Only a few dozen protesters gathered to jeer Chen Deming, China’s point man on cross-strait relations, as he flew into Taiwan in December. Previously, violence and headline-grabbing incidents had marred the visits of high-ranking Beijing officials to the self-governing island, but for the most part this eight-day trip was uneventful.
“They didn’t need to do more,” former Taiwan official Alexander Huang told Reuters, referring to Taiwanese who oppose closer relations with the Chinese and China. Indeed, the people of the island had already delivered this message to the Kuomintang, the governing party, in what some call “Taiwan’s Great Choosing Day.” On November 29th, Taiwan’s electorate cast ballots for eleven thousand one hundred and thirty posts in the “nine-in-one” poll, covering nine levels of local government across the nation.
Voters in November turned out governing party candidates in seats that had been safe for decades. The KMT, as the Kuomintang is called, garnering only 40.7 percent of the ballots cast, lost nine of the fifteen cities and counties it had controlled, even failing to keep the capital, Taipei City, long a stronghold. It was what one foreign commentator termed a “brutal defeat” in a high-turnout contest in which 67.6 percent of eligible voters participated.
The drubbing was the worst setback for the KMT since 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek fled to the island after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party in the Chinese civil war. In 2000, the party lost the presidency for the first time—to the Democratic Progressive Party—but only because the “pan-Blue” forces split their vote among two candidates. And eight years later, after healing divisions, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou took back the top spot, reasserting the party’s dominance of the island’s politics. Although no island-wide posts were at stake in November, the results were worse from the KMT’s point of view because the rejection of the party was almost across-the-board.
The KMT, therefore, was stunned. Just hours after the polls closed, party stalwarts began resigning. President Ma performed a deep bow to the nation for a full ten seconds while giving up his post as chairman of the party four days after the unprecedented rout. “The results of the election tell us our reforms were not made fast enough and have yet to meet the expectations of the people, which is why the KMT failed to win the support of most voters,” Ma said in his resignation speech.
It was hard to disagree with him. Observers believed the results were largely about the president’s unpopularity—his approval rating fell to 9.2 percent in late 2013—and the Kuomintang’s perceived incompetence and taint of corruption. Indeed, this was the explanation favored by Beijing itself. “The election was a strong vote of no confidence against the Ma administration,” proclaimed People’s Daily in an online article titled “Nine-In-One, KMT Lost to Itself.”
Neither Ma nor Beijing wanted to admit that their shared “cross-strait” policy was a factor in the local elections. Yet despite what Beijing and Taipei tried to convey to the public, Ma made the polling a referendum on his China policies as well as the competence and transparency of his governance. Faced with the prospect of heavy losses, Ma tried to change the course of the elections about ten days before the balloting by talking up China. He succeeded, but only in showing just how much the public was at odds with his policies.
Ma had fostered various forms of economic integration with Beijing during his tenure as Taiwan’s leader, and ordered Kuomintang candidates to push their rivals on the controversial Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services. Signed in June 2013, the services deal was headed for ratification by the Legislative Yuan, the nation’s unicameral legislature, until a KMT lawmaker suddenly announced in mid-March the completion of the first reading of the deal, one of the initial steps in the enactment process.
In response to the rushed deliberation, students stormed the assembly. Their occupation, lasting twenty-four days, attracted hundreds of thousands of citizens who came to support the occupiers and “write history.” The Sunflower Movement, as it became known, took on a life of its own, fundamentally changing the island’s politics by stopping the Kuomintang’s push to expand ties with China. Today, for instance, the services deal remains unratified. By bringing all of this back up in the final stage of the November campaigning, and in fact arguing that integration should proceed even faster, Ma made relations with the mainland the central issue of the election.
It is a mystery why the normally astute Ma became so tone-deaf so quickly. It is sometimes said he saw time running out to complete his vision of political union with China, as his second and last term was about to enter its final year. Both his Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China believe there is “one China” and Taiwan is a part of it. They nonetheless disagree about whether the country is the People’s Republic of China ruled from Beijing, as the Communists claim, or the Republic of China governed from Taipei, as the KMT believes. In effect, Ma refuses to accept his side lost the Chinese civil war.
