Taiwan’s 2020 Election: The Making of the Pro-China and Anti-China Blocks in Taiwanese Society

Written by Ljavakaw Tjaljimaraw.

Image credit: Former President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou at USC by USCPublicDiplomacy/Flickr, license: CC BY-ND 2.0

Ma Ying-jeou’s two-term presidency between 2008 and 2016 represented a short window of laying Taiwanese society wide open to China’s United Front infiltrations before the election of Donald Trump in the US unveiled a new era referred to as the “New Cold War” or the “Cool War.” United Front operations were mainly carried out through the channels created by Ma’s pro-integration policies, of which the Cross-Straits Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was the most notable. While these infiltrations had a negative impact on Taiwan as a whole, the consequence for the KMT itself was particularly fatal: its social base in Taiwan was profoundly reshaped into a “pro-China block” – a conglomerate of individuals and groups who had ideologically or materially closely tied their own fates to China. The United Front operations remade the social base of the KMT into a pro-China block in rather unconcealed ways. The following four types of operations aimed at “West Goers,” “deep blues,” local factions, and peripheral individuals respectively were among the most conspicuous.

First of all, “Go West” businessmen, manufacturers, and employees together with their families, allegedly amounting to more than two million people, have bet their careers and assets on China. In other words, they have a large amount of sunk costs invested in China that are likely to be confiscated or forfeited in the event of a deterioration in Taiwan–China relations. Being effectively held hostage in China, these “West Goers” cannot but act in total subservience, voluntarily or reluctantly, to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), regardless of whether its policies are detrimental to Taiwan.

Secondly, the ideologically driven hardcore of the KMT, the so-called “deep blues,” have been easily turned “red.” The crux of the problem lies in that the KMT’s anti-communist cause was, in essence, founded on a particular irredentist Chinese nationalism. During the Cold War period the KMT upheld the anti-communist cause for the sake of reunifying the whole of China. Since the CCP now seems to be a much more plausible leader than the KMT for the historical task of reunifying Taiwan with China, the ideologically-driven “deep blues” have transformed themselves into cheer squads for the increasingly assertive CCP by claiming to realise “the great rise of the Chinese nation.” In other words, the ideologically driven hardcore of the KMT can be ideologically co-opted by the CCP at little cost.

Thirdly, benefiting from the Ma administration’s policy to lay Taiwanese society wide open to United Front operations, the CCP could easily bypass the KMT central party organisation and make direct connections with pro-KMT local factions. These connections are made possible through a variety of channels such as expenses-paid tours to China, subsidies, privileges, franchises for doing business in China, agricultural purchases, donations to local cultural events or festivals, cross-Strait religious exchanges and so on. Since their alliances are founded on clientelist exchanges rather than ideology, the local factions’ loyalty toward the KMT based on the philosophy of “whoever suckles me is my mother” could be readily be transferred to another more generous patron, i.e., the CCP. As a result, local factions have become no longer exclusively reliant on the KMT, since there is a more powerful patron competing for their loyalty.

Fourthly, numerous diversified yet individual-based United Front operations have been carried out in various ways with a view to exert a wider influence over diverse social strata. For example, in academia, many professors and students have been contacted through a variety of academic activities and exchanges, some of whom have been drawn in with grants, cooperation plans, or job recruitment offered by Chinese governments or universities. To specifically target young people, several Chinese local governments have been designated to give Taiwanese youth micro loans for business start-ups in China. Furthermore, in order to widen its influence, the CCP instructed business owners with strong China connections, among whom Tsai Eng-meng and Cher Wang were the two most conspicuous cases, to buy media outlets in Taiwan and turn them into mouthpieces and propaganda outlets.

As the KMT’s social base became ideologically and/or materially reformatted into an increasingly autonomous pro-China block, the DPP was at a complete loss in facing large scale United Front infiltration. Fortunately, despite being left politically undefended, Taiwanese society still had its own “civic antibodies.” When the Sunflower Movement erupted in March 2014, the DPP was finally aroused by the surge of social momentum to resist the assault-like signing of the Cross-Strait Services and Trade Agreement that aimed to facilitate an ever-closer integration between Taiwan and China. With the outbreak of the Sunflower Movement and its follow-up evolution, an “anti-China block” had finally come into being in Taiwan. Diametrically opposed to those who constitute the pro-China block, the main components of the anti-China block are the businessmen and manufacturers who have not “gone West,” but have stayed in Taiwan to upgrade their production and world-wide commercial networks. More broadly, the anti-China block also includes those from all walks of life who have rejected the benefits and sweeteners offered by the United Front.

