It is natural for us to conflate the People’s Republic of China with China as a whole – after all, the overwhelming majority of the world’s Chinese continue to live under communist rule. In this light, the upcoming Taiwanese presidential election offers a tantalising glimpse of an alternative road to modernity and political liberalization for China. One of the most bizarre legacies of the Cold War – the creation of two separate governments each claiming sovereignty over the entirety of the other’s territory – has also proven to be a remarkably successful experiment in democratisation.
Separated from mainland China since 1949, Taiwan has long been ruled by the Kuomintang (KMT) with the exception of an interlude from 2000-2008 when the presidency passed to Chen Shui-Bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Yet the KMT is widely seen as out-of-touch with popular aspirations for asserting and defending Taiwanese autonomy politically, economically, and culturally. A week ahead of the election, the DPP maintains a 26 point lead in the presidential election and a 13 point lead in the legislative race. For the first time in the island’s history, the KMT looks set to lose control of the Legislative Yuan (from 2000-2008, it had relied on the centre-right New People’s Party for a majority). Part of this probably reflects a natural desire for change after 8 years of KMT rule under President Ma, who came to power amidst a wave of popular expectations in 2008 only to founder amidst furious student protests. Beyond voter fatigue however, the continued erosion in support for the KMT reflects confusion as to what it genuinely stands for beyond encouraging closer relationships with mainland China. Given the latter’s abysmal record on human rights, it is scarcely surprising that many voters are deeply skeptical of eventual ‘reunification’ with the mainland. Whilst a unilateral declaration of Taiwanese independence would risk military conflict with China, the DPP’s Tsai Ing-Wen has declared her support for maintaining the status quo whilst simultaneously keeping the mainland at arm’s length.
A veteran commentator of Taiwanese politics recently attacked the KMT for complacency, arrogance, and an obstinate refusal to face political reality. That might be unduly harsh, but it is difficult to see why the party initially nominated a fervent advocate of deepening cross-straits relationship at a time of unprecedented popular resentment and fear of Beijing. A large part of the KMT’s problems stem from the rising aspirations and assertiveness of well-educated students and professionals. Despite its ethnic homogeneity, Taiwan has long been divided between its native inhabitants (defined as the descendants of those who resided on the island prior to 1945) and the roughly 15% of the population who can trace their descent to the Nationalist refugees who arrived after the end of the Chinese Civil War. The latter are widely perceived as ‘carpet-baggers’ by the Taiwanese majority and memories of Nationalist repression in the 1940s and 1950s remain deeply divisive. Not surprisingly, the DPP has long drawn its support from the Taiwanese (as opposed to Mandarin) speaking population, and it is not uncommon for members of such groups to draw unfavourable comparisons between the Nationalists and the Japanese colonial government which preceded it. Ever since Taiwan’s political transition in the early 1990s, the widening social and cultural gap between it and the mainland has led to a surge of interest in rediscovering and inventing an ‘authentic’ Taiwanese identity amongst the younger generations. As a party that for historical, political, social, and ideological reasons has long been associated with the mainland, the KMT has fared badly out of this process.
The anti-mainland sentiments articulated by the student protestors who dominated the ‘Sunflower movement’ in 2014 are not unique to Taiwan. They can also be heard amongst the pro-democracy activists of Hong Kong (who have long had close ties with Taiwanese dissidents, academics, and politicians) and, to a somewhat lesser degree, in Singapore as well. In this case, proximity has indeed bred contempt. Yet it would be deeply inaccurate and inappropriate to liken such rhetoric to those employed by UKIP, the Front National, and other anti-immigrant movements in Western Europe. For one thing, ‘nativism’ in East Asia tends to be strongest amongst the young and the socially liberal, neither of which is associated with Nigel Farage. More importantly though, such sentiments reflect a genuinely deep-seated fear of rising Chinese power in those societies most vulnerable to communist penetration and influence. Whatever the results of next week’s Taiwanese elections, this reality will not disappear from East Asian politics any time soon.