The major losses suffered by Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) in the nine-in-one local elections – called so because there were elections held to nine levels of local government – at the end of November are the result of both internal and external reasons. With elections to the Taiwanese presidency and to the Legislative Yuan due in 2016, China will have to both rethink the scope and recalibrate the pace of its embrace of the island that has held out against it since 1949.
Over the years, the Communist Party of China (CPC)-ruled mainland has adopted a variety of approaches to bring Taiwan – dubbed a ‘renegade province’ – around. While for most of the Maoist and Dengist eras, there were really no serious attempts at coercion, rapprochement with the US in 1971 did bring about the ‘one China’ policy that put the Republic of China on Taiwan on very shaky footing as far as its international standing was concerned.
As the Dengist era wound down and China became increasingly confident of its economic growth and global political profile, it also seemed to get increasingly impatient about reunification. The run-up to Taiwan’s first free and fair elections for the presidency in 1996 resulted in the Chinese shelling the Taiwan straits as a warning and the US intervening (the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis). Beijing learned its lessons and began adopting more nuanced political approaches based on the economic reality of growing economic interdependence between the two entities.
Lee Teng-hui, the 1996 presidential election winner was also the first native-born Taiwanese to hold the office. While Lee encouraged the idea of Taiwan as a separate state, the KMT itself remained devoted to the idea of reunification. This period also saw the rise of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that called for complete independence and stressed a separate and unique Taiwanese identity. With the election and reelection of the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian as president in 2000 and 2004 respectively, the domestic political situation in Taiwan had developed far beyond the ongoing political dialogues between the two sides had envisaged.
Hu Jintao’s administration in China came up with the Anti-Secession Law in 2005 that practically enshrined the use of violence as a legal obligation in case Taiwan declared independence. By this time, the Taiwanese businesses and economic elites were heavily dependent on China for their economic well-being and ordinary Taiwanese also seemed largely uncomfortable with the DPP’s apparently reckless provocation of Beijing. The corruption scandals swirling around the Chen Shui-bian administration did not help and the KMT returned to the presidency under Ma Ying-jeou. Thus, began a period of still closer economic linkages and increasing international space for Taiwan – China stopped poaching from the few countries that still accorded Taiwan diplomatic recognition.
What the Election Results Say
The island-wide local elections to city and local governments, included 22 seats for city mayors, of which the KMT won only six and three of them by only the thinnest of margins while the opposition DPP won 13, in addition to supporting several winning independent candidates. The KMT’s loss six years after Ma rode to power is due to both internal and external reasons. On the internal front, falling incomes, increasing property prices, the growing gap between rich and poor, worries about job prospects for young Taiwanese and problems with KMT’s governance including internecine conflicts, drove many voters to the opposition. There were serious questions about the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s handling of the a military conscript’s death in August 2013, the Sunflower students movement in March-April 2014 where police action turned brutal and the scandal over adulteration of cooking oil by the Ting Hsin company in October. On the external front, the growing closeness to China at the perceived expense of Taiwan’s interests – it was a proposed economic agreement that the government sought to railroad through the national legislature that set off the Sunflower movement – which did not endear Ma to voters. Adding to the worries of ordinary Taiwanese was Beijing’s apparent breaking of its promises to Hong Kong on the ‘one country, two systems’ formula that in fact had originally been conceived under Deng Xiaoping as a formula for reunification.
The loss of the KMT and the victory of the DPP, however, do not remove the larger ambiguity that exists in Taiwanese society about the distance that Taiwan must keep from China. Clearly, China’s rapid and continuing economic growth and the close linkages between the two economies make China an important factor in the island’s own growth and prosperity. At the same time, Taiwan’s distinct path of political development and identity formation also mean that old themes such as reunification have little traction in Taiwanese society. And yet, history and ethnic ties are also not so easily broken that the Taiwanese are completely sure of independence. In fact, more than these factors, it is perhaps, a very realistic calculation that independence would invite violent reaction from the mainland that keeps Taiwanese sober and realistic. Even the formally, pro-independence DPP has come a long way from the black-and-white pro-independence stance of Chen Shui-bian’s time.
The independent candidate Ko Wen-je’s victory in Taipei could be a sign of greater sophistication in voters’ thinking as well as a sign of deepening of democratic norms in Taiwan. The Sunflower movement has certainly had an impact with Ko explicitly making the acknowledgement in his acceptance speech and calling for a change in political culture. For a city that has had a KMT mayor for the last 16 years, Ko’s victory against Sean Lien, a second-generation KMT leader and whose father is seen as close to Beijing and the victory of the DPP candidate in Taoyuan against another KMT scion indicate that not only are Taiwanese wary of the KMT’s perceived closeness to China, they also do not appreciate nepotism or like to see princelings in politics as is the case in China.
The next question that arises is, of course, what will happen in the presidential and national legislative elections in 2016? These elections will possess different dynamics altogether and the fact that the pan-DPP camp won 2014 convincingly does not guarantee that it will also win in 2016. One must not rule out the ability of CPC leaders to come up with innovative ways in which to engage the DPP or to help the KMT along in time for 2016.
What India Needs to Understand
For now, the DPP mayors understand that the prosperity of their cities remains closely tied to the mainland and are unlikely to push for radical new measures asserting Taiwanese independence in international forums. What is more likely is a go slow or a more careful negotiation over the terms of new economic agreements with China. If the DPP is serious about alternatives to China, then this will be proven only by how actively its mayors court economic investment from and opportunities for their entrepreneurs in other countries in Asia.
This is where India might need to take a leaf out of the Chinese playbook. China has long allowed its provinces and cities an extraordinary level of freedom to engage with foreign countries and to develop partnerships with provinces and cities in other countries; indeed they have actively courted Taiwanese investments. China has hundreds of such sister-city and sister-province relationships across the world including in countries that both the government and ordinary Chinese consider as potential adversaries, namely, Japan and the United States. These partnerships are a source of foreign investments, technology transfers, and people-to-people exchanges, including tourism.
India and China have already inked a few such agreements but given Taiwan’s huge foreign exchange reserves, its strong SME sector and importantly, the desire of DPP city governments to diversify their economies away from China, Indian city mayors should be courting the Taiwanese alongside other East Asians. The Indian Prime Minister’s call for smart cities will also be well served by the focus on Taiwanese cities with their well-managed and technology-enabled city bureaucracies, transport infrastructure, sewage systems and the like. This will require not just a national but a state- and city-level focus in India on the attainment of Chinese and other East Asian language skills as well as knowledge of the international dynamics of the region. India’s cities will also need to engage in smart international politics on their way to becoming smart cities.
 Lee would subsequently be expelled from the KMT for founding the pro-independence Taiwan Solidarity Union.