Cross-straits Relations: an era of uncertainty

On 29 November, Taiwanese voters went to the polls in island-wide elections to elect over 11,000 municipal offices, from city mayors to village councils. It was the first time that all of these municipal elections had been held at the same time, in accordance with the goal of Taiwan’s Central Election Commission to reduce the cost of Taiwan’s democratic system by combining multiple elections on a single day.

The results of the elections were dramatic defeats for the ruling Kuomingtang 國民黨 or KMT across Taiwan.

The city mayoral races had the highest profile. The KMT lost Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Keelung and Taichung, all previously bastions of KMT support. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party 民進黨 or DPP scored huge wins by popular incumbents in its traditional areas in the south, including Chen Chu 陳菊 in Kaohsiung and Lai Ching-te 賴清德 in Tainan.

In the most symbolically potent result, Taipei fell to the independent candidate Ke Wen-je 柯文哲, after sixteen years of KMT mayors.

The mayorship of Taipei has been a springboard to central government politics for aspiring KMT apparatchiks from the martial law era (1949-1987). In 1994, it went to the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian 陳水扁 but in 1998, despite a conspicuously successful first term, Chen lost a bid for re-election to the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九. The loss left an indelible mark on the DPP, hardening its views on the voters of northern Taiwan and presaging the divisiveness that came to characterise Taiwanese politics in the late 2000s.

In this campaign, the DPP side-stepped its history in Taipei by not putting up a candidate. Instead, it offered support to the independent Ke. His KMT opponent was Lien Sheng-wen 連勝文, also known as Sean Lien, the son of Lien Chan 連戰, honorary chairman of the KMT, former vice president and twice-failed presidential candidate. Lien Sheng-wen ran an expensive but extraordinarily inept campaign that drew attention to his public persona as a privileged KMT scion. The KMT’s complacency and sense of entitlement in Taipei generated panic in the Lien camp in the final few weeks as it became clear that he was unlikely to win.

A similar pattern played out in Taoyuan, where the DPP’s Cheng Wen-tsan 鄭文燦 defeated sitting KMT mayor Wu Chih-yang 吳志揚, son of Wu Po-hsiung 吳伯雄. The elder Wu was a government minister under President Chiang Ching-kuo, and former mayor of Taipei and KMT party chairman.

In the north, only the charismatic and popular KMT mayor Chu Li-luan 朱立倫 of New Taipei City was victorious. New Taipei City is a region around Taipei that was upgraded from county to city status in 2010. It now offers an alternative power-base to Taipei for a move into central government politics, and although Chu Li-luan promised to stay for his full four year term as mayor, he is the only credible KMT candidate for the presidential election in 2016.

The losses in Taipei, Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Taichung signal the end of the KMT’s style of rapprochement with the mainland Chinese party-state, the People’s Repulic. The easing of cross-straits tension under the KMT President Ma Ying-jeou has been lauded internationally, but created growing unease and opposition domestically. Now, the electorate has passed judgement.

In 2005, while Chen Shui-bian was serving as DPP president, Lien Chan visited China as Chairman of the KMT, and famously shook hands with Hu Jintao as Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The visit was intended to marginalise the democratically-elected DPP government. Since then, the KMT and CCP have instigated regular and high-level contacts that have promoted relations between the two governments and business elites on both sides. Lien Chan has returned to China several times, as has Wu Po-hsiung. After the election, in 2008, of Ma Ying-jeou as Taiwan’s president, a raft of cross-straits agreements have been implemented that have institutionalised and stabilised cross-straits relations.

However, the KMT elites committed to engagement with China have wholly failed to carry the Taiwanese electorate with them. Instead, they have been derisive towards public concern about KMT-CPP deal-making and done little to dissuade the electorate that cross-straits rapprochement is anything other than a set of secretive deals serving sectional party and business interests.

The student and civic activist campaigns in Taiwan over the last several years have been fuelled by the KMT’s behaviour. From the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement in 2012, through a range of campaigns in 2013 over urban development, and then the spectacular Sunflower Movement in 2014, activists in Taiwan have been demanding accountability and transparency in cross-straits relations and accusing the government of compromising Taiwan’s democracy through a web of political and business interests. Wage stagnation and increasingly unaffordable housing have further fuelled public frustration and anger.

After the Sunflower Movement in March and April this year, the elections were the first formal electoral test of these issues. Ke Wen-je was typically blunt when he accused the KMT of consisting of unpatriotic compradores in a televised debate with Lien Sheng-wen.

If the election results show that the KMT’s approach to China has failed from the Taiwan side, it has also been undermined by the Mainland. Seeking continuity and a cross-generational legacy, Lien Chan introduced Lien Sheng-wen to the new Chinese president Xi Jinping 习近平 in early 2013. However, in September 2014, Xi met with the leadership of Taiwan’s fringe pro-unification New Party 新黨. At that meeting, Xi called for unification under the One Country Two Systems formula. No Chinese leader had mentioned One Country Two Systems with regard to Taiwan for years. Xi’s statement was repudiated by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, who declared that it is ‘inapplicable to Taiwan and cannot serve as a solution to cross-strait relations.’

Xi Jinping subsequently took an opportunity to step back from asserting One Country Two Systems as the pathway to unification. However, his willingness to test the Taiwanese, taken with the election results of 29 November, indicate a new and uncertain era in cross-straits relations.

In the lead-up to the 2016 Taiwanese presidential election, the Democratic Progressive Party is renewed and confident while the KMT has been left exposed by popular democratic will. Xi Jinping has shown himself to be uncompromising in asserting the power of the party-state both within China and in the region. Despite the flow of capital, goods and people across the Taiwan Straits, the gap between the two sides has suddenly been revealed as wide open as ever. There is no longer a clear policy pathway for either side. For the international community, the last month has shown how peace and stability require democratic legitimacy for cross-straits policy on the Taiwan side, and a willingness to use the flexible and multilayered language that has characterised much Chinese policy in recent years on the mainland side.