A touch of despondency seems to be lingering in the air among some Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) members. A recent conference in Washington brought unwelcome news when congressional staffers indicated that Taiwan was falling off the radar of US interest in Asia.
Former DPP premier and failed presidential candidate Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) boldly challenged the party to re-examine its “failed” China policy.
In a speech to academics at Johns Hopkins University, Hsieh unveiled his strange “constitutions with different interpretations” (憲法各表) as a basis of “cross-strait engagement.” He intimated that the party needed to change its position vis-a-vis China if it expects to win any future presidential elections.
Negativity seemed to reign, but should it? I contend that if one really looks at what has been happening at ground level, it is China that must learn to accept and to deal with the DPP, and not the other way round.
Some will point to recent elections and suggest that the DPP has plateaued out at about 44 percent of the votes, but has it? That has been its range in the past two elections, but it is not a permanent plateau. Those results have been influenced by a range of factors.
The first is the mystique surrounding president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). For some time, Ma has relied on image more than substance in presenting the goals of his party, but that has been consistently shattered by reality in the past year. After five years of ineffectual leadership and performance the people of Taiwan doubt that the next three years will be any better. Ma’s approval ratings for the past year have hovered at an all-time low of 13 percent, not a good sign for a man who had just been re-elected and is now a lame duck.
The article in the Economist which labeled Ma a classic “bumbler” could be seen as the tipping point. What had been private thought in Taiwan was now public opinion abroad. Platitudes and promises no longer worked.
Even within his party, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidates have both distanced themselves from him in the past election and have been taking an opposite position in matters like debate over the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Gongliao District (貢寮), New Taipei City (新北市).
In his efforts to get the economy moving, Ma had consistently tried to link Taiwan to China, but the public — while not totally disapproving — has not been very approving. They are looking for concrete results, not just more hype and talk; hence his low approval ratings continue.
At a recent meeting of businesspeople in Taiwan, the question was raised: “Has Ma, after being president for five years and with control over the Legislative Yuan, accomplished much, and does he have a vision for Taiwan?”
The resounding judgment was “no” on both counts. If there were any dissenters, they were quiet, either because they were afraid to try and articulate any sense of vision or too embarrassed at what they might think it was.
With the Ma facade crumbling, the KMT has no strong candidate for the presidential election 2016 in the wings; it is searching as much as the DPP is. Thus, while the DPP may have remained at a consistent 44 percent of the vote in national elections, it is a solid 44 percent that has weathered the disaster of 2008 and built upon that.
In a democracy with a swing vote such as Taiwan has, that is a formidable force that China will have to deal with. Thus far, China’s carrot-and-stick approach has not been very successful.
Examine further that while certain political leaders in the US have shown Ma deference, that also has not moved the base of DPP support nor improved Ma’s ratings.
In the future, with the Ma mystique shattered and the growing realization that Ma has been ineffective in rooting out corruption in the KMT, the playing field for 2016 will be much more level. China cannot avoid that.
Look further at the fact that even with an opening up to China with hopes of economic improvement, there has been a solidly increasing sense of Taiwanese identity. Ma’s constant references to seeing himself in the tradition of the Yellow Emperor and his repeated emphasis on Zhonghua Minzu (中華民族, the Chinese ethnic group) have been ineffectual in stemming this. Economics is one thing; seeing oneself as Taiwanese is another.
The economic links to China are also weakening as salaries increase and regulations become stricter. Some businesses are beginning to vote with their feet and move out of China. Add this to the fact that Taiwanese identity is the DPP’s strong suit and you have another aspect that China will have to deal with.
Even the matter of Taiwan being off the US’ radar is illusory and temporary. North Korea of course has currently moved to the front burner in Asia, but pundits should consider this: If the US and Japan have shown a united front against China over such small territory as the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the past, can they think that these two powers would not be more united over China threatening to take a democratic Taiwan with its 23 million people?
Taiwan has both a far greater strategic position than the Senkakus — as the Diaoyutais are known in Japan — and it would be political suicide for the US to sacrifice a democratic ally for any material advantages that China might provide, or both China and the US would hope to gain in the future.
For some time, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to handle dealings with Taiwan on a party-to-party basis between it and the KMT. That has not worked in the past, and will not work in the future, even without the DPP gaining a victory in 2016.
Whatever way one looks at it, China is going to have to learn to talk to and deal with the DPP and a democratic Taiwan.
Jerome Keating is a commentator in Taipei.