Taiwan independence: The elephant in the room

Written by Linda Gail Arrigo.

There is a looming shadow in any discussion of satisfaction/dissatisfaction with the administration of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) since her accession to the presidency of “The Republic of China” in May, 2016: China.

China more than any other local actor now threatens democracy in Taiwan, and in case we might neglect the threat, on November 28, 2017 China’s sentenced Taiwanese citizen Lee Ming-che to 5 years for his concern for Chinese human rights was a rude reminder. Meanwhile, there are widening reports of China using its tourist policy, organizing Chinese wives of Taiwan citizens, and even utilizing funding of religious organizations, to expand and solidify its foothold in Taiwan – most noxious, media control.

Many Taiwan Independence (TI) activists are aghast at the government’s apparent lack of countermeasures, given an open society with protection for individual rights and free enterprise; that is a knotty issue. But here I will be concerned most with what the Tsai administration could in practice do, and the continuing criticisms of TI activists. Meanwhile, I have my own axe to grind, and the TI organizations will not emerge unscathed.

The general issue has been Tsai’s use of Kuomintang (KMT) figures in major positions in her administration since the beginning, centring on Lin Chuan as premier. The tepid nature of her administration was signalled early on by her election slogans (“Don’t ask Blue [KMT] or Green [DPP], ask who governs best!”), which seemed calculated to appeal to light Blues – as if the elephant looming in the path of the long-overdue overhaul of the 1947 constitution could be wistfully wished away. Lin was replaced by William Lai (Lai Ching-te), who publicly advocates Taiwan’s independence, in September 2017, apparently to assuage that TI complaint, but only minor changes in ministry heads ensued.

The appointment of Chiu Tai-san as Minister of Justice was a major target of complaints – his inaction casting doubt on Tsai’s inaugural vow to carry out “transitional justice”, i.e. reveal and reverse the injustices of the four decades of martial law in Taiwan – and he remains in place. Efforts to recover assets transferred from state ownership to KMT-controlled organizations since 1946 continue at a slow pace, but of course the KMT has been privatizing its assets since the 1990’s, accelerating with the Chen Shui-bian presidency in the year 2000, and no doubt only a small percentage of the value would be recovered.

Add to that the special privileges for military, bureaucracy, and government-employed teachers (the not-so-long-ago phased-out 18% interest rate on retirement savings and 3% loans for real estate, both obviously benefiting those at higher incomes); the politically-differential effects of government connections in contracting and in insider trading on the stock market, especially in initial electronics offerings; and preferences for those espousing Chinese nationalism in doing business with China – and the gross impact on long-term polarization of wealth in Taiwan can only be imagined.

But it may be the support of native Taiwanese capitalists that is of most concern to Tsai. It is no accident for her present role that Tsai Ing-wen was an international trade negotiator in 1993 under former President Lee Teng-hui. Over a long period, but even beginning in the early 1990’s, the DPP has shifted its base of concern from laboor and farmers and lower middle class, to business – even though the KMT caricature of the DPP has been that it is a party of rabble-rousers and TI zealots.

This shift was palpably signalled in the 1992 call of DPP chairman Hsu Hsin-liang for Taiwanese businessmen to go west and conquer China. He also said that the plank in the DPP charter calling for democratic determination of Taiwan’s future was “a figment of history”, and the moral leader Lin Yi-hsiung was the only voice in the party to call for Hsu’s impeachment. Taiwanese investment in China, especially in electronics, as well as its off-sourcing of production to China from the late 1980’s, reaped profits for Taiwan and rapid development for China. But the major rush to China began in the 2000’s. While at election time the DPP dodged any mention of Taiwan’s future in the name of election victory and avoidance of contentious issues, it took for granted the support of TI nationalists and native culture advocates.

Even the hugely successful February 28, 2004, activity Hands Across Taiwan that mobilized perhaps half a million people on the eve of the presidential election was not sanctioned by the top ranks of the DPP. Similar for the March 2014 Sunflower Movement that perhaps sealed the downfall of the KMT. Now, facing the ultimate challenge to Taiwan’s future, the DPP has painted itself into a corner and shows little sign of the leadership that a DPP presidency with a new majority in the legislature could be expected to show.

Disillusionment with the Tsai administration is particularly voiced among overseas Taiwanese, the now elderly but diehard TI community that gave crucial assistance to opposition to the KMT in the 1970’s. Allen Kuo who runs the chat board Bay Area Taiwanese Americans castigates Tsai as virtually a holding action for the PRC. Among Taiwan TI, there has been talk of “teaching Tsai a lesson” by withholding support in the upcoming 2018 local elections, compelling her to abdicate the next DPP presidential candidacy in favour of a TI leader. A mass movement plan announced February 2018, dubbed “Happy Island (Shi Le Dao)”, is to challenge the DPP’s “dog-cage” referendum law that recently replaced the KMT’s “bird-cage” referendum law but still doesn’t allow changing the ROC Constitution, and then hold a real referendum on Taiwan’s future in 2019.

