Crisis for the Young, Dynamic Democracy of Taiwan

(The Global Crisis in Confidence, 25 Jul 2012)

Anonymous contributor ·

Taiwan has often been touted as the most dynamic democracy in Asia. With a consistently high average voter turnout of approximately 77% over the past five direct presidential elections since 1996, the island may hold one of the most participatory democratic processes in the world. On January 14th, Taiwan held its 5th presidential election. This year, the island had three candidates competing for the presidency: the incumbent Ma Ying-Jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and Soong Chu-Yu of the People’s First Party (PFP).

In the end, the incumbent Ma retained the presidency with a surprisingly large margin of 800,000 votes, or 51.6% of the support from the voters; while the biggest opposition candidate, Tsai, lost the election, obtaining just 45.6% of the votes. Tsai in her concession speech, said to her tearful supporters:

We concede and accept the decision made by the Taiwanese people. I know that many of our supporters feel heartbroken as they listen to me say this.  However I would like to congratulate President Ma, and I hope that in the next four years, he listens to the voices of the people, governs with diligence, caring equally for every citizen, and absolutely not disappoint the people’s expectations.

Many in and outside of Taiwan who had been following the election took Tsai’s gracious acceptance of defeat as a sign of Taiwan’s democratic maturation over the past decade. They called this peaceful election a victory for democracy in Taiwan. Half of the people living on the island, and many overseas Taiwanese however, would beg to differ.

If one takes a closer look at the re-elected incumbent party in Taiwan, one may have second thoughts about referring to this year’s election as a demonstration of the maturation of Taiwanese democracy. First, one should know that the KMT’s full name is the Chinese Nationalist Party. If one has heard of the Chinese Civil War after the Second World War, this name might ring a bell. Yes, the KMT is the same party that, despite political and material support from the United States and the U.S.S.R., managed to antagonize its own people in China and be defeated by the “bandits” who, wearing red scarfs, fought with inferior weapons. The KMT and its supporters have since remained in Taiwan and had been for over four decades preparing the island as a military base of operation to retake their motherland: China.

Throughout this period many Taiwanese local elites and dissidents against the KMT’s authoritarian rule were either killed or jailed because the Chinese Nationalists, who arrived in Taiwan after their defeat by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (comprising 15% of the population on the island), did not want any localization with the Formosan culture. Integrating into the indigenous culture of Taiwan was seen as an obstacle to the objective of returning to China. During the 228 Massacre, in the second year of Republic of China’s rule in Taiwan, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Taiwanese were killed over a 2 month time span.

In the next 40 years, the KMT would rule the island under the counter-revolutionary “White Terror”, during which up to 140,000 people were jailed and thousands executed. Up until the last years of the ’80s, famous freedom advocates and political thinkers continued to be jailed, assassinated, and compelled to self-immolation. It was not until the early ’90s, when a local Taiwanese — Lee Teng-hui, who managed to climb up the ladder of the very exclusive Chinese Nationalist Party to become President — did the population see real hope for democratisation.

After the end of Lee Teng-hui’s presidency and his expulsion from the party (due to his efforts to localize it), the KMT still holds its main mandate to retake the motherland, China, and holds very little resemblance to a democratic political party in a healthy democratic system.  It has only been 16 years since Taiwan had its first presidential election. The party is still controlled by politicians who were indoctrinated with the mandates the KMT brought from China and were taught to resist localising with the people of Taiwan. Ma Ying-Jeou himself is a traditional Chinese Nationalist. He has published several papers urging for ultimate reunification with China and opposes presidential elections by the people of Taiwan.

It is ironic that such a person could become a president elected directly by a nation of people, the same people whom he tried to deny electoral rights. With regards to the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty, when the DPP government held a referendum to let the people of Taiwan decide on whether to stop applying for UN membership under “Republic of China” (of which the application would be swiftly rejected as the UN only recognizes one China) and start submitting the application under the name “Taiwan”, the KMT urged its supporters to boycott the referendum. They spent thousands of dollars worth of advertisement campaign with the paradoxical slogan: “to protect democracy, refuse to participate in the referendum”. The referendum came to a null as the turnout did not exceed 50%.

Although it is not explicitly stated, it is visible through the KMT and its supporters’ actions that these people see themselves as the rightful rulers of the Republic of China  and that the DPP is a mere source of disruption, rather than a party of compatriots in political competition, for that unquestionable legitimacy. After multiple decades of one party rule, where becoming a party member was in most cases a prerequisite for a post in education, military, and the rest of the civil service industry, the KMT has been able to build a loyal army of voters that continue to vote for their milk cow, the party. During the KMT-era, party employees enjoyed the benefits of bureaucrats. Until this day, all party-employees who retired before 1987 continue to receive 18% interest rates on their designated bank accounts, courtesy of the Taiwanese tax payers. It is not surprising that the KMT has a strong base of “iron votes”.

