Taiwan's Political Revolution and China's Challenge

Taiwan's Political Revolution and China's Challenge
Photo Credit:蔡英文

What you need to know

Donald Trump and Taiwan’s president aren’t China’s biggest long-term ‘Taiwan issue’ challenge, argues Courtney Donovan Smith.

Taiwan's relationship with China is headed for rough waters, as China’s head of their Taiwan Affairs Office recently stated. Since the inauguration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in May, ties have cooled. China slashed tourism to Taiwan, cut the hotline connecting the two and has tried to play local governments run by the opposition off against the central government. Much of the commentary about how China has been stealing diplomatic allies is likely false, however--it appears both allies switched side more on their own volition than due to China’s lobbying with The Gambia having severed ties with Taiwan long before the election and São Tomé and Príncipe failing to extort money out of the Taiwanese government. Donald Trump has thrown a whole new angle into the mix (which I’ve written about here) and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is making moves that will increasingly make China nervous.

However, Trump and Tsai aren’t China’s biggest long term challenge in dealing with Taiwan: the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Taiwanese people are. Taiwan's main challenge will be how to cope with China's growing impatience at the pace of Taiwan's submission to their plans to annex the island as overwhelming opposition grows within Taiwan to that ever happening. China's president Xi Jinping (習近平) has issued the not-so-veiled threat that “political talks can't wait to another generation.” At some point, tensions may boil over.

China is losing their only negotiating partner on the Taiwan-side as the KMT collapses into minor party status, which will make their utility to China significantly less. In short (the whole explanation on why is here, as I wrote in May of 2015), the structure of the KMT is unsound and is coming apart, their ideology is deeply unpopular, they are led by a chairwoman out of touch with the public, and have lost the public's trust in the very areas they used to be widely perceived as being competent at: the economy and handling ties with China. Plus, they have virtually no popular politicians left in the party.

In the short term, this means that the DPP is going to be by far the dominant party. But politics abhors a vacuum. Some new form of opposition to the DPP will form. What form it will take is still unknown, but it is likely to be something that appeals across the ethnic divide and based on ideals and promises of change and (in my opinion) will more likely be to the left of the DPP. A new opposition is likely to appeal more along these lines as the general public is tired of the old pan-blue/green identity politics paradigm and will most likely coalesce around something resembling a European left/right divide.

Whatever form this new opposition takes, whether it is to the right or left of the DPP, is one big party or some form of coalition, is unknown. One thing is known, however, and that is that it will take a Taiwanese identity, not a Chinese one like the KMT. This is a certainty, two-thirds of the public identifies as Taiwanese-only. Only 3.3 percent self-identify as Chinese-only, and if Chinese-born spouses and the remaining people who came over in 1949 are removed from that number, it is likely less than 1 percent of the population born in Taiwan thinks of themselves as Chinese-only. No new major political force is going to go against those numbers—and the trend towards Taiwanese-only identity has been gathering pace and now reaching just shy of 90 percent of the youth. With Tsai maintaining a “status quo” policy with China that rules changing Taiwan’s name from the Republic of China is what you need to know about the history), it is entirely possible (though by no means certain) a new DPP opposition would follow a harder line on China than the DPP itself and push for a formal change of name to “Taiwan.” If the DPP's policies became the lesser of two evils in the eyes of the Chinese government, that would be ironic indeed.

Through this political realignment the Taiwanese public will make its opposition to being annexed by China heard, and China is going to have a difficult time accepting this. The Chinese government has been beating the drum of “reunification” (as they call it) for domestic consumption for so long now, the Chinese government now would lose face if Taiwan relations stalled or backtracked – which is why Donald Trump has picked on the One China Policy. The vast majority of the Chinese public supports annexing Taiwan, with a significant number supporting using force to do so. The expectation that boatloads of Chinese tourists would impact Chinese public opinion that Taiwan is different from China has produced the opposite result, according to research conducted by Ian Rowen – though there is anecdotal evidence that students from China have been influenced to view Taiwan as different. Adding to the concerns are Xi's evident lack of patience, recent more assertive military stance and a piece in the Chinese state-run Global Times that suggested a timetable has been set by China's leaders: a political agreement by 2021, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (and right around Xi's expected last year in office), and full reunification by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the People's Republic of China. This timetable has only appeared in one publication, however, and it is one known for controversial statements—so the schedule may be bogus. However, the article hasn't been retracted.

This complete shift in the Taiwanese political landscape means that China will have to deal with parties and a public fully supportive of a separate Taiwanese identity representing a public opposed to being swallowed up in China's maw.

Editor: Edward White