DPP’s Mid-term Exam
In 2014 Local Election and the Presidential Election in 2016, Tsai Ing-wen and her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party(DPP) swiped Taiwan, from Parliament to local governments. This Saturday, the first local election after Tsai’ s administrations came to power will be held. From 2014 to 2016, DPP’s power grew rapidly as President Ma from Nationalist Party (KMT) floundered over several political issues and also the economies. However, after Tsai became the president of Taiwan, or formally the Republic of China (ROC) in 2016, the support rate for the DPP continued to decrease. On the one hand, Tsai’s administration did not improve the economic situation as promised and even involved in some political scandals. On the other hand, the bad Cross-Strait Relations damage not only Taiwan’s power on the international stage but also the domestic economy. And The bad performance of the central government has badly affected the local election.
Cross-Strait Relations after 2016
After Tsai became the president of ROC, there was barely any official communication between Beijing and Taipei as Beijing refuses to talk to the latter. The reason given by Beijing is very simple, that Tsai’s administration does not recognize the “1992 Consensus” which stresses the idea of ” One China, different expressions”: Beijing recognizes People’s Republic of China and Taipei recognizes the Republic of China. The DPP contends that it recognizes the historical facts of 1992 Conferences between representatives from both sides but not the so-called “1992 Consensus” which was not invented until 2004.
As Beijing is not satisfied with Tsai’s policies toward the mainland, it started to pressure Taiwan from multiple fronts. The first one is on countries which maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taipei. Since Tsai came to power, 5 countries including São Tomé and Príncipe, Panamá, Burkina Faso, Dominican, and Salvador stopped their diplomatic recognition of ROC and switched to PRC. So far, there are only 17 countries left which still recognizes Taipei as the legitimate government of China. Taipei contends that it is a systematic strategy by Beijing to constrain the international space for Taiwan. Even the U.S., after Salvador, switched its diplomatic recognition to PRC, criticized Beijing for its pressure on Taiwan.
Beijing’s strategy also includes the pressure on international organizations which reserve seats for Taiwan. For example, Taiwan was allowed to participate in the World Health Organization as an observer from 2009 to 2016 during pro-mainland President Ma’s administration. However, it was forced to quit after Tsai came into power. Another case would be the International Civil Aviation Organization, which Taiwan was permitted to join in 2013 but again be forced to leave in 2016. Pressures can be also observed in organizations where Taiwan wants to change its name from “China Taipei” to Taiwan. One example is the International Olympic Committee which in earlier this year warned Taipei that it will not allow “China Taipei” to be changed. It should be noted that Beijing does not necessarily directly put pressures on these organizations, but they do not want to anger Beijing anyway.
The bad Cross-Strait Relations has political implications in both domestic politics and foreign policies. In contrast to the DPP, the KMT still recognizes the 1992 consensus and maintains a good relationship with Beijing as the delegation of the KMT, led by its former president Lian can still meet with President Xi in Beijing despite the current situation. As a result, the KMT attacks the DPP that its foreign policy has led to the loss of diplomatic relations and also the opportunities to participate in international organizations.
Since the mainland became increasingly aggressive, Tsai’s administration tries hard to seek help from the U.S. Soon after Donald Trump won the election, Tsai called Trump (and Trump answered the phone), triggering the diplomatic tension between China and the U.S. concerning the “One China” policy that the U.S. promises to follow. The crisis ended up with the State Department reassures that the U.S. recognizes Beijing, not Taipei. This year, as the trade dispute between China and the U.S. escalated, Taiwan seeks a closer tie with the U.S, culminating in the pass of Taiwan Travel Act which allows high-level American officials to travel to Taiwan.
To counter Taiwan’s strategy to drag Americans in, Beijing launched numerous military exercises near Taiwan including dispatching the latest carrier battle group near the island. Such aggressive approaches triggered severe anti-China sentiment in Taiwan and Beijing stopped military actions since about 6 months ago, fearing negative effects on the local election. Interestingly, Tsai’s administration seems to be unhappy with this and the coast guard just started a military exercise in the South China Sea which will last for 3 days and end only one day before the election. So far Beijing does not respond to this, but it will probably not make any comment until the election ends.
The most essential problem for Tsai’s administration is the economic development and the. Although she said in public that “Nowadays, Taiwan’s economy is the best for the past 2 decades.”, the economic data does not support her view. It is now struggling to maintain a GDP growth rate of around 2% and hard to attract foreign investment.
The bad Cross-Strait relationship is certainly one important factor. In 2008, Nationalist administration finally signed documents with Beijing, allowing tourists groups travel directly to Taiwan. (Before that, mainlanders need to transfer at Hong Kong to fly to Taiwan.) In 2011, individual tourism was also permitted. Since then, the number of mainland visitors to Taiwan skyrocketed, as well as the income for tourism. After the DPP started to rule in 2016, visitors from the mainland decreases dramatically. We do not know for sure whether Beijing did something to discourage tours to Taiwan, but mainlanders’ opinions about Taiwan did deteriorate due to pro-independence rhetoric. Tourists related industries did not immune from this. Restaurants, souvenir, transportations, and agriculture suffer in varying degrees. Additionally, foreign investors are discouraged from investing in Taiwan due to the unstable regional environment.
