, and the behavior of some of her staff since the election, gives occasion to doubt. So far the incoming government has led many to conclude that the DPP’s friendliness toward civil society was a mere tactical alliance for electoral purposes: many of them, especially those who chose to join the system, now feel betrayed, that they have been used. Whether that is the case is anyone’s guess, but there is no doubt that the optics have been bad. A recent controversy over the planned and ill-advised protest skit for the inauguration (now reportedly abandoned) only served to exacerbate the impression that the DPP regards civil society—and recent traumas—as mere commodities rather than partners.
Moreover, no sooner had the DPP won the election than some of its members began sounding like the KMT when discussing civil society, with the key terms “populism” and “rationality” rearing their ugly heads once again. No doubt it will be a great challenge for the Tsai administration to conjugate with both requirements for social justice and the transformation of Taiwan’s economy; but adopting the same attitude of condescension, the us-versus-them approach to dealing with society, as that of the Ma administration would be a serious mistake. In fact, it could be catastrophic for the DPP and the nation, not only because discontent could give the currently supine KMT ammunition to fight back, but also because the ensuing battles with civil society (“rear” battles, to adopt a military term) would distract the government from the real task at hand, which will be to build the nation while confronting the increasingly troubling China challenge.
At this juncture, Taiwan cannot afford to be a house divided; it needs a united front to counter China’s efforts to undermine Taiwan’s democratic institutions and support for those. Therefore the Tsai administration should do everything in its power to erect as large a tent as possible and minimize the areas of avoidable conflict with society. Sadly, the composition of her cabinet, added to the nefarious influence of certain conservative factions and the party “old guard,” portend a possible return to the same old zero-sum approach to politics. This may not be what Tsai wants, but unless she puts her foot down (she has strong enough a mandate to do so) forces within her party could very well hijack her administration. Rule by concession with internal enemies simply won’t do.
The DPP must avoid the kind of triumphalism—admittedly tempting in the wake of its electoral success—that will only result in the alienation of a segment of society. Thus, the government and DPP legislators should be careful when they attack symbols that have emotional value for the other camp and must carefully evaluate whether tackling those (e.g., the removal of Sun Yat-sen symbols from government buildings) truly benefits the nation at this stage. Transitional justice is one thing; but it must be handled wisely lest it descend into retribution or an outright attack on the KMT. Appealing to the values that people on both sides of the political spectrum have in common would, in my opinion, do a lot more for social justice and the consolidation of Taiwan as a nation than the reopening of old wounds and singling out of individuals for crimes committed decades ago. That stuff should be left to the historians and should not become the object of major policy decisions—at least not at a time when the shadow of Chinese authoritarianism looms darkly over Taiwan. All that transitional justice will come to naught should Taiwan be absorbed by China because of its inability to confront it as one.
Of course this imperfect unity will also require that the KMT and other parties in the “blue” camp be willing to work toward that cause, which there is no guarantee will happen. Still, the Tsai administration will have the ability to shape the direction of the KMT by aiming for inclusiveness rather than alienation; in other words, given its hold on both branches of government and with the backing of society, the DPP could set the rules of the game and make it costly for the KMT to continue to fight ugly. A successful Tsai administration, one that brings in various voices, could go a long way in compelling the KMT to abandon the dinosaurs and extremists in its midst and reform so as to better reflect public expectations. Whether the antiquated pro-Beijing Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), the current KMT chairperson, has a future in politics today will largely be contingent on the Tsai administration’s performance. Although this could make the KMT more appealing and competitive from an electoral standpoint, it would nevertheless foster cleaner politics and strengthen the nation as a whole by forcing it to drift closer to the center that the DPP now comfortably occupies.
Former president Chen left office regarded as a divider. Ma will step down on Friday with a severely tarnished reputation. Let us hope that President Tsai does better. This nation needs it—in fact it deserves it.
First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White