My complaint with the Tsai administration begins with the initial appointment of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In early 2016 I was preparing my usual tirade against ROC foreign relations continuing as a vestige of the now-defunct World Anti-Communist League. The WACL, headquartered in Taiwan, was long a cover for US aid channelled to dictators and death squads in Latin America. Notably, Roberto D’Aubuisson of El Salvador’s ARENA came to Taiwan seven times. Unfortunately, Taiwanese are ignorant of this history. My long recommendation to the DPP and TI advocates was to cut all ROC foreign relations, repudiate the KMT ties with authoritarian regimes, and start again in the name of a democratic Taiwan. Dollar diplomacy, if that was all that remained, should work just as well if not better.

Imagine my surprise when I heard that the new foreign minister was to be David Tawei Lee, a thirty-year careerist of the old regime! That was in effect announcing a continuation of the one-China policy of the KMT, not even diplomatic ambiguity, much less transitional justice in foreign relations. I initiated a protest letter that was publicized by LATV (Los Angeles TV, aka Chien Feng net cast news) and brought it to two respected TI organizations, the Taiwan Association of University Professors and the North Society. Both were hesitant to offend the Tsai administration. TAUP issued a vague statement of ideals. North Society’s said, “wait and see what Tsai does”, as if she hadn’t already violated their founding principle! Such a timid and vacillating response of TI organizations does seem to be in character, though occasionally they do unite in action.

That in November 2016 Trump accepted Tsai’s telephone call of congratulations was much lauded as putting Taiwan in the international spotlight; but soon after when Trump said the US position on Taiwan would depend on business negotiations with China, only overseas Taiwanese-Americans protested that Taiwan’s sovereignty was not a pawn of the US – Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not protest.

Lee was replaced in February 2018 by Joseph Jaushieh Wu, a professor of political science and confidante of Tsai who reportedly originally touted Lee as a man trusted in Washington, while Lee was sent to a high national security role. So far there is no sign of change in foreign relations policy; apparently the KMT-ROC forces are too deeply entrenched there.

Tsai continues to struggle with trying to balance the budget by paring the bloated retirement payments to government employees, while of course the military and other government employees protest. As of April 2018, she has placed the popular woman mayor of Kaohsiung, also a warhorse of the 1970’s democratic movement and six years a political prisoner, Chen Chu, in the position of presidential office secretary-general, after the position was vacated by Joseph Wu.

This is perhaps a move to shore up Tsai’s support in the TI camp and look like she has the mantle and resolve of the 1970’s challenge to martial law. Since Chen Chu is an old buddy of mine from that period, hopefully I will have more to say about this in the next blog.

Linda Gail Arrigo is political activist, human rights activist, and academic researcher in Taiwan. She used to serve as the international affairs officer of Green Party, Taiwan. Image credit: CC by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène/Flickr.


  1. Not long ago during a talk, titled ‘From China-Nogo to Taiwan-Logo’, by Taiwan’s representative to Germany, Jhy-Wey Shieh, the following question hit me suddenly. Why is Taiwan so unreasonably passive in its international relations?

    Part of the answer might be “a vestige of the now-defunct World Anti-Communist League, headquartered in Taiwan [and used as] a cover for US aid channelled to dictators and death squads in Latin America” in “ROC foreign relations”. One cannot pose confidently as a solid democracy on the international stage while having such a past looming “unrepudiated” in the background.

    Another part might be past experience. The Taiwanese were ruled by outsiders for many hundred years. Whenever they rebelled against their overlords they got subdued bloodily. Perhaps they fear that their good fortune of having attained freedom eventually will not last long, considering that their next ‘want to be’-overlord is scheming a takeover just across a narrow strip of sea.

    However, president Tsai Ing-wen’s approach to change appears prudent, even smart. Chen Shui-bian antagonised external forces and failed. Ma Ying-jeou antagonised internal forces and failed also. So, it appears, governing Taiwan is really hard.

    Tsai Ing-wen started off stressing continuity and moderation to avoid wide-spread antagonism. Now she puts step by step her own mark on the administration by replacing legacy personnel by more reform minded individuals who are closer to her own ideas about the future of Taiwan. We will see if and how this approach works out eventually.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. So far there is little sign that the conservative people, far in the majority in the administration, are being replaced with any actions.

    Liked by 1 person

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