Taiwan is diverse

Taiwan's threatened democracy stays on course

In the presidential election in January, Tsai Ing ‑ wen received 57.1 percent of the vote, Han Kuo ‑ yu from the KMT received 38.6 percent and the third candidate, James Soong from the People First Party, 4.3 percent. The DPP lost 7 seats in parliament, but with 61 members it retains a comfortable majority of the 113 seats. The KMT won 38 mandates, smaller parties and independent candidates the remaining 14.

The clear election victory for Tsai Ing ‑ wen can be explained, on the one hand, by the fact that the KMT has sent Han Kuo ‑ yu, a weak presidential candidate, into the race. On the other hand, the electorate trusts the incumbent president more than the KMT to protect the democracy and freedom of Taiwan against the People's Republic.

In the parliamentary elections, the difference in votes between the DPP and the KMT was less pronounced at 6.4 percentage points. The seats are awarded in a mixture of majority and proportional representation. The reasons for the smaller difference in votes are firstly that some KMT supporters did not vote for the unpopular Han either, but for their party in the parliamentary elections; secondly, that most of the small parties have not put up their own presidential candidates because there is no run-off election. This favors a concentration of votes on only a few applicants. In the parliamentary elections, however, part of the electorate then opted for smaller parties and independent candidates.

KMT: Strong start, weak end

Han Kuo ‑ yu has seen a rapid rise as a politician in the past year and a half. In November 2018 he was elected mayor of Kaohsiung, the largest city in southern Taiwan, traditionally a stronghold of the ruling DPP party. His unconventional and folk manner, his image as a political outsider and his promise to make Kaohsiung rich led many people to vote for him. Almost as quick as its meteoric rise was its fall - burned up in contact with political and economic reality. Han Kuo ‑ yu is a classic populist who had promised a lot but was ultimately unable to keep his promises for Kaohsiung. Instead, he “distinguished himself” through the chaotic management of the city. There were also private scandals that damaged his image as a “man of the people”, for example over a luxury apartment. Shortly after he won the KMT's internal party primaries in July 2019, his poll began to decline.

Internal conflicts within the KMT and the so-called "blue camp" made up of the KMT and smaller parties closely related to it have contributed to its poor election result. One of the veterans of Taiwanese politics, 77-year-old James Soong, ran for the fourth time for president with the help of Terry Gou, founder of Apple supplier Foxconn and one of the island's richest men. Soong also stands for closer rapprochement with mainland China and belongs to the "blue camp". Gou himself was inferior to Han Kuo ‑ yu in the KMT pre-election polls and then left the KMT. He and Soong denied Han the authority to rule Taiwan. Even parts of the KMT's elite could do little with the popular Han.

Mobilization for the DPP and a new »third force«

In contrast, the so-called "green camp" around President Tsai has shown itself united. In the internal party primaries of the DPP, she had to compete with her former Prime Minister William Lai, but was able to prevail as a candidate. After his defeat, Lai called for support to the president and was nominated by her as a candidate for the office of vice president. In addition, the "green camp" was able to mobilize its electorate, including the younger generation. The voter turnout in the presidential elections was 74.9 percent, significantly higher than it was four years ago with 66.3 percent.

With the »Taiwan People’s Party«, a third, »white« force has entered the political stage alongside the »blue« and »green«. The party founded by the mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je, wants to govern unideologically, pragmatically and efficiently and sees itself as a force between the "blue" and the "green" camp. The party will only have 5 seats in the newly elected parliament; however, in the 19 constituencies in which it ran, it received more than 5 percent of the vote almost everywhere, and in a third even more than 10 percent. It is widely believed that Ko would like to run for president in 2024. Its lack of ideology and its deliberately open political positions, for example on the relationship with mainland China, are both its strengths and weaknesses.

Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow?

In addition to the "candidate question," the second main reason for Tsai's election victory is that Taiwan's relationship with mainland China overshadowed other issues in the election.

On January 2, 2019, President Xi Jinping affirmed in a keynote address on Taiwan that unification of the mainland with Taiwan was inevitable, if necessary by force. It should be carried out under the formula "one country, two systems", which provides that territories within the People's Republic of China can have a partially independent political system. The concept of “one country, two systems” was developed 40 years ago by Deng Xiaoping for Taiwan and later applied to Hong Kong and Macau. The People's Republic did not give a deadline for unification with Taiwan, but Xi Jinping emphasized that this question should not be passed on from generation to generation. The unspoken end date is (at the latest) the year 2049: According to Xi Jinping, the "great resurrection of the Chinese nation" is to be completed on the centenary of the People's Republic - and that includes the union with Taiwan.

