Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Taiwan's Election: Identity, the Economy, or Respect?

Taiwan has had a historic election. Not only has it elected the first woman president in the Chinese world, but for the first time there has been a change of power in the legislature. The Legislative Yuan will have a DPP majority. While Chen Shui-bian had to deal with a hostile KMT-controlled legislature, Tsai Ing-wen will have her party’s support.

Though this is an important election, one should not misunderstand its meaning. BBC TV oversimplified the election by focusing on the DPP’s historically pro-independence stance and making the election seem to be a referendum on identity. That is, of course, an aspect of the election, but the election focused more explicitly on domestic issues, especially the economy. There is a widespread sense, especially in the south where I have lived the past 7 months, that the relationship with the Mainland has not helped Taiwan very much, and that the Mainland is hollowing out Taiwan’s economy. The economy is stagnating, and even high tech industry has not been growing as rapidly as before. Inequality and jobs for the working class are the major issues that Tsai is going to have to face. It is not clear how she is going to solve a problem that has been vexing all mature industrial economies. Identity politics was not the explicit issue in the campaign. And that is one reason Tsai won; she reassured voters she would not rock the vote, thus attracting voters who do not vote just on identity politics. Polls show that the “post-1980” generation is much more likely to identify as Taiwanese than Chinese, and as they replace older voters, the natural DPP constituency has been growing. In Pingtung, votes for the Legislature in my district show what appears to be a gradual drift towards the DPP. The KMT candidate Wang Jinshi won with 54% of the vote in 2008, with 51.5% in 2012 (against the same candidate), and lost with only 45% of the vote this year. He was the only KMT legislator south of Tainan. Now Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Pingtung are solidly DPP.

One should not assume that DPP voters want formal independence from China. Farmers like to sell their fruit to the Mainland, so want a good relationship with the Mainland, but worry that Mainland farmers are learning from Taiwanese businessmen how to grow the same high quality fruits, and can produce them more cheaply. It is thus a complicated relationship, and not simply a matter of wanting to be “independent.” It is more about respecting Taiwan. For China to win Taiwanese hearts, it has to accept that there is a Taiwanese identity, like there is a Shanghainese and Cantonese identity. This may or may not lead to an independent Taiwan, but if the CCP, like the old KMT, tries to deny Taiwanese their distinct identity and interests, then frustration and conflict will grow, and a sense of alienation from the mainland will continue to stoke feelings of difference, and a desire for independence.

The KMT and DPP are actually not that different in the policies they advocate, though of course the differences can be significant. We need to remember that 16 years ago, Chen Shui-bian promised to stop the 4th nuclear power plant, but in the end, he didn’t stop it. Taiwan now has single representative districts, which forces candidates to take middle-of-the-road positions.

The major danger now comes from mainland China misunderstanding Taiwanese asserting their interests as expressions of “independence.” Hong Kong’s government is so controlled by Beijing that the abduction of book seller Li Bo in clear violation of One-Country Two-Systems is not sufficient to force it to press its legal rights with Beijing. If Zhongnanhai expects Taiwan, and Tsai Ing-wen, to be that compliant and obedient, it will be frustrated by what it sees and Taiwanese provocation and temerity. That could lead to mistakes and overreactions.

I also realize, now that the election is over, that many of my “blue” (pro-KMT) friends were actually depressed not just about the fact that they were going to lose the election, but also because they see no way out for Taiwan. They realize that it is not likely that the ROC’s democracy can be spread to the mainland. And they feel that Taiwan has no choice but to appease the CCP to save the prosperity and freedoms that it has. They hoped that increased interaction with the mainland would lead to economic benefits, but that has not been the case, so far at least. So their ideas for how to improve the economy have also appeared bankrupt. But it seems the DPP has a more hopeful vision. Even if independence is not possible, they seem to want to make Taiwan the best place possible. They are not worried about the long term resolution of the cross-straits issue; they focus more on hope for a better society and economy in the near future. 

So even if the election was more about the economy than independence, the new DPP government will still have to deal with China. Indirectly, the election was, therefore, about the relationship with China. And we need to remember that the KMT’s first presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu who was unceremoniously dumped in October, was very unpopular precisely because she advocated even closer integration with the mainland.

It seems almost every issue in Taiwan can be related to relations with the mainland. But one issue jumped out as especially significant just a day before the election. Sixteen-year old K-Pop singer Chou Tzu-yu was attacked by mainland internet ultra-nationalists for supposed “Taiwan independence” sentiments. She was “outed” by a Taiwan born singer who has made his career in the mainland, Huang An, for waiving an ROC flag along with a Korean flag in a TV program two months earlier. On election day, millions watched a video of Chou abjectly apologizing and reaffirming that “there is only one China” Her agency claims they did not coerce her to apologize, but that may just be semantics (what does “coerce” really mean?), especially since the video of her apology (read from a sheet of paper, like for a hostage or show trial) was issued by that agency. 

It is ironic that she got in trouble only for waving the ROC flag. If the CCP really wishes to argue that there is one China but two interpretations, they need to allow the ROC flag as the second interpretation of what “China” is. By viewing the ROC flag as a “pro-independence” flag, they are antagonizing all the KMT supporters who are their only potential allies in Taiwan. In Taiwan, the ROC flag IS the flag of the “One China” ideal. Everyone in Taiwan, blue or green, was sympathetic to Chou Tzu-yi. Plus, their attacks on a 16-year old girl seemed like bullying. Certainly nearly everyone on Taiwan felt that the mainland internet ultra-nationalists were bullying Taiwan. So while the Global Times reportedly claimed “This was a compete victory by mainland Internet users over Taiwanese independence,” I would say that the ultra-nationalists have shot themselves in the foot. It is this kind of bullying of Taiwan and Taiwanese that drives the island further from China. The mainland leaders and ultra-nationalists need to respect Taiwan if they want a good relationship with the island, and if they hope to one day reunite with it.

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