Taiwan’s 2020 Election: The KMT’s Downturn and the DPP’s Emergence in the Game of Thrones

Written by Ljavakaw Tjaljimaraw.

Image credit: DSC05709 by Fenix_21/Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As an island republic whose location is of strategic value for competing powers, the basic pattern of politics in Taiwan can hardly be immune to the geopolitics surrounding it. Following the U.S. defeat of Japan in the Second World War and the emergence of the global Cold War, Taiwan actually became a de facto American protectorate with an émigré party-state regime, i.e., the Kuomintang (KMT) dominated Republic of China.

Benefiting from the Cold War world order, the KMT exiled in Taiwan had a long-term monopoly on playing “Team America” by acting as an East Asian anti-communist sentinel. In the strategic conception of the late US five-star general Douglas MacArthur, Taiwan was viewed as an unsinkable aircraft carrier arrayed as a link of the first island chain in the West Pacific in order to contain the expansion of communism. While Taiwan stood right at the forefront of Cold War in this strategic conception, it was the émigré KMT that was set to steer the unsinkable aircraft carrier called Taiwan. Putting aside the inconvenient facts of the suffering of the Taiwanese people under the KMT’s oppressive rule, under the ironhanded leadership of the two Chiangs, the KMT did maintain its steadfast anti-communism. In short, the KMT exclusively played the role of Team America without any credible competitor in Taiwan during the Cold War period.

However, the end of the Cold War brought about a chain reaction. The rise of pro-globalisation neoliberalism in the wake of the breakdown of the Soviet Union prompted the US strategic shift from containing to engaging the surviving communist China, with the hope of taming and transforming its communist nature through incorporation into global capitalism. The restructuring of the world order, together with the corresponding US strategic shift, had two crucial implications triggering the KMT’s transformation from “Team America” to “Team China”.

The US strategic shift was a political blow to the KMT, as the engagement strategy nullified the necessity of sustaining an anti-communist authoritarian regime on Taiwan. Under pressure from both domestic society and the US, the KMT had no choice but give way to democratisation under Lee Teng-hui’s leadership in the 1990s. Economically speaking, the US engagement strategy also granted space for Taiwan’s labour-intensive manufacturers to take advantage of China’s extremely cheap labour force and land released to satisfy Chinese thirst for foreign capital and technologies. This was certainly a tempting transaction, bidding Taiwan to China, against which then President and KMT Chairman Lee strived to resist.

Meeting with the acquiescence of the US and taking a prudent attitude towards the outflow to China of capital and manufactures, the KMT still played the role of Team America A in elections, despite the fact that its long-term monopoly on playing Team America was broken in the 1990s by the rising DPP. As the political vehicle of Taiwanese nationalism forced to fight on two fronts – to dismantle the “White China” regime imposed by the KMT from within and to resist the “Red China” aggression launched by the CCP from without – the DPP has since inception taken an unwavering America-leaning stance. The DPP availed itself of the continuous institutionalised opportunities created in the increasingly fair and open elections to grow as an alternative Team America. This stance, together with the KMT’s, constituted Taiwan’s basic pattern of politics characterised by electoral competition between Team America A and B.

However, this pattern of politics was not static and swiftly evolved. Few KMT politicians proved to be as determined as Lee in resisting making a quick buck in China. After Lee stepped down from the presidency and the KMT chairmanship in 2000, the KMT made a sharp turn to urge a more flexible environment and looser conditions for the outflow to China of Taiwanese capital and industries. The election of Chen Shui-bian as the first DPP president in 2000 together with his re-election in 2004 positioned the KMT, in its desperation, to make a deal with the devil by formally declaring in 2005 its policy of “suppressing Taiwanese independence by aligning with the CCP”. The KMT was then set on a path of no return, availing itself of the CCP’s United Front sweeteners combined with military threats to win the elections.

This strategy did work in the short run in terms of party competition. From 2000 to 2008, the DPP, despite playing as Team America B, found itself caught between two unfavourable situations. On the one hand, the KMT’s “Go West” advocates stirred up an avaricious “China craze” of United Front-driven bonuses, bribes, or subsidies handed out to people from all walks of life. This was especially true in business circles conventionally steeped in KMT cronyism and clientelism, aggravating the social and political pressures imposed on the DPP administration. On the other, the US was mired in the War on Terror in the Middle East, focusing on its grand engagement strategy,  and unperturbed by the KMT’s China-leaning reorientation. Worse still, the DPP created trouble for itself by aggressively promoting Taiwanese independence, considered an infringement of the US global strategic blueprint envisioning cross-Strait stability in East Asia. During its eight years in power, the DPP failed to be promoted from Team America B to A, and worse, in 2008 the KMT was restored to power with Ma Ying-jeou as president.

Taking Ma’s election as positive feedback to its reorientation, the KMT’s return to power served to push its China-leaning drift even farther and faster. In the final piece of this series, I will analyse how Taiwan’s society was laid wide open to China’s United Front infiltrations during Ma’s two-term presidency, a process which had facilitated the making of the pro-China and anti-China blocks in Taiwanese society.

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: ljavakaw0520@gmail.com

One comment

  1. “The DPP availed itself of the continuous institutionalised opportunities created in the increasingly fair and open elections to grow as an alternative Team America. This stance, together with the KMT’s, constituted Taiwan’s basic pattern of politics characterised by electoral competition between Team America A and B.”

    What does it mean for a party to be Team America? Does it mean promoting the alignment of Taiwan with the interests of America? Placing America’s interests above Taiwan’s interests? Being a puppet of America?

    What does it mean to be promoted from Team B to Team A? Who does the promotion? On what criteria?

    Taiwan’s main parties competed for votes in the 1990s and early 2000s on which one is the better Team America? Seriously?

    I, for my part, have no doubt that the Taiwanese, past and present, are not inclined to be the serfs of any major foreign power, know their own interests and promote them as well as they dare in the face of the constraints the immense pressure of China and America puts them under in recent decades. Neither did they vote for the better American lackey in the past nor do they choose between America’s lackey and China’s lackey now.

    In the past the KMT stood for protecting Taiwan from the communists and regaining the mainland be defeating the communists. This made America a welcome partner for economic development and military protection. Since China turned from a communist country into a de facto capitalist country, the KMT reoriented to promoting ever closer ties to China for economic development and as preparation for eventual reunion.

    The DPP represents those Taiwanese who heed the many bad experiences Taiwan had with foreign rule in its history, be it colonial rule, imperial rule or ROC rule. The DPP stands for self-rule and sees America as the best bet to protect Taiwan’s self-rule.

    Liked by 1 person

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