In Taiwan, "one country, two systems" was and is rejected by the overwhelming majority of the population, as well as by all parties in parliament. Since Taiwan is de facto a sovereign state, the island republic can only lose under this concept.

The political line of conflict in Taiwan is different: between the ideal of an independent Taiwan, for which the DPP stands, and the ideal of a united democratic China, the Republic of China, which the KMT is striving for. The Republic of China was founded in 1912 and ended the Chinese Empire. It was dictatorially ruled by the KMT until the KMT was defeated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the Chinese Civil War and had to flee to Taiwan in 1949. The Republic of China still exists there today. Taiwan was successfully democratized in the 1990s. The ideals of the DPP and the KMT are both currently unattainable. Accordingly, the two major parties are trying to maintain the status quo, in other words Taiwan's de facto independence: the DPP through closer ties to the USA and more distance from mainland China, the KMT through close economic ties with mainland China.

Xi Jinping's speech was perceived in Taiwan as a hardening of the position vis-à-vis Taiwan, even if Xi essentially only reiterated the People's Republic's existing positions on this issue. However, he missed the chance to present new options for a solution to the conflict in his speech that would also be acceptable for Taiwan.

A turning point for the election campaign in Taiwan was the resurgence of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. It reached its first climax in June 2019 in a peaceful protest march of up to 2 million people.

The protests were sparked by the planned passage of an extradition law. The bill provided that criminals wanted in mainland China could be extradited there. Many Hong Kong residents feared that the law could be misused to extradite people to the People's Republic who were critical of it in Hong Kong. One of the most important achievements of Hong Kong compared to mainland China is the largely intact rule of law. In mainland China, the judiciary must obey the CCP's instructions when in doubt; it does not meet the rule of law. The protests in Hong Kong have rapidly expanded into a movement against the People's Republic's gradual erosion of the city's remaining freedoms.

The situation in Hong Kong made one thing clear to the Taiwanese in particular: the considerably lower democratic freedoms under the concept of "one country, two systems" compared to Taiwan. In addition, the central government in Beijing and the local government in Hong Kong are uncompromising; the only concession was the controversial extradition law that was withdrawn in September 2019. The other four demands of the protest movement have been and are being ignored: 1) the introduction of free and general elections, 2) an independent investigation into police violence, 3) an amnesty for all accused protesters and the release of the detainees, and 4) the demand that the protests not to be characterized as an uprising ("riot"). Instead, the police reacted with harshness and brutality and have arrested several thousand protesters to date, many of them students. There have been numerous reports of mistreatment of the detainees. A small part of the protest movement has radicalized itself and perpetrated violence against the police; the vast majority, on the other hand, remain peaceful and receive support from the Hong Kong population.

On the one hand, the People's Republic insists on the formula "one country, two systems" for Taiwan. On the other hand, Taiwanese see that even the much more limited democratic freedoms and rights in Hong Kong - compared to their democracy - are being undermined by the CCP.

Tsai Ing ‑ wen has emphasized in several speeches and statements that Taiwan's democracy is non-negotiable and that “one country, two systems” is not an acceptable solution. She also expressed her solidarity with Hong Kong's democracy movement. At the same time, however, she avoided granting asylum to large numbers of protesters or otherwise supporting the protest movement in order not to provoke mainland China. The KMT also rejects "one country, two systems" and Han said during the election campaign that this concept was only used "over his corpse" in Taiwan. But the majority of Taiwanese feared that mainland China could expand its political influence if it came to closer economic cooperation, as foreseen in Han's election manifesto.

Solid economic development

President Tsai's first term was marked by solid economic management, democratic progress in Taiwan, difficult relations with mainland China, and close ties with the United States, Japan and the European Union (EU).

