Written by Ljavakaw Tjaljimaraw.
Image credit: 01.01 中華民國107年元旦總統府升旗音樂會 by Office of the President, Republic of China (Taiwan)/Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0
While Taiwan is still in a state of limbo over who will win out among the candidates running for the presidency, the overall pattern of the 2020 election is becoming quite clear: it will be, for the first time, a battle between “Team America” and “Team China,” instead of the competition between Team America A and Team America B that appeared in the course of Taiwan’s democratisation in the 1990s. This new pattern has manifested itself in recent episodes that herald a fundamental political re-alignment and restructuring.
Following a series of passages of Taiwan-friendly acts and military sales reaffirming US commitment to the regional security and stability of East Asia, Taiwan-US relations have become much closer. This warming was highlighted with the April celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). In one of the ceremonies to mark the occasion, Director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) William Christensen, accompanied by a delegation led by former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, made the following off-the-cuff remark: “Madam President (Tsai Ing-wen), in my view, you are the role model not only here in Taiwan but around the world; the United States could not ask for a closer partner and friend as President of Taiwan.” Attentive observers may read between the lines: more than an impromptu compliment, this statement is actually signalling that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has played the role of “Team America B” in elections since the 1990s, had been promoted to “Team America A” in place of the Kuomintang (KMT), and that the incumbent President Tsai in particular was recognised as the competent captain of this newly-promoted Team America.
At the same time, Taiwan has witnessed two undisguisedly pro-China nationwide celebrities being fervently urged by KMT supporters to run for the presidency. One is Han Kuo-yu, a man of no mark who against all expectations – including the KMT’s – won for the KMT the mayoralty of Kaohsiung, a DPP stronghold since 1998. Han’s campaign allegedly benefited from Chinese assistance. Then, less than three months after his inauguration, Han paid an unexpected high-profile visit to the Chinese central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong – an act widely deemed, even by KMT politicians, as a political taboo. The other potential candidate is Terry Gou, a Taiwanese billionaire who runs the largest electronics manufacturing operation in the world through factories mostly in China. He is known as a tycoon domineering like a lion toward the Taiwanese government but meek as a lamb toward the Chinese government. More recently, Gou created a furore by pledging to President Trump to build a complex for the manufacture of flat-glass display panels in the Badger State of Wisconsin as a partial fulfilment of Trump’s electoral commitment to create jobs in the US. Just as his history of making and breaking promises in numerous countries foretold, Gou wavered in his commitment until Trump forced him to openly reaffirm the pledge in February this year.
In keeping with the world-wide rise of populism favouring political outsiders, neither Han nor Gou is a conventional politician. Conventional KMT politicians previously kept a nominal distance from China by inventing and employing deliberately ambiguous rhetoric, i.e., the “1992 Consensus” and “One China with Different Interpretations,” to disguise their pro-China policies. However, both Han and Gou, as noted above, seem to disdain to conceal their pro-China views and actions as well as their personal connections with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is not difficult to image that should Han, a political upstart rising from obscurity where the spectre of Beijing is haunting, or Gou, a tycoon accused of establishing his manufacturing empire by taking advantage of the state-sponsored slave labour in China, become the KMT-nominated candidate for the upcoming Presidential election, the genuine campaign headquarters would be hidden in Beijing with a liaison office set up in Taipei as a showcase for the façade of electoral democracy.
Strangely enough, both Han and Gou have outperformed by a large margin KMT heavyweights such as Wang Jin-pyng, Eric Chu, and Wu Den-yih in each and every presidential candidate poll. Once upon a time, the KMT politicians qualified to run for presidency were only those who came from high-blooded waishengren (“mainlander”) families returning with both US permanent residency and a doctoral degree conferred by a prestigious American university. Ma Ying-jeou, James Soong, and Eric Chu were among the most typical of this kind of KMT politician. But this trend changed rapidly during Ma’s two-term presidency.
In 2015 the KMT for the first time selected as presidential candidate a lower class and less-educated waishengren who had had little acquaintance with the US: Hung Hsiu-chu. Four years later, Han and Gou, another two “outsiders” who like Hung lacked the conventional qualifications to be the KMT’s presidential nominee, are once again overpowering KMT heavyweights in the presidential run. Compared to Han and Gou, Hung was a veteran politician who had earned her political status in Taiwan with little assistance from China. In sharp contrast, the presidential prospects of Han and Gou are entirely dependent on Beijing, representing a harvest for the CCP after its years of effort in United Front operations.
The informally proclaimed shift in US endorsement and the KMT supporters’ unprecedented eagerness for unconventional candidates with barefaced pro-China views and actions can be read together as a straw in the wind: what it reflects is not just a polarisation resulting from short-term, one-shot electoral strategies, but a new pattern of politics formed upon two counter-directional currents on which the DPP and the KMT respectively have ridden.
Bluntly put, riding since inception on the America-leaning current, the DPP has finally in 2016 been promoted from Team America B to Team America A; conversely, by drifting into the China-leaning current since the 1990s, the KMT has transformed from once having the Team America monopoly in the Cold War period, to competing electorally with Team America B in the post-Cold War period, to becoming Team China in recent years.
These two trends – that is the DPP’s promotion from Team America B to A and the KMT’s transformation from the sole Team America to Team China –together constitute a new pattern of politics manifest in the ongoing presidential campaigns. In the two following pieces, I will offer a geopolitical analysis on the formation of this new pattern through the lens of the restructuring world order and briefly discuss its implications.
Ljavakaw Tjaljimaraw, aka Ek-hong Ljavakaw Sia, serves as a research fellow of European Research Center of Contemporary Taiwan (ERCCT), at the University of Tübingen, Germany and is currently based in the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, Taiwan. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org