Many praise the peaceful process of the 2012 Taiwan presidential election from start to finish. However, one who truly understands the nuance of the political and societal structure of this young democracy would know that the reason for this peace is simple: the KMT always wins. If one turns the clock back to 2004, when the KMT last lost a presidential election, the then chairman and now honorary chairman of the KMT, Lien Chan, led a violent riot to siege the presidential office. He incited the rioters by crying: “Our Country has been stolen! Being the president of Taiwan is nothing, everyone has the right to kill him.” Several party members, like Lien, also urged and appealed to supporters on television to kill the former DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, on sight. Since Taiwan’s democratization, the DPP and its supporters have not conducted organized violence when losing elections. Therefore last month’s calm and peaceful end to the democratic process may have been possible because the DPP had lost, not because the KMT and its supporters have matured as citizens of a democratic country.

Since its arrival on the island of Formosa after the Second World War, the KMT had taken property, businesses, and land from the locals by force and some of these assets instead of becoming nationalized assets they become party assets as the government was one of an authoritarian one-party state. Up until the late ’90s the KMT was the richest political party in the world. Although today it is unknown whether the party still holds this title, it is known that the KMT continues to possess real estate properties all over the world, and that it continues to possess an immense amount of liquid and illiquid assets. For example, in 2010, the party’s income from corporate investments amounted to approximately 100 million dollars, accounting for over 82% of the party’s total income. Looking at this, it is hard to determine whether the KMT possesses interests for the country it serves as a political party or a corporate entity that serves its economic benefactors and beneficiaries.

It is thus no surprise that while the national GDP of Taiwan continues to grow at a healthy rate over the past four years while the average salary in Taiwan remains stagnant, and that social welfare spending continues to be low while the wealth distribution gap continues to rise. Moreover, in a country where ⅔ of all companies have investments in China, it is no surprise that the KMT disregards all concerns of national security and pushes vigorously for market integration with China, a nation that has over 1,000 missiles targeting Taiwan. Assuming that you, a reader of this piece published in the United Kingdom, bear the values of democracy in the Western sense of the word: would you not be concerned if your supposedly democratic system elected a political party of the KMT-kind?

The business ties and thus the direct party economic ties with China are crucial to the KMT’s electoral victory in last month’s election. Several business tycoons who possess large production facilities as well as a market base in China appealed to the Taiwanese public to vote for the KMT in order to maintain their favorable business ties with China or, as they put it, Taiwan would suffer the “consequences” for not doing so. These individuals include Foxconn’s Terry Gou, HTC’s Cher Wang, and Want Want Group’s Tsai Eng Meng. Tsai, in particular, has  been buying up, since 2008, media corporations in order to bring the Taiwanese people closer to China,  in an effort to see the merger between the two countries in his lifetime.

Some observers see all of this business support as a deliberate maneuver from China. This is not an unreasonable suspicion as there was one infamous case in 2005 where a well-known, pro-Taiwan independence billionaire, who had been condemned by China as a separatist, suddenly put out a public letter calling for unification across the strait for the greater good of the Chinese nation, while one of his managers residing in China was in a situation of physical harm that was never disclosed to the public. The business tycoon has since shut himself from making political comments.

As China sees the Taiwan strait issue as a civil dispute between the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists, the Taiwanese local DPP is consequently seen as a distraction, intervening between the two “proper” Chinese political parties trying to sort out a six decades long domestic conflict. In this regard the CCP and the KMT share the same view. A world with one China in dispute is better than one indisputable China and one indisputable Taiwan. The KMT on the domestic front has also repeatedly used the threats of both severed economic ties with China and military action to instill fear into the Taiwanese public into voting for it.

This is an eerie thought. If the economic integration has become so deep between Taiwan and China that the Chinese government is able to use Taiwanese business interests in order to collaborate with and force a local political party to sway political outcomes, how have the principles of sovereign democracy won?

With its mandate to unify the one great Chinese nation, and with the direct economic interests of the KMT in China, it is difficult to see any common ground between the KMT and the local Taiwanese people. One can even go further to say that, it is in everyone’s interests for the KMT to reconcile with the CCP and bring Taiwan under China’s (PRC) control. If the KMT plays it cards right with Beijing and brings Taiwan slowly under PRC control, the implementation of a model similar to the one country different systems policy for Hong Kong could be conceivable. The KMT would then no longer need to fear losing power to the DPP or any other political force in Taiwan. It can then enjoy political success unchallenged, and continue to reap economic benefits exploiting both Taiwanese and Chinese resources.

From the eyes of those who are not completely informed of the political dynamics of Taiwan, and perhaps for those who consciously blind themselves from the grave political implications of the KMT’s win, it is easy to tout the 2012 Taiwan election as a triumph for democracy on the island. However, for those who do have a thorough understanding of the island and care about the sovereignty of this yet nascent democratic system, it is hard to suppress a feeling of unease and a sense of crisis.