The Taiwanese economy grew steadily during Tsai's first term in office, an average of 2.5 percent per year from 2016 to 2019. By reducing pensions for public servants, it has implemented an important - albeit unpopular - reform aimed at the financial sustainability of social systems. Many Taiwanese are particularly dissatisfied with the wages that have stagnated for almost two decades while real estate prices have risen sharply. The President has not yet been able to solve this problem. For this reason, among other things, the DPP suffered a crushing defeat in the local elections in November 2018, as a consequence of which Tsai resigned the party chairmanship. The focus of the election campaign on relations with mainland China, the protests in Hong Kong and the disenchantment of Han Kuo ‑ yu helped Tsai to make a comeback in 2019. In addition, it has increased the minimum wage several times, implemented tax cuts and taken other social policy measures, which made it possible to increase its popularity again.

Taiwan's exemplary democracy

Under Tsai, Taiwan made further progress in terms of democracy and human rights, including strengthening the rights of the 16 officially recognized indigenous peoples of Taiwan. In 2016, Tsai Ing ‑ wen became the first female president of the island state to apologize for the injustices committed in the treatment of indigenous Taiwanese, who make up around 2 percent of the population. Furthermore, the coming to terms with the authoritarian past was pushed forward by setting up a commission to investigate the period of the KMT's dictatorship from 1945 to the complete abolition of martial law in 1992 and to compensate victims. Taiwan serves as a model for Germany's coming to terms with the GDR dictatorship; A declaration of intent for cooperation was signed with the Stasi records authority in December 2019.

Taiwan became the first country in Asia to introduce same-sex marriage in 2019. The island nation is one of the front runners on the continent when it comes to freedom of expression and religion, as well as women's rights, the rights of the LGBTQ * community and freedom for civil society. Direct democracy has been expanded, in the form of simplified referendum procedures. Along with Japan and South Korea, Taiwan is the most developed democracy in Asia and the only Chinese democracy that has ever existed.

Turbulent relations with China

After her election in 2016, Tsai Ing ‑ wen promised to maintain the status quo in relations with mainland China. In her inaugural address, she paid tribute to the historical significance of the talks between the two sides in 1992 without fully adopting the concept of the "1992 consensus". The so-called "1992 consensus" goes back to an informal agreement between the CCP and the KMT: Although there is a China, there are different interpretations as to which state this one China is. The CCP means the People's Republic of China, and the KMT means the Republic of China. Central from the CCP's point of view was the recognition that Taiwan was part of China, if not necessarily part of the People's Republic.

The DPP has never accepted this concept and takes the position that the Taiwanese people must decide on the sovereignty of Taiwan. In her inaugural address, Tsai Ing-wen has already been very accommodating to mainland China by explicitly mentioning the 1992 talks.

She had not received a mandate for further steps towards integration with mainland China. However, she left the 21 agreements that had been ratified by the KMT with mainland China under her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou and which primarily concern economic integration. She rejects calls for Taiwanese independence, such as those raised by the radical wing of her party.

For Xi Jinping's government, however, Tsai's inaugural speech and its policies offered too little: The People's Republic demands the recognition of the "1992 consensus" and further steps towards integration with the aim of uniting Taiwan with the mainland under the formula "one country, two systems" . As a consequence, Beijing cut off all contacts with the government in Taipei after Tsai took office in May 2016.

"Behind the smile hides a dagger" - China's Taiwan policy

After the break of relations, the People's Republic pursued a double strategy of "carrot and stick" vis-à-vis Taiwan. On the one hand, it passed the so-called "31 measures" in 2018 and further "26 measures" in 2019, which are intended to create incentives for Taiwanese workers and companies to work and invest in mainland China; among other things, Taiwanese workers and companies have been treated on an equal footing with mainland China in many areas. Apparently, these measures have not yet worked as expected - investments by Taiwanese companies on the mainland have been declining since 2016. However, mainland China remains the largest market outside of Taiwan for Taiwanese workers and companies, with around 1 million Taiwanese working there.

On the other hand, the People's Republic of Taiwan has put a lot of pressure on it.First, warships and fighter planes regularly orbit the island. In addition, Taiwan is the victim of an estimated 15 million cyber attacks per month from the People's Republic.

Second, the People's Republic of Taiwan has further restricted its already limited international space. Since 2016, the People's Republic has got 7 states to diplomatically recognize the People's Republic instead of the Republic of China. This means that Taiwan is officially recognized as a state by only 15 countries, in Europe only by the Vatican. International companies are under pressure to use the addition "China" whenever Taiwan is mentioned: in 2018, for example, over 30 airlines were to change "Taiwan" to "Taiwan, China" on their websites. Most of them complied so as not to jeopardize their presence in the mainland Chinese market.

