Sitting on The Fence? The Ambiguous Position of the TPP and Its Potential Causes

Written by Jonathan Leung and Chengyu Yang.

Image credit: 柯文哲/ Facebook.

For the TPP, there are two issues that have been most widely criticised by the Taiwanese public and politicians. The first is that the TPP’s political stance is too vague and often lacks clear views on cross-strait issues. The second is that the TPP itself relies too heavily on the popularity of former Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je, while relatively ignoring the views of other TPP politicians. Some politicians have recently argued that Ko and his TPP are likely to repeat the 2014 PFP and Song’s failure in 2024. Why is the TPP’s cross-strait stance receiving attention in the Taiwanese political arena and is the TPP’s political stance really ambiguous? What are the potential reasons for public and politicians’ perceptions about the ambiguity of the TPP’s position?

The Mysterious Position of the TPP

The political position, or cross-strait position to be exact, of the TPP is the most mysterious and debatable topic in the media regarding issues related to the TPP. This section examines the TPP’s position in the perspectives of their cross-strait relations and national identity.

The politics in Taiwan is quite different from the other places of the world, the political stance of right and left is not the mainstream definition of dividing political parties and camps. The position of handling cross-straits relations, or known as the national identity issue, is the primary division of politics in Taiwan. The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has a sentiment of Chinese nationalism or pro-Chinese cultural preservation; while the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has a sentiment of Taiwanese nationalism and advocates the process of de-sinicisation. The former aims to achieve ultimate unification with mainland China; while the latter aims to achieve full independence with a revised country name, national anthem, flag and constitution based on “Taiwan” to replace the Republic of China.

Yet, these two mainstream parties are not radical and progressive to achieve their goals at the moment. The TPP, as the third largest party and the party which is proud to boast its “Blue-Green non-binary”, and “White Power”, is often criticised for their cordial relationship with China. Their leader Ko Wen-je’s “both sides of the straits are from the same family (兩岸一家親)” point of view and the Shanghai-Taipei City Forum during his mayoralty is the major reasons for drawing the conclusions of the TPP as part of the Pan-Blue Camp by many people. Yet, attention should also be focused on some neglected areas, which can prove that the TPP is not a pro-Chinese unification party with no Chinese nationalist sentiment.

Traceable Writing’s on the Wall?

February 2022, Ko visited the Taiwan Nation Union to prepare for the 228 Incident Ceremony. During his discussion with the pro-independence senior leaders regarding his determination in running for the 2024 presidency, he bluntly expressed his position of supporting ultimate independence. At the same time, TPP legislators have continuously addressed Taiwan as an Island Nation and their caucus suggested the current national name as the “Republic of China Taiwan”, which is literally identical to the suggestion of President Tsai Ing-wen. Besides, unlike the KMT, the TPP legislators usually address mainland China as “China” in their statements or speeches, which is also the same as the DPP and New Power Party, while the KMT will use the word “Chinese Mainland”. Ko explained that the TPP put the word “Taiwan” in front of their party name to magnify the core subject of Taiwan, showing a contrast with the KMT which put the word “Chinese (or China)” in front of their party name. Taiwanese sentiment is their foundation. This showed that in terms of national identity, the TPP has no difference from the DPP, it should be categorised and classified as a pro-independence party.

Yet, Ko’s suggestion that “both sides of the straits are from the same family” is undoubtedly easy to project a pro-China image of the TPP. Ko explained that this statement was a tentative reconciliation with China to ensure the World University Games 2017 is successfully run in Taipei, and this was way before the formation of the TPP. On the contrary, this controversial statement could actually be compared with some of the similar advocates from the DPP key figures. William Lai, the DPP leader and Vice-President, suggested “pro-China and love Taiwan” while at the same time he regarded himself as a “pragmatic Taiwan independence” advocate.

