Sunday, November 30, 2014

Taiwan 2014, Hong Kong, and the People's Republic of China

Taiwan's largest ever local elections are scheduled to be held today, and, despite being a relatively minor election in terms of actual power over Taiwan, they are expected to be a useful barometer of public opinion in an island that has traditionally been a thorn in the side of the People's Republic of China.

What is Taiwan?

Taiwan is not really a 'country', as recognised by most of the world. As Taiwan lays claim to all of China, plus some bits of Mongolia and Central Asia, governments cannot diplomatically recognise 'Taiwan' as an independent country; they have to go for either recognising the People's Republic of China (the commies) as the government of all China (including Taiwan), or recognising Taiwan (the Republic of China) as the government of all China. Most countries go for the former, seeing that Taiwan is less economically powerful and that the People's Republic is no longer really 'communist'. Taiwan has the diplomatic allegiance of a few Pacific and Central American countries (international heavy hitters like Nauru, Palau and Panama), as well as the Vatican City, but most countries have a 'one China policy', although there are usually warm words for Taiwan's democracy from Europe and the United States.

Taiwan was originally part of China, before being ceded to Japan in the dying days of the Empire. After World War 2, Japan handed Taiwan over to the Republican government who at that point controlled China. The civil war between the Republicans (Kuomintang) and the Communists broke out, and the Republicans were forced to retreat to Taiwan.

The Republicans, led by noted egomaniac Chiang Kai-Shek (who had his portrait on Tiananmen Square before Mao) then proceeded to run Taiwan like a military barracks. The original National Assembly and Legislature elected after World War 2 were kept, and elections only took place to fill seats vacated by dying members of these assemblies. Only the three approved parties (Kuomintang, Chinese Youth Party, and Democratic Socialist) were permitted to contest these elections, although independents could also run. Advocating independence for Taiwan was punished by death, and most of Taiwan's small wealth was spent on military equipment, which was useless as Taiwan was too small to either defend attacks from the People's Republic or retake the mainland. Things were not much better under Chiang Chiang-Kuo, Kai-Shek's son, who took over in 1975.

By this point, Taiwan had become an international pariah. Even the United States had cut off diplomatic relations with them, and they had relatively little international aid or military. China were too busy modernising to invade, but had they decided to, they would have squashed Taiwan like a bug. The economy was doing well, but Taiwan had become irrelevant. 

Ching-kuo, however, showed signs of softening in the late 1980s. He appointed a non-mainlander, Lee Teng-Hui, as Vice-President, removed martial law, and sent negotiators to the People's Republic over a hijacked aeroplane. When the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was formed, he decided not to prosecute it, despite the fact that political parties were technically banned.

After Ching-kuo's death in 1988, he was replaced by Lee Teng-Hui, his vice-president. Lee immediately began a policy of democratisation, introducing direct elections for the National Assembly, Legislative Yuan, and the Presidency. The Republicans won all of these, with the Democratic Progressive vote hovering around 20%-30%. Teng-Hui moved the Republicans away from their reunificationist policy towards a pro-independence policy.

This did not go down all too well with the Republicans. In 1996, the New Party, a right-wing Chinese reunificationist party. contested the Legislative Yuan elections, winning 13% of the vote and 21 seats in the 164 member Yuan. In that election, the Kuomintang won 85 seats and the Democratic Progressives won 54. The New Party collapsed pretty quickly, though, and fell to 11 seats in the  1998 elections (in an expanded Legislative Yuan of 225).

The 2000 presidential election was far more controversial. Reunificationist Kuomintang candidate James Soong was the most popular candidate for the Kuomintang nomination, but Lee Teng-Hui, worried by Soong's radicalism, used his power within the party to nominate Lien Chan, Vice President and a moderate. A jilted Soong ran as an independent, and split the reunificationist vote, electing pro-independence Democratic Progressive nominee Chen Shui-Bian. Chen won only 39.3% of the vote, with Soong winning 36.8% and Chan winning 23.1%.

After the election, Soong formed his own reunificationist party, called the People First party. Teng-Hui, a hated figure within the Kuomintang for his effective election of Shui-Bian, was expelled from the Kuomintang, and formed his own pro-independence party called the Taiwan Solidarity Union.

In the 2001 legislative elections, the Democratic Progressives won 87 seats out of 225, beating the Kuomintang, who only won 68. People First won 46 seats and the Taiwan Solidarity Union won 13. The New Party won just 1 seat, while 10 independents were elected. While the reunificationists did have a majority, enough Kuomintang and People First legislators were convinced into supporting the Democratic Progressive-Taiwan Solidarity coalition.