To compensate for the loss of mainland travelers, Tsai’ administration proposed the so-called New Southbound Policy (NSP) to attract tourists from Southeast Asian and Oceanian countries. But to what extent can this policy bear fruits is still questionable. In 2017, tourists from PRC (including the mainland, Hong Kong and Macao) contributed about 40% of total foreign income for tourism, while those from countries included in NSP contributed around 22%.
Another reason contributed to the lack of investment is the lack of power. One of the biggest initiative by Tsai’s administration is to abandon all nuclear plants in 2025 while developing green energy, such as wind-power and gas. The problem with this initiative is that the development of wind-power and gas plants is still on-going, hence is not able to compensate for the decrease in nuclear powers. The lack of power badly damaged Taiwan’s investment environment as the memory of the island-wide power outage in summer 2017 is still vivid.
The government admitted that the power operating reserves are lower than the set standard and turned to traditional fossil fuel plants, triggering waves of critics as the air pollution became severe in several cities where power plants concentrate. In Taizhong, the air pollution is so serious that KMT’s candidate main rhetoric is brought the blue sky back. Also in New Taipei City, the DPP’s plan to expand a traditional plant was intensively attacked by KMT and was renounced about a month ago.
So far, the most notorious political scandal of the current administration is the one of Transitional Justice Committee. This special committee was set up to vindicate political prisoners during the “White Terror”, the KMT’s authoritarian rule in the second half of the 20th century. However, in September, one of researchers in the committee leaked the voice recording of a secret meeting held by the vice president with some other officials and researchers, in which the participants planned to attack KMT’s candidate of New Taipei City by contending that he involved in political persecution during the “White Terror” without evidence. Moreover, the vice president claimed that the committee now became “Dong Chang (東廠)”, the secret police composed of eunuchs during Ming dynasty of China. After the leakage, the president of the committee and those members who participated in the meeting resigned, including the one who leaked the recording.
The rise of populist politicians also threats DPP. Four years ago, DPP supported the independent politician Ke and defeated KMT in Taipei’s mayor election. Ke, at that time, was, in fact, new to politics as he was a doctor before the election. As people, especially the young generation became tired of traditional vicious fights between the KMT and the DPP, Ke won the election rather easily. However, this alliance eroded over time and finally broke up as DPP nominated its own candidate for Taipei’s mayor early in this year. So far, the DPP’s candidate was marginalized and Ke still takes the lead in the polls. (Although KMT’s candidate is catching up.)
Surprisingly, another rising star, Han Guoyu, comes from KMT, competing for the mayor of Gaoxiong, the homeland of the DPP. Although he looks new to the public, he actually served as the legislator from 1993 to 2001 but quit politics since then. Several years ago, he was invited to serve as the CEO of Taipei Agricultural Marketing Corporation and gained a reputation for good management capability, making him nominated by the KMT. During the campaign, Han advocated for a “clean” election with no personal attacks on other candidates which is absent from Taiwan’s politics for a long time. In addition, he claims that he can attract investment and visitors, especially from the mainland to Gaoxiong as he recognized the 1992 Consensus. So far, the supporting rate for Han and the DPP’s candidate Chen is very close and the DPP started to treat Han seriously as almost all leaders of the DPP publicly criticized Han.
The common strategy for DPP is to portray its competitors as agents of Beijing. Earlier this year Ke said in public that “People from two sides of Taiwan Strait are one family. (兩岸一家親)”. Later on, some DPP politicians contended that Ke receives assistance from the mainland and even participated in the illegal trade of organs conducted by Beijing. For Han, it is much easier to attack as he wants more cooperation with the mainland. One famous pro-DPP TV show host said that Han “will sell Taiwan (to the Communist) if he wins”. Some rumors on SNS even contend that Han studied in Beijing many years ago and was secretly trained by the Communist to unify Taiwan.
So far, DPP seems to pay more attention to Gaoxiong than Taipei. For the DPP, as long as KMT does not win, it wins. However for Gaoxiong, if Han became the mayor, an internal conflict is likely to break out as it is the base for the DPP which it has ruled for more than 2 decades. President Tsai, who is also the president of the DPP, probably will resign. The No.2 in the DPP, Chen Ju who was the mayor of Gaoxiong for 12 years will also suffer from the defeat. If both Tsai and Chen lose ground, it would be very difficult for DPP to come up with a proper leader.
Although the supporting rate of the DPP decreases dramatically, it is not necessarily that pro-unification rhetoric is ascending. In fact, even the KMT gave up its platform of seeking unification of China earlier this year. Moreover, last week, when former President Ma suddenly addressed that he changed his policy of “no unification” to “not refuse unification”, all KMT candidates for city mayors refused to respond or simply disagreed with Ma. Besides, Mayor Ke also “apologized” for his pro-mainland statement and never mentions it again.
According to Taiwan’s election law, it is illegal to publish polls’ results starting 10 days before the election date. As a result, it is very hard to predict the result for those hot spots, such as Taipei and Gaoxiong. However, no matter which party will more mayors or city councilors, both the KMT and the DPP needs to reform as they need to rebuild public confidence in traditional party politics. In terms of cross-strait relation, if the KMT wins the local election and hence the presidential election 2 years later, there may be a turning point as the “good old days” during President Ma’s rule return, but unification would be still very unlikely in the foreseeable future.