Beijing, on the other hand, thinks it has won that contest and speaks of “reunification,” a term that assumes the country was once whole. Many on Taiwan prefer “unification” to make the point that the People’s Republic has never controlled their island. Similarly, the KMT, also known as the Nationalist Party, talks about the “Mainland,” while many on the island do not see their state as Chinese and so use “China” to denote the country on the other side of the Taiwan Strait. Their nation, in their terminology, is “Taiwan.”
This is more than a semantic debate. Surveys over the course of several decades show the portion of the population viewing itself as “Taiwanese” is growing and the portion thinking itself “Chinese” is shrinking, with the number self-identifying as Taiwanese now at a historic high. An American Enterprise Institute study released in late 2014, for instance, shows 60.4 percent of citizens saying they are “Taiwanese” versus 3.5 percent responding “Chinese” and almost all the rest classifying themselves as both.
Ultimately, politics follows identity. An overwhelming majority of people in Taiwan either want immediate “independence” or indefinite maintenance of the status quo, which in practice is the same thing. The percentage desiring quick political union with China rarely exceeds single digits when respondents are given a choice of these three options. And worse from Beijing’s perspective, the number seeking union with China has been declining over time.
Beijing finds it impossible to accept the fact that only a small minority of Taiwan’s population wants the island to become the thirty-fourth province of the People’s Republic, so Chinese leader Xi Jinping did Ma no favors when he began to speak out about Taiwan in the months leading up to the November poll.
Most notably, in late September the Chinese supremo played host to Yok Mu-ming, chairman of Taiwan’s insignificant New Party, and his delegation of about twenty pro-unification figures. At the widely publicized meeting, Xi announced that the “one country, two systems” formula, applied to the absorption of Hong Kong and Macau into the People’s Republic last century, was Beijing’s model for taking over Taiwan.
Immediately put on the defensive by Xi’s remarks, Ma took to the airwaves to denounce “one country, two systems,” telling Al Jazeera, “Taiwan has sent a clear message that we do not accept the concept.”
Xi’s comments on 1C2S, as the formula is often labeled, came at a historic moment when hardy Hong Kong citizens, taking inspiration from the Sunflowers, were demanding Beijing adhere to its longstanding promises of autonomy for Hong Kong, which the Communist Party had essentially abrogated in a series of actions earlier in the year. To gain publicity for their position, students had flooded out of their classrooms and began seventy-nine days of occupation of Hong Kong’s streets and plazas.
It isn’t precisely clear how China’s abrogation of its promises to Hong Kong affected Taiwan’s voters in November, nor do we know the exact effect of Xi Jinping’s heavy-handed attempt to insert himself into Taiwan politics. Nonetheless, Ma’s decision to raise the China issue at the end of the campaign period, so soon after those two developments, clearly hurt his party’s cause and contributed to the landslide that has drastically changed Taiwan’s political landscape going into the January 2016 presidential contest.
The KMT is now in disarray. The governing organization, before it can win elections again, will have to reconstitute itself. Eric Chu, barely reelected mayor in New Taipei City in November, is the just-installed party leader and now has months of work to rebuild an organization decimated by the rout. He will have to guide the party as it selects candidates for the 2016 vote, but most difficult of all, he will have to find a message that resonates. As a practical matter, the Kuomintang cannot develop a compelling narrative unless its China policies start producing economic growth for Taiwan and the benefits of that growth are spread more evenly throughout society.
The Kuomintang will have to do all that while defending its sponsorship of ties with the People’s Republic. The KMT greatly benefitted from its relations with the other China, as some might term it, when Beijing’s external policies appeared mild and the Chinese economy looked strong. Now that China appears to have passed inflection points, with its foreign policy becoming belligerent and its economy stumbling, the former benefit has turned into a liability. Opposition leaders who said Taiwan should not have hitched its future so closely to China now look prophetic.
By tying its fortunes so closely to the Chinese state, the KMT has lost control of its own destiny. For good or ill, Beijing now has a big say in how the Kuomintang performs in 2016, and, unfortunately for the governing party, Xi has a tendency to say things that many in Taiwan reject. For instance, in October 2013 he essentially promised to annex Taiwan sometime during his tenure as Chinese leader, scheduled to end in 2022. “Looking further ahead, the issue of political disagreements that exist between the two sides must reach a final resolution, step by step, and these issues cannot be passed on from generation to generation,” he told Ma’s envoy, Vincent Siew.