Shui-Bian's term was very controversial. In his inaugural speech, he had laid out his "Four Noes and One Without" policy, saying that if the People's Republic of China did not take military action against Taiwan, they would not change their name to "Republic of Taiwan", declare Taiwanese independence, promote a referendum on either unification or independence, or promote special relations with the People's Republic. However, during his first term he made many controversial statements that contradicted this above sentiment. He won the 2004 presidential election against a Chan-Soong Kuomintang ticket, but only narrowly, and only after a controversial shooting incident.

In his second term, allegations of corruption made him deeply unpopular. His wife was arrested; he had presidential immunity from prosecution and could not be arrested. His approval rating went down to 8%, and the Democratic Progressive Party was solidly defeated in the 2008 election, losing to the Kuomintang's Ma Ying-Jeou. Chen was arrested, and sentenced to 21 years in prison for corruption.

The current state of affairs

At present, the Ying-Jeou government is supportive of accelerating the pace of unification with China. Free trade agreements have been pushed through the Legislative Yuan, direct travel to the mainland became legal, and meetings have been conducted between Taiwanese and People's Republic leaders. 

This was broadly accepted during Ying-Jeou's first term, with support for the Kuomintang remainin g high. In 2012, Ying-Jeou was re-elected against Democratic Progressive chairwoman Tsai Ing-Wen and James Soong, winning 51.6% to Ing-Wen's 45.6% and Soong's 2.8%. 

However, Ying-Jeou's support has quickly ebbed away. His approval rating has dropped significantly since his re-election, and a number of controversies regarding relations with China have dramatically reduced his popularity. Student protest movements have brought attention to perceived corruption and improper ties to China, and Taiwan's economy is still stagnating. 

The Democratic Progressive Party are relatively strong, but Taiwan's polarised political system creates something of a cap on their support. No matter how unpopular Ying-Jeou and his party are, there is a body of voters who will vote for them against the Democratic Progressives no matter what.

Taiwan's new electoral system will have something of an impact, as well. Taiwan used to use the single non-transferable vote system, but a change in 2005 to the mixed-member majoritarian system means that the Taiwanese Parliament is less proportional. This means that if the Democratic Progressives become the largest party in terms of the vote, as they were in 2001, they will likely win a majority in the Legislative Yuan, and have significant power.

The Hong Kong connection

Originally, the People's Republic's plans for unification of China involved the treatment of Taiwan as any normal province. However, Deng Xiopeng's "one country, two systems" proposal, that involved giving Hong Kong and Macau 'managed democracy' and 'regional autonomy'. After Taiwan's democratisation, this proposal was held up by pro-unification Taiwan politicians as a model for Taiwan's reunification.

However, events in Hong Kong may have changed this view somewhat. I have no opinion polling on this, but surely the People's Republic's refusal to allow democratic elections for Hong Kong would erode popular confidence in reunification. Reunification is already unpopular; Hong Kong's protests cannot do anything to make it less so.

What the results say

The result of the election were fairly decisive. The Democratic Progressive Party won 4 out of 6 mayoralties; a fifth, the capital of Taipei, went to a pro-independence Independent supported by the Democratic Progressives. The only Kuomintang mayor to hang on was Sean Lien of New Taipei, who won by a tiny margin. Most councils and other local offices were won by the Democratic Progressive Party.

  • The Kuomintang are unlikely to win the 2016 presidential election. The tightness of the last election, combined with the unity of the Democratic Progressives compared with the somewhat more split pro-unificationists, means that the Democratic Progressive Party will probably have a narrow victory, unless there is a significant change in the political environment in Taiwan
  • If the Kuomintang lose the presidential election, there is a good chance that they will also lose control of the legislature, as even a small win in the popular vote will probably give the Democratic Progressives a comfortable majority.
  • There is still no consensus on Taiwan's political future. The Kuomintang are far away from any collapse, and they have the ability to come back, even if they lose a presidential election.
  • Taiwan's two-party system, created by the mixed-member majoritarian system, appears to be working. The polarisation of Taiwan's political system is well in place, and any party that is not either green (pro-independence) or blue (pro-unification) has little chance of any political success.


  1. What would it take to declare independence? If memory serves me correctly, the current constitution has one of the most stringent amendment procedures out there, with a 3/4 majority in the Yuan followed by a referendum in which a majority of registered voters need to vote for. Does this also count for things like declaring independence? Any risk, in your mind, of an incoming progressive government going extra-constitutional to try and put it through? - JD


    1. The big risk about a declaration of independence would be the threat of invasion from the People's Republic. After the 2004 Legislative elections, the PRC passed a law binding them to invade if Taiwan declared independence. Even if this law was repealed, the fear of invasion would likely scare off pro-independence voters. I presume any hints that the Democratic Progressives would go extra-constitutional would be quickly followed by a Kuomintang fear campaign that would be serious trouble for the DPP. Anyway, there are certain legal provisions in Taiwan's constitution that would make it awkward to declare independence without a referendum (the claim to mainland China, for instance)


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