Taking advantage of this anti-China social momentum, the DPP won an unprecedented victory in the 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections. Conversely, the KMT’s social base that had been reformatted into the pro-China block started to backfire. These elections constituted the first time the KMT failed to obstruct a politician holding an overt pro-unification view – Hung Hsiu-chu – from winning the party’s presidential nomination . However, when Hung was proven to be invincible only within the party and was extremely unpopular nationwide, the KMT was still capable of replacing her with the then chairman Eric Chu. But this seemed not to be the case after 2016. The fatal attractiveness of Han and Gou to the social base of the KMT, i.e., the pro-China block, signifies the last step in the completion of the KMT’s transformation from Team America to Team China. Theatrically put, the KMT will be turned into “a Chinese zombie infected with communist viruses” once the pro-China block – metaphorically, the body of the party – successfully builds for itself a leader with virtually no autonomy from Beijing in its “central nervous system” as the presidential candidate.

The US post-Cold War engagement strategy of taming and transforming communist China by incorporating it into global capitalism has proved counterproductive and instead paved the way for the rise of an increasingly assertive China striving to rewrite the rules of the liberal democratic world order. The election of Trump in 2016 signalled the US strategic reversal from pro-globalization to anti-globalization worldwide and from a policy engaging China in the Asia region to containing it. The ongoing US-China trade war has given both the pro-China block and the anti-China block less room for ambiguity and pressed them to take sides. On the one hand, Trump’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and Tsai’s New Southbound Policy have worked in concert economically and politically, as two blades of a pair of scissors to cut the chain that ties Taiwan to China. On the other hand, the CCP has continued availing itself of the KMT’s self-inflicted vulnerabilities to United Front operations and infiltrations, marshalling its forces and agents in the pro-China block on which the KMT is politically dependent. The divide between the pro- and anti-China blocks in Taiwanese society has become increasingly clear-cut, and the opposition of these two blocks interests is evident.

Is this a sign that Taiwan will become Ukrainianised as the division between Team China’s pro-China block and Team America’s anti-China block looms wider in the coming 2020 elections? Yes and no. The socio-political divisions between accepting or rejecting China’s United Front operations do exist in Taiwan, but do not appear in geographically divided form as in the Ukraine. Simply put, the pro-China block and the anti-China block in Taiwan are geographically distributed in a zigzagging and mutually overlapping way. This condition may not lead to regional separation as suffered by the Ukraine but is very conducive to fragmenting solidarity and trust that may incubate deeper societal conflict, or potentially even a civil war between the pro-China and anti-China blocks.

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


  1. In the previous instalments of this article series we got ‘Team America’ and ‘Team China’ parties, here we get a ‘pro-China social block’ and an ‘anti-China social block’ neatly mapped to the KMT and the DPP respectively. Is Taiwan’s society really that simple?


  2. In the previous instalments of this article series we got ‘Team America’ and ‘Team China’ parties, here we get a ‘pro-China social block’ and an ‘anti-China social block’ neatly mapped to the KMT and the DPP respectively. Is Taiwan’s society really that simple?

    Let’s apply a bit of logic to the following statement in the article.

    “[The KMT’s] social base in Taiwan was profoundly reshaped into a “pro-China block” – a conglomerate of individuals and groups who had ideologically or materially closely tied their own fates to China.”

    What does pro-China mean? Pro cultural exchanges, pro business opportunities, pro unification, pro CCP or a combination of those? Does it mean accepting the risk of coercion but still rejecting CCP rule?

    Has someone who supports cultural exchanges their own fate ideologically closely tied to the fate of China and such is pro-CCP by necessity? Neither.

    Is someone who is pro unification also pro-CCP by necessity? Obviously, no.

    Is someone who has “materially closely tied their own fates to China” by exploiting business or job opportunities inevitably subject to coercion by the CCP? Not inevitably and not inescapably. Just look at the businesses relocating back to Taiwan or otherwise out of China recently.

    Does ‘closely tied’ mean ‘without alternatives’? In most cases rather not. Taiwanese learned to nimbly adapt to a changed situation and such have fortified themselves against coercion.

    Does pro-China be the same as pro-CCP? Perhaps, in some cases. But how many in the putative ‘pro-China block’ are actually pro-CCP? Not many if we believe the numerous objections against ‘one country, two systems’ coming from leading proponents in the KMT.

    And for that matter, what does anti-China mean? Anti-travel, anti-business-opportunities, anti-unification, anti-CCP? Does it mean avoiding the risk of coercion at all cost?

    Could it be that pro-China just means anti anti-China, just means ‘don’t annoy the CCP without need’, just means ‘maintain relations that are as friendly as possible without giving country and freedoms away’, …?

    Obviously, pro-China as well as anti-China are constructs that encompass a wide variety of attitudes regarding relations with China. Does it make sense to talk of a pro-China-block and an anti-China-block then? No, because there is a massive overlap between the two putative blocks where attribution is ambivalent. Only the extremists on the marginal fringes are purely pro or anti.

    Seeing the potential for “a civil war between the pro-China and anti-China blocks” makes no sense.


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