Written by Ben Goren.

Last week, former National Security Council Secretary-General and former Mainland Affairs Council Minister Su Chi (蘇起) delivered the the 18th annual Gaston Sigur Memorial Lecture at George Washington University. In his address, Su lamented that Taiwan has celebrated the success of its democracy a little too much, in the process dragging down the economy and resulting in a domestic politics of legislative deadlock where nothing gets done. Su called for ‘correcting mistakes and flaws’ to hone Taiwan’s democratic institutions to serve as a better beacon for those inside China hoping to achieve democracy. Furthermore, whilst he correctly noted that Taiwanese were moving towards adopting a Taiwanese identity, he said the balance of power between Taiwan and China was moving faster in favour of unification and against independence. This, he claimed, was creating a contradiction and tension which was then exacerbated by the absence of consensus between ‘pan-blue’and ‘pan-green’ camps and a growing rift and power struggle between the KMT and DPP. “In Taiwan, the party leaders don’t meet, they don’t talk —they just point fingers at each other,” Su said. The conclusion Su arrived at was that Taiwan would not be able to cope with a rising China and the country’s future would not be decided by Taiwanese.

Whilst Su’s comments notionally appear rational and pragmatic, they are couched in such a way as too hide the origins of the ideological conflict Su blames for the impasse. It also cleverly masks Su’s own ideology and agency in Taiwan arriving at this juncture of democratic tension and inertia, the roots of which date back to the days of Taiwan’s democratisation and, crucially, the meeting of ROC and PRC government representatives in Singapore in 1992. At that time, the meeting ended without consensus, the PRC insisting that the ‘One China Principle’ meant the PRC including Taiwan, and the ROC saying that it should be defined as the ROC including all of the ‘mainland’. Yet, as the DPP took power in the first peaceful transition of Presidential leadership in 2000, Su constructed the idea that there had been a consensus with the PRC accepting the idea of One China but with differing interpretations. Despite admitting in 2006 that he fabricated this ‘consensus’ and despite the PRC continually reiterating that it had never agreed to respecting ‘differing interpretations’, then KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou built his cross-Strait policy of detente on the idea and vigorously promoted it as a foundation for advancing peaceful and extended cross-strait interaction, negotiations, and ‘integration’.

Although opposition voices continually pointed out that Ma’s policies were built on Su’s lie, they were unable to respond to PRC moves post 2005 to deepen a KMT-CCP United Front which acted to legitimise Ma’s policies and frame opponents as ‘irrational’, ‘ideological’, and ‘confrontational’. Not helping matters was the fact that the Obama Administration routinely also implicitly supported Ma both in his China policies and crucially before his 2012 re-election, praising the development of peaceful cross-Strait relations seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were being achieved without democratic consensus of most Taiwanese. It was only following the success of, and public support for, the 318 (Sunflower) Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan that the US suddenly realised not all Taiwanese were happy with the Ma Administration’s China policies or the speed and direction in which they were headed. Whilst Su talks of a balance of power moving faster in favour of unification, he omits the fact that it is his party and President Ma, with his explicit help, that have actively shaped these conditions, in direct and knowing contradiction to a growing Taiwanese national identity and Taiwan Consensus against ‘unification’ with China.

As I commented previously, aside from seeking to normalise and institutionalise what are actually very unequal and asymmetrical cross-Strait ‘consultations’ (in which a majority of Taiwanese have no input and no ability to change), Beijing has repeatedly indicated that it will not tolerate Taiwanese democracy actively shaping cross-Strait relations. Taiwan’s de facto political and economic sovereign democracy is only acceptable when it has no real power to express and execute an independent China policy. As the KMT struggles in democratic Taiwan to implement permanent hegemonic control of Taiwan’s relationship with China, regardless of whether it is in power or has a democratic mandate to do so, China acts as a two-faced gatekeeper: ‘conceding’ benefits to demonstrate the efficacy of KMT policy, and threats to Taiwanese about taking back control of that aspect of their political sovereignty and international relations.