The words were the first public indication that Xi had decided to settle the Taiwan issue quickly, and they sent shivers through many observers. “Xi is pushing Taiwan hard into a corner,” Gerrit van der Wees, editor of the Washington-based political journal Taiwan Communiqué, told me. And Stephen Yates, once a national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, said on national radio that the Chinese leadership appeared no longer content to accept the status quo across the Taiwan Strait.
Xi’s comment outraged Taiwan activists, but, more significantly, it put pressure on Ma to speed up the ratification of the cross-straits services agreement in the Legislative Yuan. Ma then apparently pressed his party to pass the pact quickly, which triggered the occupation of the legislature and the creation of the Sunflower phenomenon.
Since then, Ma has tried to distance himself from Xi’s more unpopular utterances, such as the one invoking 1C2S in September, but by now he has become too identified with China to be able to avoid being tarred by the Chinese ruler. So he and his party are trapped between an impatient Beijing and an increasingly independent-minded Taiwan population, neither of which they can influence to any appreciable degree.
The problem for the KMT is not so much the country has gone “Green”—the color the opposition Democratic Progressive Party has adopted—as much as that Taiwan’s society has irrevocably changed. The island’s people over the course of decades paid a high price in blood for their democratic institutions. The struggle for self-governance occurred while people were also fighting to assert Taiwanese, as opposed to Mainland, identity, and each movement fueled the other.
These struggles have translated into today’s unmistakable air of assertiveness, impatience, and demand. The feeling has existed, in varying degrees, across the nation for years, although it sometimes seemed hidden from view. Many in the opposition to the KMT, for instance, had grumbled for years that young Taiwanese did not seem to care about cross-strait politics or even the future of their country. In March, however, a generation stirred when a handful of students galvanized society and within days changed almost every political calculus on the island.
Despite almost a year of activism by the island’s Sunflowers, observers report that Beijing was stunned by the results of the November election—a reaction that shows how little Chinese leaders understand Taiwan, which they claim as their own domain. It is perhaps understandable that men and women steeped in Marxist doctrine would foster economic integration on the assumption that Taiwan’s resulting dependency would ultimately lead to political integration, yet closer economic ties with Taiwan have in fact repelled the Taiwanese, pushing them even further away from Beijing.
Beijing initially reacted to the voters’ rejection of cross-strait policies in November by reflexively making threats. China, said Liu Jingsong in the wake of the voting, “should not fear the storm.” “The Taiwan issue will not remain unresolved for a long time,” the former general and former president of the Chinese Academy of Military Sciences told the Communist Party’s Global Times, evidently speaking for Beijing. “We will not abandon the possibility of using force; according to the law, it is also an option to resolve the issue by military means if necessary.”
Belligerent comments like these may intimidate American policymakers, but they only stiffen the backs of Taiwanese. Decade after decade, red-faced Chinese officials, shouting at their “Taiwan compatriots,” have only eroded support for any sort of political union, and Liu’s talk of China’s “new judgments and countermeasures” is unlikely to bend the will of those on the island who view the Chinese not as brothers and sisters but as outlanders.
In his tour of Taiwan in early December, Chen Deming, president of Beijing’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, also issued ominous words in speaking of “our bottom line for Taiwan independence.” But his general approach was considerably softer than Liu’s. Chen studiously avoided flashy meetings with politicians and focused instead on the young and common folk. During his eight-day visit, an apparent effort at fact-finding and damage control, he visited elderly care, biotech, agricultural, and tourism facilities in seven cities and counties and was careful not to mention the November 29th elections.
In one sense, it is good that Chen chose to listen more than talk, but it is hard to see how his new posture got China closer to its goal of taking over Taiwan. There is now nothing he can say that makes political union with an increasingly repressive authoritarian state attractive to people who feel a new passion about their democratic institutions. Moreover, it does not help Chen’s cause when he says, as he did just before his visit, that people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are “just like one family.”
Words like that, delivered to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, suggest that Beijing policymakers remain out of touch with the people in Taiwan and fail to understand the most significant aspect of the November elections—that Taiwan’s people, who for a long time have been imagining a society separate and apart from China’s, now see the Chinese state as increasingly irrelevant to their lives.
After the November election, Bruce Jacobs of Monash University in Australia told Reuters that the KMT are “yesterday’s people.” Now, in the eyes of the Taiwanese, the Chinese are too.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China and a blogger at World Affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.