Third, the People's Republic exerts influence over the media in Taiwan. One strategy is to use China-friendly entrepreneurs to buy up media in Taiwan, which then spread the people's republic's propaganda. An example of this is the “China Times” of the Taiwanese biscuit magnate Tsai Eng ‑ meng, who makes the majority of its profits on the mainland. The "China Times" and other so-called "red media" are apparently receiving direct instructions from Beijing on how and what to report. Another strategy is to use social media to spread misinformation. False users are increasing the popularity of pro-Chinese politicians in Taiwan through social media. Han Kuo ‑ yu owed his rapid rise to hundreds of thousands of false users on Facebook, who inflated his popularity in fan groups.

Taiwan's democracy is arguably the world's biggest victim of the People's Republic's "sharp power," a form of destructive power that seeks to undermine the attractiveness and legitimacy of a political system. The aim is to weaken the Taiwanese government and divide Taiwanese society through misinformation, propaganda, threats and infiltration.

Taiwan strengthens its own resilience

In response to mounting pressure from mainland China, Tsai Ing ‑ wen's government has strengthened Taiwan's resilience. The planned defense spending for 2020 has been increased to 13.1 billion US dollars, compared to 10.7 billion US dollars in 2015. The development and construction of its own submarines is promoting the domestic defense industry.

Parliament passed several laws against mainland China's media and political influence, the last of which was the "Anti-Infiltration Act" in late December 2019. Among other things, these laws prohibit Taiwanese parties from accepting money from the People's Republic and tighten restrictions on retired civil servants and soldiers from activities to participate in the CCP in mainland China.

The Tsai government is also working to reduce its economic dependence on mainland China. To this end, it initiated the "New Southward Policy", which is intended to consolidate economic, cultural and social relations with South and Southeast Asia. For example, residents of many of these states can now travel to Taiwan without a visa, which has led to an increase in tourism from these regions. In addition, more and more travelers come from Japan and South Korea. In 2019, Taiwan set a new record for visitor numbers with 11.8 million people. In tourism, Taiwan's government has succeeded in reducing its dependence on mainland China. The mainland Chinese are still the largest group with 2.7 million people in 2019; but under Tsai's predecessor Ma Ying-jeou, at its peak in 2015 it was 4.1 million, with a total of 10.4 million visitors. The export situation is more difficult: Mainland China and Hong Kong, with a combined export share of around 40 percent, remain by far the largest export market for the island nation, well ahead of the USA (12%) and Japan (7%). This share of around 40 percent has remained largely stable for 15 years. It will take a long breath to break Taiwan's close economic ties with mainland China.

After all, Taiwan's government is relying on intensive relations with other developed democracies, above all with the USA, but also with Japan and the EU. Both sides rate relations between the USA and Taiwan as very good. For example, in 2018 the United States passed the Taiwan Travel Act, which allows meetings at the government level. Both houses of Congress unanimously passed the law, a signal of the bipartisan and visible support Taiwan enjoys in the US. In the same year the USA opened a new imposing building in Taipei for their unofficial representation, the American Institute.

The USA is sending warships across the Taiwan Strait more frequently than before and is regularly selling weapons to Taiwan. The last major package, agreed in 2019, provides for the sale of 66 latest-generation F-16 combat aircraft.

In two high-profile speeches on US China policy, given in October 2018 and 2019, US Vice President Mike Pence highlighted Taiwan positively; both times he said: "America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people."

US policy is aimed at maintaining the status quo in the strait. They signal to the People's Republic that they are supporting Taiwan in order to prevent military actions by the mainland against the island. If the pressure of the People's Republic on Taiwan continues to increase, the US will likely be forced to make an even clearer commitment to defending the island state if it is to prevent military action by the People's Republic.

Taiwan's relations with Japan and the EU also developed positively during Tsai's first term. Japan has traditionally had close ties with the DPP. The EU regards the human rights situation in Taiwan as exemplary in Asia and bases bilateral relations on shared values ​​and good economic relations.

Threat to Taiwan is increasing

For President Tsai's second term, the policy of the past four years is expected to continue.