Constraining Taiwanese democracy is the shared ideological and policy goal of both the KMT and the CCP. Taiwanese democracy is riven by The Big Schism, a zero-sum conflict deliberately maintained by the KMT as they resist Taiwanese self-determination and freedom of democratic influence upon the nature and shape of the nation’s identity and its relations with China. Accordingly, Taiwanese democracy is prevented from maturing or transcending this schism, freezing the nation in an eternal ‘blue-green’ battle, most commonly played out in scuffles in the Legislative Yuan but now increasingly on the streets as democratic activists seek full representation and the acknowledgement of the Taiwan Consensus from their Government and legislators. Su bemoans a lack of consensus all the while being very aware that it is his party which has worked its hardest to undermine any chances of such a consensus being built. The Big Schism is a KMT created mechanism for preventing Taiwan’s democracy from achieving institutional reforms that move the nation’s politics closer to alignment with the growing overwhelming consensus of the nation’s identity as separate from China, a move that not only threatens the continued existence of the ROC, and by extension the KMT’s identity, but also a military response from an increasingly nationalistic and hawkish China emboldened by weak or absent US leadership in the region.

Taiwan is not the only polity that is affected by the kind of schism that increasingly divorces those in power, and elected representatives, from grass roots opinion and values. In the US the Republican Party has swung to the extreme right in response to Obama’s center-right administration, the latest act of polarisation coming in the form a threat by House Speaker John Boehner threatening to sue President Obama for not faithfully executing the laws of the United States as is his responsibility under the US Constitution. In response, Charles Pierce, writing on the Esquire Magazine blog, accuses Boehner of engaging in yet another “petulant exercise in political vandalism”. I would argue that this is a very apt description of the KMT’s legislative record during the DPP’s Chen Administration’s years in office between 2000 and 2008, when the KMT used their often slim majority to obstruct and blackmail the Government in an effort to prevent it from achieving anything at all. That the KMT now point the same accusing finger at the DPP for obstructing the due process and work of the Legislative Yuan through physical tactics such as occupying the speaker’s podium does not negate the fact that were the party elite not so diametrically ideologically isolated from majority opinion in respect to the kind and depth of relations with China that Taiwanese want, the opposition parties would have little motivation to engage in such extreme measures.

It is not coincidental that during this time the Chen Government’s attempts to pass funding bills for a whole range of items, including arms that would have helped Taiwan resist PRC attempts to shift the balance of power towards unification, were blocked over 100 times by the KMT legislative caucus. Like the Republicans, the KMT also managed to prevent the Government from passing its annual budget for the first time in ROC history, quite a feat when you consider that the majority of the nation’s existence as a democratic entity occurred during times of civil or international war. All this is conveniently forgotten of course when Su laments, with crocodile tears, the ‘failure’ of Taiwanese democracy, all the while ignoring the outrage most Taiwanese feel about the Government’s attempts to ram agreements with China through the Legislative Yuan. The KMT continually provoke the opposition and then claim that either they don’t respect democracy or that Taiwanese democracy doesn’t work.

And therein lies the truth of the mischaracterisation Su perpetuates about Taiwan’s democracy. Whilst Su’s concern about too much democracy mirrors similar concerns in China, most recently exposed by the recent citizen’s poll for direct elections in Hong Kong, and invokes a reflexive yearning for a soft-authoritarianism and benign dictatorship, it ignores the fact that Taiwan’s democracy is reawakening to meet its greatest challenge, namely the unrepresentative nature of its institutions and elected officials. It is because the KMT has acted in a manner that suggests one election every four years on a limited platform is a mandate for any and every policy preferred by the President and his loyal followers in the Legislative Yuan, that activist groups like Democracy Tautin and Black Island Nation Youth Front have emerged to fill the vacuum of democratic representation. These groups have been criticised as being undemocratic but the physical pressure they exert on the Government via demonstrations and occupations is above all an effort to let the KMT and Government know that they will not be allowed to abuse and ultimately castrate the democracy so many Taiwanese suffered and died to realise.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan and tweets@BanGaoRen.


  1. For the rulers, there is always too much democracy. For the people, there is always insufficient democracy. Of course, we should all on the side of government against the people.

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