Both Lai and Chen Chu visited Shanghai to launch cultural exchange during their mayoralty as well, the latter even visited Beijing. This showed that there is no contradiction in developing a cordial relationship with China while bearing a Taiwanese nationalist sentiment according to Lai’s suggestion, which is actually also Ko’s advocation. With similar actions but a different fundamental principle, the KMT treats mainland China as a cross-trait relation, but the TPP handles it with a diplomatic approach.

The TPP should not be mistaken for anything but a crypto-pro-independence party complying with the practical reality of developing a cordial relationship with China. This is a realist perspective, believing that the geography of China makes Taiwan dangerous to maintain hostility with the former. The position of the TPP of pursuing the path of ultimate independence and developing friendship with China seems to be a balance and new-advocate of breaking the political binary of Taiwan’s Blue-Green politics.

Potential Causes of The Ambiguous Stance

There are two potential reasons why the TPP is perceived by the public and politicians as having an ambiguous position. First, as Jonathan Sullivan argues, the ideological issues that the mainstream parties are dealing with in recent years have changed to “lifestyle politics”. They are more concerned about everyday consumption, housing and other social issues regarding their daily lives, with an emphasis on representation and identity politics. In other words, the social problems covered by the traditional parties are extended and more detailed in Taiwan, which left limited room for the “new issues” from the smaller challenger parties such as TPP.

The TPP, which is aimed at challenging the ideological structure of Taiwan’s party politics, faces greater difficulties in terms of promoting political projects. These difficulties have become more evident over the past year, especially after the visit of Speaker Pelosi to Tsai. Taiwan is facing massive import and export sanctions from China, and cross-strait issues have become a de facto problem that affects Taiwanese in their daily lives. Some believe that a more aggressive encirclement of state sovereignty is the only way to alleviate the dilemma, while others believe that tensions with China should be eased through concessions. According to the party platform, the TPP’s policies are broadly summarised through ambiguous terms such as “democracy”, “freedom” and “multiculturalism”, in order to provide more space for interrelating their distinctions with the KMT and DPP. However, regardless of the viewpoint of the voters, there is a growing sense of “inadequacy” in relation to the terms proposed by the TPP.

Secondly, the TPP’s overly individual-centred party structure makes its political stance too dependent on Ko’s own narrative of cross-strait relations. Ko himself often claims through his own life experiences that he has no connection to the pro-unification camp: he comes from a family of 228 victims whose elders were persecuted by the authoritarian KMT regime. However, we should not lose sight of Ko’s identity since the establishment of the TPP as a political party: the mayor of Taipei.

Despite being the capital, it is still a local post, which means that he takes on more administratively pragmatic policy responsibilities. For a mayor, being overly visible in his attitude towards China is clearly not conducive to maintaining the ‘out-of-ideology professionalism’ that he displayed in his election campaign. At the same time, in order to maintain a pragmatic image, Ko often adjusts his wording on political positions depending on the different occasions, which creates the impression that Ko’s personal narrative on cross-strait issues is wavering, which in turn affects the image of the TPP among the Taiwanese public. In other words, the “overly personal-centred party structure” and the “ambiguous public image of political positions” of the TPP are not independent phenomena, but intertwined and influenced by each other. The Ko-centred TPP makes the narrative of political positions too dependent on Ko’s personal political narrative, while Ko’s conservative and perceived ambiguous attitude as Taipei’s mayor in turn reinforces public curiosity about the TPP’s ‘real cross-strait position’.

On 31 January 2023, Ko officially retires from the NTU and enters a political career for the first time without the fetters of public service. Will Ko, therefore, adopt a clearer strategy in the narrative of cross-strait relations in the future? This is the question that we should continue to observe in the future.

Jonathan Leung is an MA History student at SOAS, University of London and a history graduate from the University of Sheffield. He is researching in post-war political and social history of Taiwan.

Chengyu Yang is the Project Officer of the Centre of Taiwan Studies of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His current research interests are on the popular religions, commodities and human mobilities of Taiwan’s offshore islands (Kinmen and Matsu) in the post-military-civil administration period.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Farewell 2022 and Welcome 2023’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s