Taiwan Opts for Change
Jan. 18, 2016
Taiwan’s presidential vote last weekend brought a clear victory for the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. The poll result brings about a new political reality in East Asia, with implications for relations between Taiwan and China, and the regional balance of power. Tsai Ing-wen of the opposition DPP will become Taiwan’s first female president. She won the election in a landslide, leading the first change of government in eight years.
Newsroom Tokyo anchor Sho Beppu reports from the Taiwanese capital Taipei.
The election weekend is over and supporters are celebrating the results that will give Taiwan its first female president. People here have started the week facing a new political reality, not only for Taiwan but for the entire region.
After eight years in opposition, the DPP is returning to power. It is the first time the party has won the presidency and secured a majority in the legislature at the same time.
I visited the control room of Taiwan’s public broadcaster on election day, where staff were reporting on latest developments during a six-hour special program. According to opinion polls conducted before the vote, the focus was not on who would win but, rather, how much the DPP candidate Tsai Ing-wen would win by.
The election broadcast crossed live to Tsai Ing-wen’s victory speech at her campaign headquarters. "I thank all the people who've help bring about this historic change of power in democratic Taiwan,” she told the crowd.
Supporters shouted slogans such as 'We are Taiwanese' and 'Taiwan is not part of China'. It was as if the victory ceremony had become an occasion for people to express their Taiwanese identity.
Tsai Ing-wen won a clear victory, taking more than 6.8 million votes against 3.8 million for her rival, Eric Chu of the Nationalist Party, or Kuomingtang. Her party also secured a simple majority in the parliament for the first time. Tsai Ing-wen called on Beijing to respect the election result. “The results show the will of the Taiwanese people. Putting pressure on Taiwan would mean the destruction of the relationship between China and Taiwan,” she said.
A wall at the DPP headquarters was covered with messages of support. The sentiments expressed explained why the party won with such a large margin. One read 'Freedom and democracy for Taiwan', while another called on Taiwan to take a proud role in the international community.
However as I moved away from the campaign base, some people I spoke with were less enthusiastic about Tsai Ing-wen’s victory. They expressed concern about her stance against Beijing. “Why should we aim for Taiwan's independence? We're all from mainland China,” said one man. "I hope Tsai will keep cross-strait relations stable,” said another.
Political expert Lin Jih-wen, Research Fellow & Director, Institute of Political Science, Academia Sinica, explained the influence that a growing Taiwanese identity had in the election results.
"I think that young people played a very important role in this election, especially given the long term and short term impetus...on Taiwan's national identity, so I guess the elective president Tsai Ing-wen knew that. She has been using that factor as a way to find her votes. That kind of rising Taiwanese identity explains why they decided to go home to vote,” he said.
I asked Lin Jih-wen if he believed that Tsai Ing-wen and her party were able to erase the worry that once they were elected, cross-strait relations could deteriorate. "I think that of course there are people who are worrying about her, even now. But she has done her best to emphasize keeping the status quo, including what’s been dealt with across the strait under the Ma Ying-jeou government,” he replied.
A series of documentaries focusing on young people, produced before the election, offers an insight into how the issue of Taiwanese identity became a major factor in the election results. One of the programs, “Awakened Civil”, features the so-called ‘Sunflower Movement’ in 2014, when a growing number of voices expressed opposition to the government policy of strengthening economic ties with China.
Producer Chou Shih-lun says the movement helped raise political awareness: “The movement helped young people realize that if they didn't play a role in politics, Taiwan’s economy would only worsen. This, in turn, would be passed on to the international community, and would affect the sovereign issue and the global economy.”
Independent filmmaker Fu Yue focused on the changing mindsets of young people who had earlier shown little interest in politics in another documentary. She closely followed one of the Sunflower Movement’s leaders, 25-year-old Chen Wei-ting.
As a child, Chen’s family backed the ruling Nationalist Party. But, after the DRP took power in 2000, his way of thinking gradually changed. “After Chen Shui-bian came to power, the descriptions in the textbooks were changed. That helped open up our minds. For example, high school students now study about Taiwan’s history in the first year. So I know Taiwan has a history of 400 years,” Chen says in the documentary. “When I was a second year student, I read many books about the student movement in the 1980s. As I read them, I started to oppose the Nationalist Party. I came to eventually hate the party.”
Many young people share Chen’s views. In the 1990s, 60% of Taiwanese considered themselves Chinese. But now, more than 90% of the younger generation identify themselves as Taiwanese.
Nearly 76% percent of people disapprove of unification of Taiwan and mainland China, even though China is catching up with Taiwan economically and politically. Among those aged 19-24, the disapproval rate stands at nearly 90%.
The birth of the Sunflower Movement helped Chen change his political standpoint. He backed candidates from the third-largest party in the parliamentary election, held on the same day as the presidential election.
The New Power Party has been cooperating with the DPP, which hoped to gain more of the youth vote. But Chen said he did not fully support the DPP.
“The DPP is better than the Nationalist Party, but it’s not perfect. The DPP is vague about Taiwan’s sovereignty issue. It maintains close ties with the capitalists regarding land acquisitions and other social issues” he said. "I would rather join a more progressive opposition party to become part of an opposition force in parliament.”
The New Power Party achieved good results in Saturday’s election, winning five seats.
Documentary maker Fu Yue explains that Chen’s belief that relations with China are becoming too close is becoming a popular view. “Taiwan is called the Republic of China. But many young people don’t want to accept the name. They think the Republic of China was created by the Nationalist Party,” she says. “Young people interested in politics are strongly aware of Taiwan’s sovereignty, and have a sense of resistance to policies that favor China. The Sunflower Movement served as a trigger to expand their ideology awareness as Taiwanese.”
Taiwanese columnist Chang Tieh-chih offered his analysis during an interview with Sho Beppu.
Beppu: We see young Taiwanese are becoming more aware of their own identity. How different is this compared to the older generation?
Chang Tieh-chih: The young generation, most of them were born under the Lee Teng-hui government, so they identify themselves as Taiwanese, unlike my generation. Before I was 18 years old, my primary identity was as Chinese, so I learned to be Taiwanese. My parents are from China, so even now they consider themselves as Chinese first.
Beppu: This younger generation, as you mentioned, might have less affiliation with mainland China, but during the past eight years, wasn’t it the policy of the previous administration, the administration that will hand over its power soon, to open up more relations with mainland China? So in this sense aren’t there more connections now, compared with before?
Chang Tieh-chih: This is the tricky part. In the past eight years we do have closer relations with China, but there is a negative side of this integration. People worry that something bad might happen to Taiwan if we have closer relations with China, that China might influence our behavior, our values, even our daily lives. That’s what makes those young people worry, and that’s why the Sunflower Movement happened in 2014.
Beppu: Are the people watching what is happening in Hong Kong?
Chang Tieh-chih: Yes, what is happening in Hong Kong right now really worries most Taiwanese people. The huge influx of Chinese tourists, Hong Kong Island was occupied by mainlanders, so people here have a popular slogan, ‘Don’t Let Tomorrow’s Taiwan Become Today’s Hong Kong.
Beppu: Are people thinking that the mainland is intervening in democratic values, like freedom of expression, in Taiwan?
Chang Tieh-chih: Of course. In 2012, there was a huge protest movement by young people. They were protesting one newspaper that was bought by big business, a business that had huge investment in China, that was pro-Beijing. So after the business bought this newspaper, the newspaper engaged in self-censorship and didn’t criticize China, didn’t criticize China on human rights, so that worries a lot of young people here.
Outside of Taiwan, the election has been the subject of headlines worldwide. US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated the Taiwanese people on the poll results, also stressing the importance of regional stability. “What we have seen in recent years is the work that both China and Taiwan have done across the straits to build greater peace and stability. And it is our strong hope that project will continue,” he said.
Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also congratulated Tsai on her victory at the ballot box. “The Japanese government hopes to deepen exchanges with Taiwan, through the usual non-governmental and working-level ties,” he said.
The election has received little media coverage in mainland China, and the Sunday edition of the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper carried just a short report on the results. This appears to reflect Beijing's cautious stance toward Tsai Ing-wen.
But Chinese officials also indicated Saturday they hoped to strengthen ties with any party that recognizes that the mainland and Taiwan belong to "one China". The comments suggest the communist government may contact the new leader behind the scenes to encourage her to recognize the "one China" policy.
Sho Beppu interviewed another Taiwanese columnist, Antonio Chiang, as well as Chang Tieh-chih, about how the election results have implications for the wider region.
Beppu: Antonio Chiang is a columnist and is widely known in Taiwan as an expert on diplomacy. He served as a senior official in charge of security in the previous DPP government. He's currently an adviser to President-elect Tsai Ing-wen on diplomatic matters. Tsai Ing-wen has been repeatedly saying that she will maintain status quo. What does this mean?
Chiang: She will be very pragmatic and realistic in managing the issue. Because China is so important to Taiwan in many ways, it's a big risk to disrupt our relations. The most important duty and obligation is to preserve our constitutional order and to preserve our sovereignty and dignity. That's her main obligation and duty. That's our bottom line. But China has a red line. There’s the red line, the other side, and we have our bottom line, but there’s enough space in between to manage.
Beppu: During Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to Washington last year, what do you think was the most important message she wanted to convey?
Chiang: They still have some old memory of the past DPP governments. And they always want to prevent history from repeating. So that's why they keep saying, don't repeat the old mistakes. She wants to make sure that the US, our friend, they understand that we can manage and deal with China in a very peaceful, constructive way.
Beppu: It’s no secret there is tension between China and the US in this part of the world. Now that Taiwan is expected to move closer to the US, what kind of impact do you think this will have on the security situation in Asia?
Chiang: Taiwan is very important for China. Taiwan now faces a strategic dilemma. Because the US is too far away, and China is so near, and, economically, we depend so much on China, but security-wise we depend on the US and Japan. So that puts Taiwan's leader in a very difficult position. They have to learn how to manage, to balance this dilemma.
Beppu: With younger people in Taiwan identifying more with being Taiwanese, and with China becoming more assertive with its growing economy, how can people on both sides understand each other better?
Chang Tieh-chih: It’s kind of difficult because Taiwanese people in general, of course want to have a stable, nice relationship with China, but we also want to have our independence which is not allowed by the Chinese government. In China there is a growing, stronger nationalism so it’s very hard for them to understand how Taiwanese feel. Also for Taiwan, especially among younger people, there is a stronger anti-Chinese sentiment.
Beppu: Looking from afar, you both speak the same language, you eat more or less the same food. Isn’t that enough for the two peoples to understand each other better?
Chang Tieh-chih: The core point is sovereignty. Taiwan has an independent culture, but China doesn’t allow it, and that causes a lot of problems, a lot of controversy.
Beppu: Can you propose a way for people to try so the two sides can have a better understanding?
Chang Tieh-chih: Even though we have the core difference on sovereignty, I hope there will be more dialogue, and that both sides can open their minds to really understand what people think. We still want to have close relations, friendly relations. I hope we will have more dialogue culturally, economically, and in many aspects.
Elections tend to focus on daily issues such as wages, employment and education, and international diplomacy has traditionally been perceived as work for professional diplomats and political leaders. But the latest developments in Taiwan have shown us how ordinary citizens' perceptions about their own identity can swing election results and even influence international relations.
The new way Taiwan's next leadership deals with China will influence not only cross-strait relations, but it can also have an impact on East Asia and the Pacific. That is why the decisions must be well-considered...something the world needs to monitor closely.