Taiwan: Political Predicament for the KMT, Dilemma for the DPP

With the first-ever meeting in Singapore on Nov. 7 between the leaders of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China now a month old, the dust has settled enough to seek to assess its impact.

The popular result was depressingly predictable for the flailing Kuomintang, the current ruling party. Recent polls show that 52.7 percent of Taiwanese voters regarded the meeting as an infamous performance by their soon-to-be former president, Ma Ying-jeou and an attempt to manipulate the electorate. More overwhelmingly, roughly 80 percent regarded the meeting between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping as in no way a benefit for Taiwan.

However, the meeting doesn’t mean unalloyed success for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party and its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen and her running mate, Chen Chien-jen, in general elections scheduled for January. Ma’s legacy may not be as tainted as it looks despite his current disapproval rating of 70 percent. The DPP will need to be very careful in the latter half of this decade. Should the party gain all but certain victory in 2016, it will still have to move forward in the light of the very possibly superficial, but nonetheless historic Ma-Xi meeting.

Spy vs. Spy

The breaking news of the exchange of imprisoned Taiwanese spies Chu Kung-hsun and Hsu Chang-kuo earlier this week for China’s Li Zhihao makes this all the more difficult for the DPP to stay loyal to its base of status quo-now, independence-later supporters without going down in history as spoiling diplomatic breakthroughs with the mainland.

As news reports this week made it clear that the spy handover was in fact negotiated before the Ma-Xi meeting, it seems more obvious that it was part of a political strategy to not necessarily help reverse the KMT’s chances of winning this election, but to rather place the DPP in a difficult situation in the early days of its control of the island.

In turn, this may cause Taiwanese textbooks to treat Ma more kindly in the years to come. For this reason, it is all the more understandable why the DPP supporters are more incensed, which again makes it dangerous for them to once again go down the slippery slope to losing credibility.

Over the past several months, in large part because of the continuing missteps of the ruling Kuomintang and Ma, the DPP – a political organization that seemed doomed after its president, Chen Shui-bian, was imprisoned in 2008 for several counts of corruption – appears certain to win the next election, expected in January. The currently ruling Kuomintang is so badly handicapped that it was forced to scrap its abrasive presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, and replace her with Eric Chu, a lackluster party wheelhorse, as candidate.

Reclaiming Taiwan’s Identity

As Taiwan’s and China’s economies have increasingly become intertwined over the past three decades, their social structure has become increasingly alienated. The number of young who want reunification has fallen precipitously to the point where it seems impossible. Indeed, what has followed in the past year and a half has reclaimed Taiwan’s political identity. In the spring of 2014, an estimated half-million people took part in the so-called Sunflower Movement, led by a then 26-year-old graduate student named Lin Fei-fan to block the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement aimed at liberalizing trade in banking, health care, tourism, film, telecoms and publishing.

It was a deal that many Taiwanese felt would seal their fate with Mainland China, allowing China’s pillar companies a chance to bury their equivalent companies in Taiwan. It was a deal that also sealed Ma’s legacy before the Singapore meeting buried it.

During the month of island-wide opposition to the trade agreement, to Ma and to anything that breathed a trace of unification, a friend and I made a trip to Luodong, a smaller city in the heavily DPP-favored Yilan province. A free concert was given in honor of the late Cheng Nan-jung, a man who famously fought for Taiwan’s democratic polity to the point of self-immolation.

Such energy, combined with punk rock and hip-hop music, seemed to attract the image of more freethinking, counter-cultural citizens.

However, such an identity can easily be inverted in the face of an administration that reinvigorates a hostile cross-strait relationship. The Chinese term qi refers to political energy that is usually vented through frustration. It is initially gained from citizens’ negative responses to the political system, but can be transformed into liberating, civic progress. What occurred in the last year-and-a-half with the re-shaping of an anti-unification, pan-green spirit was certainly a golden example of qi.

It should go down in history as one of the most magical moments of Taiwanese political action in the 21st century. However, while the odds are against the KMT at this moment, it is also very possible that President Ma may later be lauded for his risky yet effective meeting and convict compromise with President Xi.

Whether or not Ma made a cheap political move to revitalize the KMT and salvage his resume before the election in January remains debatable. The pan-green voters look to keep their strength and turn the tide on cross-strait relations and we can only ask how history will illustrate their ideological identities.

They will have to find a way to be judged as the same authority-fearing, human rights-empowering base that they are, without becoming a bastion of hawkish, economically destructive indiscretion.