Much depends on the Beijing government for relations with mainland China. One possibility would be for the People's Republic to maintain or even increase the pressure on Taiwan, and a second for it to change its Taiwan policy towards a more willingness to dialogue and compromise. This second possibility seems unlikely at the moment. But it would be the prerequisite for peaceful unification, which is the publicly stated goal of the government in Beijing.

In her speech on the evening of the 2020 election, President Tsai once again emphasized her readiness for dialogue and understanding with the mainland. The basis must be a commitment to peace and the renunciation of threats, a dialogue on equal terms and respect for the democratic will of the Taiwanese. The Taiwanese should be able to decide for themselves about their future in a democratic process.

The People's Republic's tough stance over the past four years has been counterproductive and has further alienated Taiwan from the mainland. Beijing's policy has weakened the KMT. The problem of the party: In its politics it would like to build on the time of President Ma Ying-jeou (2008-2016). In doing so, she overlooks the fact that the People's Republic is no longer the same as it was ten years ago, but is more aggressive and demanding towards Taiwan and has become more repressive internally. The KMT also has hardly any voters under 40, because they have little to do with the identity of the Republic of China and mostly see themselves exclusively as Taiwanese. The comparatively solid performance of the KMT in the parliamentary elections shows that the party can become competitive again with suitable - young - staff and new ideas.

Initial reactions from the People's Republic indicate that it is continuing the policy of pressure on Taiwan and adhering to the formula "one country, two systems". The CCP's repression in Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong demonstrates its inability to compromise and allow political freedom. In current Chinese politics, it is also less risky for politicians to take a tough and nationalist stance than to be willing to compromise and open to new ideas and concepts. Accordingly, the People's Republic will continue to attempt to undermine Taiwan's democracy and spread misinformation; moreover, it will increase military and diplomatic coercion.

EU: Secure the status quo and support Taiwan's democracy

The most recent strategy paper on EU-China relations from March 2019 characterizes bilateral relations as follows: cooperation, balancing mutual interests, competition and rivalry in terms of values ​​and political systems. Taiwan appears in only one footnote. Following on from the EU strategy paper of 2016, the Union bases its relations with Taiwan on the “one-China policy”, on the further development of relations with Taiwan on the basis of shared values ​​and on peace in the Taiwan Strait.

The most recent strategy paper of the Union illustrates the tension in its relations with the People's Republic: On the one hand, China is an economic and political partner in trade, investments and solving global problems such as climate protection. On the other hand, the People's Republic is a rival that promotes an authoritarian model of government and undermines global norms such as human rights.

European policy towards Taiwan is also in this area of ​​tension. The island nation shares the European values ​​of democracy and human rights. Similar to supporting human rights defenders in mainland China and Hong Kong or criticizing the repression in Xinjiang and Tibet, the EU must consider in its relations with Taiwan what the promotion of democracy and human rights is worth to it. The planned EU-China summit in Germany in September 2020 is ideal for such a discussion on a »Taiwan strategy«.

In addition, EU member states should engage more closely with the US and Japan on how to maintain peace and stability in the strait and how the world's democracies can better support one of their own.

There are many opportunities for cooperation with Taiwan below formal state recognition, from which both sides benefit and which can be intensified: in technology and science, in the energy transition or in the promotion of human rights. Taiwan is too seldom seen in Germany and Europe as the valuable partner it is, as a successful democracy and technologically innovative economy. Its IT industry, for example, is one of the world's leading.

At the same time, the EU could offer to hold dialogues and conferences in which it, mainland China and Taiwan participate. Among other things, these dialogues should try to make mainland China more understanding of Taiwan's democracy and values. Tsai's election victory, for example, explains the Chinese media as fraudulent and dirty tricks of the DPP and the influence of the US, without any facts or evidence. Taiwan's democracy is only "a cloak under which the forces of Taiwanese independence hide," as a professor from the People's Republic recently said at a conference in Shanghai. As with the situation in Hong Kong, it is inconceivable for Beijing that people want to live in freedom.

Dr. Frédéric Krumbein is Heinrich Heine visiting professor at Tel Aviv University.

© Science and Politics Foundation, 2020

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The current reflects the author's opinion.

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ISSN 1611-6364

doi: 10.18449 / 2020A05