Taiwan Goes Its Own Way
The Democratic Progressive Party was elected for an unprecedented third term. No, it wasn’t all about China.
Across Taiwan, shrill alarm tones sounded and alerts flashed up on cell phone screens last Tuesday afternoon. Such emergency warnings are issued during earthquakes—a fairly regular occurrence. But while the white-box push notification would have been familiar to most residents, this bilingual message was slightly different.
The Chinese portion was straightforward enough: A Chinese satellite had been launched through Taiwan’s southern airspace and people should beware of and report any debris. The English was more alarming: It incorrectly referred to a “missile flyover.”
Social media was immediately abuzz with reaction to the mistranslation. Among Taiwan’s foreign community the criticism was generally mild, with suggestions that the missive be submitted to “Taiwan Chinglish,” a Facebook page featuring unwittingly amusing instances of mangled English. At worst, it was fodder for those who justifiably feel that the Ministry of Education’s vaunted “Bilingual 2030”—a plan to rapidly increase the number of Taiwanese professionals who speak English—is a pipe dream.
Predictably, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) seized on the gaffe. The party’s presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih suggested the warning was a ruse to gain support for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), an allegation mirrored by other KMT bigwigs. The faux outrage was quickly ramped up, with Taipei City Mayor Chiang Wan-an—the supposed great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, who ruled Taiwan as a dictator for 25 years until his death in 1975—calling for an investigation and the resignation of the responsible parties.
None of the finger-pointers explained why the government would engineer a situation that indicated ineptitude. It smelled of desperation ahead of an election which most opinion polls had DPP candidate and incumbent vice-president William Lai winning. And despite last-minute concerns that the KMT would draw supporters from the third-party Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), Lai won Saturday’s three-horse race fairly comfortably with 40% of the vote.
Shortly after the result was announced, Lai fielded a question from a reporter who asked whether there was “room for a softer voice” towards China in order to “mitigate the risk” to Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. It was typical of the framing that exasperates many Taiwanese, long-term residents of Taiwan, and journalists who struggle to get international publications to run with any election narrative that isn’t pegged to “cross-strait tensions.” Given Lai’s oft-cited 2017 description of himself as “a political worker who advocates Taiwan independence,” he is invariably depicted in international media as a “troublemaker” who will “provoke” Beijing.
But absent from nearly all articles that quote Lai’s remark is the proviso that followed: “We are already an independent sovereign nation called the Republic of China. We don’t need a separate declaration of independence.” Indeed, there is little indication that Lai will deviate from the status quo of outgoing DPP President Tsai Ing-wen’s two terms.
Instead, there are obvious signs that China is unilaterally moving the goalposts.
Beijing has cut off all direct communications with Taipei since Tsai came to power in 2016, despite the fact that Tsai repeatedly made it clear that she would not move toward independence as “Taiwan.” Whereas China’s “red-lines” were previously premised on any indications that Taipei would attempt to gain de jure independence, there is now an insistence that Taipei adhere to the so-called “1992 Consensus,” an alleged tacit understanding during 1992 talks between agents of the then-KMT government and Beijing that there is only “one China.”
Despite the historical sketchiness of any conclusions having arisen during the discussions, Tsai acknowledged the existence of the “1992 talks” as a “historical fact” in her inaugural address in 2016. As Scott L. Kastner has observed in a recent book, Tsai’s stance has been a pragmatic attempt at compromise: a continued commitment to the Republic of China, but an unwillingness to accept China’s ever more restrictive version of the purported 1992 Consensus.
In other words, to cast Tsai and Lai as the problem ignores China’s step-by-step attempt to encroach on the status quo.
This election result was more a reflection of domestic Taiwanese politics than of any reaction to the DPP’s approach to China.
There were criticisms of the DPP’s performance on the economy, which has noticeably slowed since the pandemic. Younger voters routinely expressed frustration at low wages and a lack of affordable housing. For Gen Z, who have no memory of the KMT’s authoritarian rule in the mid 20th-century, the DPP’s roots as a democracy trailblazer mean little. Nowadays, it’s just another establishment party. During a presidential debate in early January, Lai claimed that Tsai had fulfilled a 2015 campaign pledge to provide 120,000 “contracted, under-construction and newly built” units of social housing by the end of her tenure. He also touted the success of Tsai’s National Housing and Urban Regeneration Center. Both claims were disputed by his interlocutors in the debate, and the nonprofit Taiwan FactCheck Center categorized Lai’s statements as “oversimplified.”
Nevertheless, Lai’s victory came down to the generally competent performance of the outgoing government on other matters. Tsai’s administration generated a reserve of goodwill thanks to its Covid response, which was acknowledged as exemplary by many citizens and international observers.
Having initially shown solidarity with the administration’s handling of the pandemic, the KMT began to engage in rumor-mongering and conspiracy, falsely claiming that officials had profiteered from the development of the homegrown Medigen vaccine, and even that Tsai had staged her public vaccination after receiving a “safer” alternative. On Friday, at a KMT rally in New Taipei City, an elderly supporter reiterated these claims to me. “They forced people to take vaccines that they didn’t want just to make money,” said Allan Huang, a Taiwanese American, who, at the age of 70, was voting in his first election in Taiwan.
Another participant at the rally cited Tsai’s stated goal of phasing out nuclear power by 2025 as an example of “corruption.” Similar accusations had been made by Ko Wen-je, the TPP candidate, during a presidential policy debate in late December, when he highlighted indictments against county government officials for bribery in the awarding of offshore wind energy contracts. As the officials in question were KMT politicians, many found it hard to understand Ko’s point. He appeared to be tenuously linking a move away from nuclear power to the potential for increased corruption in the renewables sector. The fact that opposition parties continually amplified these accusations was a sure sign of straw-clutching ahead of Saturday’s vote.
There is still a rocky road ahead for Lai, the incoming president. No party achieved a majority in the legislative vote, where the TPP’s Ko may yet have a role to play as kingmaker. Following a short-lived dalliance with the KMT, he has indicated that he would be open to cooperation with the DPP—the party with which he was associated early in his career. With many younger voters gravitating toward the TPP, Lai could decide to offer Ko a cabinet position, a risky move, given the latter’s unpredictability and lack of a clear policy platform.
Whatever happens, Taiwanese have achieved another milestone in their democracy with this latest, seamless transition of power. They will now move ahead, forging their own future, based on their own aspirations.
James Baron is a freelance journalist living in Taipei.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: