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Taiwan kicked out its ruling party for getting too close to mainland China. Here’s what comes next.

- February 1, 2016
Supporters of Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen cheer at the campaign headquarters. (Wally Santana/Associated Press)

“Our democratic system, national identity and international space must be respected,” Tsai Ing-wen said on Jan. 16 in her first remarks as president-elect in Taiwan. Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) took power in last month’s Taiwanese elections, with Tsai winning 56 percent of the vote and the DPP winning 60 percent of seats.

That’s the first time the Kuomintang (KMT) has lost all branches of government since the island became a democracy in the mid-1990s; until now, it had either held the presidency or the legislature’s majority coalition. Voters rejected the KMT in large part because of President Ma Ying-jeou’s efforts to build closer relations with China, which, he promised, would boost the Taiwanese economy. But Beijing’s policies and practices have alienated the Taiwanese.

After Tsai’s election, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson reiterated the country’s claim that “there is only one China in the world” and that “both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China.” And yet Beijing nonetheless left open the possibility of “peaceful developments in cross-strait relations.”

So what will come next?

The background: The KMT aimed for closer ties with China, but the Sunflower Movement objected

Ma signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in 2010, promising economic growth. Opponents objected that the agreement had been negotiated without public input and legislative due process.

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In particular, they objected to what they believed were lopsided terms of the Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services, one of the framework’s landmark treaties. (China and Taiwan are separated by the Taiwan Strait in the western Pacific Ocean.) In March 2014, the KMT was attempting to ratify the services’ agreement when the Sunflower Movement brought that to a halt.

The Sunflower Movement was led largely by Taiwanese youth, in coalition with labor and other civil society groups. It orchestrated a three-week sit-in in the legislature, followed by a march on the presidential palace that drew half a million people. The Sunflower Movement claims as its ancestor the Wild Lily Movement, which pushed for democracy 25 years ago after 40 years of martial law under the KMT — and it galvanized Taiwanese of different political stripes to political action.

The students objected that the services agreement obligated Taiwan to permit direct Chinese investment in Taiwan in a wide range of industries, including banking, construction, health care and telecommunications, at levels far beyond what Taiwan had previously allowed, and without reciprocal liberalization of the same sectors in China.

The Sunflower Movement also feared that the island’s economy, dominated by small- and medium-size enterprises that account for 97 percent of Taiwan’s enterprises and 78 percent of its share of employment, would be overwhelmed by competition with or acquisition by state-backed Chinese businesses.

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Many manufacturers in Taiwan’s export-oriented economy already had migrated operations to China. Those remaining in Taiwan relied heavily on exports to China. Today, Taiwan has Asia’s second-highest youth unemployment rate: nearly 13 percent. Average monthly wages have stagnated for more than a decade and a half. Taiwanese workers feared that mainland workers, permitted by the terms of the services agreement to work in Taiwan, would accept lower salaries while remaining loyal to the Beijing regime.

The Taiwanese also worried that China would invest in Taiwan’s publishing industry to turn it into a propaganda platform and that its security apparatus would infiltrate Taiwan’s telecommunications infrastructure. They dreaded economic integration becoming political integration without the need for physical takeover, which China has threatened.

China has aimed 1,600 ballistic missiles at Taiwan since the mid-1990s. That’s when China fired missiles outside of Taiwan’s Keelung and Kaohsiung harbors in the runup to the island’s first democratic election.

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The Sunflower Movement halted the 2014 negotiations with China. Since then, the Chinese economy has slowed, and Taiwan’s economy with it. For now, the services agreement and the related goods treaty, which engendered similar concerns of Chinese takeover of Taiwan’s factories, such as the island’s integrated chip design industry, are on the back burner.

Last month’s election was the result of an eruption of civic nationalism

As you will see in the charts below, recent survey data show that a majority of Taiwan’s citizens now oppose unification and consider themselves distinctly Taiwanese. That’s true for most demographic slices of the island, including the descendants of mainlanders who fled to Taiwan after the Chinese civil war, a community whose members traditionally considered themselves Chinese, not just the descendants of the early occupants of the island.

And it’s particularly true for Taiwanese between the ages of 20 and 59, and for those who have taken trips to China. Among Taiwan’s ethnic groups, 84 percent are ��native Taiwanese,” descendants of Han Chinese migrants from the 17th century; 14 percent are mainland Chinese; and 2 percent are indigenous aborigines. Between 1895 and 1945, Taiwan was a colony of Japan.


Beijing is not happy with any expression of national identification with Taiwan, as shown in an incident involving Taiwanese K-Pop star Chou Tzu-yu. Chou had waved a Taiwanese flag on Korean TV.

But days before Taiwan’s election, pressured by her Korean agency JYP Entertainment and her corporate sponsors Chinese telecommunications equipment maker Huawei and its Korean partner LG, Chou apologized in a video, which immediately went viral. In the video, a dispirited Chou can be seen bowing, professing that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China and apologizing to the Chinese people.

The Taiwanese responded with an uproar. Ma and all three presidential candidates defended Chou’s right to identify with Taiwan. Tsai also addressed the incident in her first remarks as president-elect.

Tsai’s election, and that of her party, represent the triumph of liberal civic nationalism in Taiwan. My research on globalization and the political economy of identity finds a desire among Taiwanese for public policies and social institutions that guarantee political transparency and address social and economic stratification.

It’s an impulse that’s especially strong among the young. A post-election survey found that only 6.4 percent of 20- to 29-year-olds and 5 percent of 30- to 39-year-olds voted for Eric Chu, the KMT candidate for president.

Leading into the elections, diverse groups — some of them formed because they were inspired by the Sunflower Movement — passionately campaigned based on the common ground of allegiance to democratic institutions, the desire to improve their livelihood and a hope for a future separate from China’s.

The result: Taiwan’s democratically elected legislature is now truly diverse. Close to 40 percent of its 113 members are women, an increase from one third of the previous legislature. Members include indigenous Taiwanese, an ethnic Cambodian, a death metal rocker, and those who support farmers, green movement, labor and LBGT rights.

So what comes next?

With that background President-elect Tsai has her work cut out for her, in foreign policy, domestic politics and the economy.

At home, Tsai must address the concerns of those hurt by the long economic stagnation. She will have to gain the confidence of the island’s high-tech innovators by promoting policies focused on education, infrastructure and research that would extricate Taiwan’s economy from China’s recent economic slowdown and industrial restructuring. All eyes will be on Tsai’s proposals to improve the domestic investment environment, introduce policies to stimulate demand and explore new markets globally.

In foreign policy, Tsai has signaled her direction. During televised pre-election debates and post-election interviews, she emphasized the historic importance of the 1992 meeting between China and Taiwan “for setting aside differences to seek common ground.” That was a deft move by Tsai, a former law professor and trade negotiator. The Kuomintang had, in 2000, framed that particular meeting as resulting in consensus on the existence of One China, with each side defining its own meaning.

Tsai’s explanation of what happened highlights the meeting as an occasion in which each side agreed to seek respect and mutual understanding in order to establish peace across the Taiwan Strait. In holding out an olive branch while refusing to accept preconditions, Tsai’s strategic yet constructive style might help change relations between China and Taiwan.

Taiwan’s 2016 elections represent a turning point for the future of Taiwan-China relations. From now on, Tsai and any other elected leader in Taiwan will have to contend with the Taiwanese electorate while navigating a functional relationship with China.

Taiwan after all will continue to do business with China. Economics in Taiwan is inseparable from its politics, and the Taiwanese expect their leaders to respond in ways that recognize Taiwan’s rising liberal civic nationalism.

China now will need to become aware that negotiating with Taiwan entails taking into account Taiwan’s population, who now view themselves as distinctively separate from China. Facing reality across the Taiwan Strait may require China to be content with being peaceful and sovereign neighbors tied together by a common globalization.

Roselyn Hsueh is assistant professor of political science at Temple University and the author of “China’s Regulatory State: A New Strategy of for Globalization.” She recently published, “State Capitalism, Chinese-Style: Strategic Value of Sectors, Sectoral Characteristics, and Globalization.”