Taiwanese took to the polls on Saturday and voted for a “status quo” that has already ceased to exist. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) campaigned on the grounds that if he were not re-elected, cross-strait relations would revert back to the standoff that he imagines existed under former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). His campaign effectively connected his presidency with this vaunted “status quo.”
In Taiwan over the years, the term “status quo” has taken on a strong emotional connotation, like the word “peace” in Japan or “freedom” in the US. Merriam-Webster defines “status quo” as an “existing state of affairs.” In Taiwan, this originally meant a state of affairs in which the Republic of China (ROC) ruled over Taiwan, while the People’s Republic of China (PRC) governed China. The ROC and the PRC claimed each other’s territories, did not acknowledge each other’s existence and basically engaged in a perpetual standoff that was prolonged by China’s intense poverty and Taiwan’s relative affluence.
However, the “status quo” was irrevocably changed by the advent of democracy. The state of affairs up to 1996 was of a virtual Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) dictatorship facing off against a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dictatorship across the Taiwan Strait. That rapidly changed when martial law was revoked and democracy was instituted. Although many Taiwanese still hold the idea of a “status quo” dear to their hearts, it has long since gone, never to return.
In China, Taiwanese businesspeople were also busy destroying the “status quo” by investing billions of US dollars, building factories and basically propelling that country into the modern economic realm. China’s growth since then is something that only science fiction writers with the wildest imaginations could have predicted.
Then came former president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) “special state-to-state” model of cross-strait relations speech in 1998, all but saying that Taiwan is an independent country. This is something that would never have occurred under the former “status quo” of a nationalist ROC squaring off against a communist PRC, both sides claiming sole legitimacy over China. For the first time, an ROC leader was acknowledging the fact that Taiwan was, is and would likely always be separate from China.
Since Lee established that new “status quo,” it has been repeated by pan-green and pan-blue politicians alike. Chen never missed a chance to refer to Taiwan as a sovereign, independent country and Ma has done the same, saying it is up to the 23 million Taiwanese to decide the nation’s future.
The “status quo” under Chen was of an independent nation that was increasingly tied to China through trade. Economic relations boomed during those eight years, despite the chilly political surface.
When Ma became president he booted that “status quo” out the window once again. Instead of the “state-to-state” relationship, cross-strait ties under Ma would now better be defined as an overlord subject relationship. Ma’s administration has ushered in the first era in which an ROC government has ever kowtowed to the PRC. That would have been unthinkable in the “status quo” of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
Taiwan’s “status quo” throughout the years has been exactly the opposite of stable, and Ma’s continued presence in the presidential office is proof of that.