Conventional wisdom has it that during the past eight years, the China-friendly policies of Kuomintang (KMT) President Ma Ying-jeou led to an accommodation, resulting in a reduction of tensions. Ma has prided himself on his approach, which resulted in some 22 cross-Strait agreements, mainly focusing on trade and investment.
A fundamental problem with this perception is that this rapprochement across the Strait was built on quicksand: Ma’s policies gave Beijing the impression that Taiwan would gradually drift into China’s embrace, and that it would eventually lead into some sort of unification.
Ma’s approach was perhaps understandable from his point of view: his family was part of the Chinese Nationalist elite that came over with Chiang Kai-shek after World War II and governed Taiwan under authoritarian rule from the late 1940s through the late 1980s. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that democracy set in under native-born President Lee Teng-hui.
But that China-focused narrative has now run headlong into Taiwan’s vibrant democracy. This became quite apparent already in March/April 2014, when the Sunflower student movement blocked Ma’s attempt to push through his ill-fated Service Trade Agreement with China through the Legislative Yuan.
The push-back against the rapprochement envisioned by Ma became even more obvious in the November 2014 local “nine-in-one” elections, when the opposition DPP swept the KMT out of a large number of local offices. And it culminated in the overwhelming victory in the January 2016 presidential and legislative elections, which gave Tsai’s DPP control of both the executive and legislative branches of government.
So, what would be a viable way forward for Taiwan? What do the people of Taiwan want for their future? In this context it must be emphasized that the rejection of Ma’s policies was not per se an anti-China movement: it was much more of a pro-Taiwan movement dedicated to preserving the hard-won freedom and democracy in Taiwan.
First and foremost, people in Taiwan are looking for a better, more effective and transparent government; they want to move away from the “black box” operations so symptomatic of the KMT years. They also want an accountable Legislative Yuan, not shady backroom dealings so prevalent in the past eight years.
Secondly, in terms of Taiwan’s place in the international community, the people of the island want their country to be treated as a full and equal member. In particular the young people resent the international isolation imposed on their country by the “One China” legacy dating back to Chiang Kai-shek.
The main drivers behind this new political landscape in Taiwan are twofold: it is the culmination of the transition to democracy in the late 1980s, and the subsequent strong shift to a new “Taiwanese” identity.
In the 1970s, when the current “One China” policies came into being, the choice was between two authoritarian regimes that both claimed to represent the “real” China. That contest was won by the CCP in Beijing: it is in de facto control of China, although — despite hopes of a liberalization in the 1990s and 2000s — its rule is still highly repressive. Read more…