Written by Linda Gail Arrigo.

Image provided by the author.

Recently, on 20 October 2018, diehard Taiwan Independence forces mustered by the chairman of Formosa TV, Kuo Pei-hung (郭倍宏), held a rally to push for a referendum on Taiwan’s future. A few days earlier, President Tsai Ing-wen declared that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials and candidates who dared to attend the rally would face disciplinary action. However, doesn’t the 1991 charter of the DPP declare that the future of Taiwan (though it is still anachronistically officially named the ‘Republic of China’) is to be decided by a democratic process?

A large swath of DPP supporters, especially early members who joined the DPP when it was dangerous to espouse Taiwan Independence (TI), were enraged at the president’s threat. In the subsequent election of 25 November, local DPP candidates were routed and most of the social issue referendums fell to the conservative line of the resurgent Kuomintang (KMT), aided by forces linked to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Estimates of the effect of the TI backlash to ‘teach the DPP a lesson’ have been in the range of 5 per cent to 10 per cent, due to voters either declining to vote or voting non-DPP. Meanwhile, small social activist and TI parties were unable to field enough candidates to make a significant mark in a progressive direction.

The point of my commentary here will be to discuss the wider long-term tendencies of nationalist sentiments in Taiwan and the possibilities of strategic action for self-determination.

There is hardly anything of significance to be learned from local reporting, even at election time. In her 2016 presidential bid, Tsai Ing-wen appropriated the KMT’s themes of competent administration devoid of a nationalist stance (although her election in effect capitalized on the 2014 Sunflower Movement, which rejected President Ma Ying-jeou’s cloaked capitulation to China). Likewise, in 2018 Su Chen-chang’s DPP campaign to be leader of New Taipei City highlighted the party’s competence, with adverts on the sides of buses promising lower garbage collection fees and free dentures for senior citizens. He didn’t win.

Several years ago DPP officials privately argued that according to opinion polls ‘Taiwan consciousness’ was building among the populace, and when the time was ripe the DPP would take a stance. This means of course that the DPP was opportunistically following rather than leading political trends. Both main parties have studiously avoided the issue of greatest significance for Taiwan’s foreseeable future: whether and when it will be taken over by China. Thus the KMT was successful in framing the issues in the smallest terms, focussing on immediate bread-and-butter matters, while China dangled a promise to boost the economy of Taiwan’s southern port city, Kaohsiung. Even though the DPP had markedly cleaned up the detritus of industrial pollution and created a city of pleasant grassy-banked canals over the last twenty years, it was still defeated in Kaohsiung.

But it is not simply an equation of Taiwan versus China, even if the Taiwanese media is now heavily controlled by China through its indirect financial clout. According to hearsay attributed to a reliable source in the DPP, throughout last year the United States exerted pressure on the Tsai Administration to suppress TI demands for a national referendum. That is of course in character with many past statements by US State Department personnel, as well as its labelling Chen Shui-bian (DPP President from 2000 to 2008) a ‘trouble-maker’ for suggesting a national referendum on Taiwan’s future. And so we come to the crux of the matter. Now all TI forces believe that Taiwan is abjectly at the mercy of the United States and must not dare to cross it, even by suggestion.

The internationalist vision of the past held by some TI forces has now fallen by the roadside. In fact, in the last several years I have had two direct verbal exchanges with the old socialist TI national liberation movement standard bearer, Su Beng (史明,born in 1918), before he became senile, and each time he asserted that Taiwan could not but look to the US to protect it from China. No hint at all that Taiwan could perhaps exert some leverage on Washington, or look beyond Washington. The predominantly right-wing TI forces, as well as the DPP, are now passively embracing the hope that the impetuous President Trump will bestow upon Taiwan an alternative future, instead of absorption by China. But the Shanghai Communiqué and China’s ‘One China’ interpretation of it continue to rule American policy, with no foreseeable change. Therefore, the diehard TI forces are unable to present a strategic alternative to the DPP’s ostrich posture.

Hence the Blue forces (aka the KMT) – aided by China – are likely to prevail over the long run. A resurgent China is busy penetrating multitudinous aspects of Taiwanese life in its free society, and it has the resources to do so. There are an estimated two million Taiwanese (including family members) in China pursuing careers and study, as well as two hundred thousand or so Chinese women married into Taiwan who are now well established and could be mobilized by PRC strategists. Many Taiwanese religious and cultural groups, such as most Buddhists and Taoists, look to exchanges of Chinese tradition with the officially-sanctioned religious fronts in atheist China.

One could argue that absorption by China is not the end of the world for Taiwan. China has been building a formidable infrastructure for continuing economic growth for its people, and its size allows it to become a great power which Taiwanese may eventually identify with as well. But a loss of the freedom and democratic process that has been achieved in Taiwan since the 1990s cannot but be painful. The examples of PRC interference in Hong Kong and the mass incarceration and cultural genocide of native peoples in Xinjiang make the possibility of rule by Beijing particularly distasteful. Since the arrest of Lee Ming-che (李明哲) in 2017, many Taiwanese activists have been fearful of visiting China.

If I could direct the policy of the DPP, I would craft a national referendum to rally the populace and illustrate to the world that the Taiwanese do not want to be taken over by Beijing. I would then utilize that as a bargaining chip to seek the best conditions for a resolution, e.g. a confederation that would allow some face-saving device for Xi Jinping as well as continuing autonomy for Taiwan. Delay today only achieves the continuing erosion of Taiwan’s position. Is such a solution achievable? I do not know, but the alternative to going down fighting is to succumb without a trace for future generations to look back to.

Linda Gail Arrigo retired from the Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty of Taipei Medical University in 2013. She participated in the 1977–79 Taiwan democratic movement that led to the Kaohsiung Incident trials in 1980 and later the founding of the Democratic Progressive Party in 1986. She is co-author, with Lynn Miles, of A Borrowed Voice: Taiwan Human Rights through International Networks, 1960-1980 (Taipei: Social Empowerment Association, 2008). 


  1. A great title for an article that says it all succinctly. Let’s hope the butcher crumbles before the lamb reaches the chopping block.

    Sometimes it is the best option in a dire situation to do nothing, to wait and to hope for the best. That’s especially true when the odds of successful action are low and risk is high. However, if Taiwan does not make its love for democracy and freedom heard, seen and felt, nobody outside will take note when it looses its independence eventually or care much what happens to them afterwards.

    In fact, the odds to prevail over China, lead by the Chinese Communist Party, are not bad if the Taiwanese take a firm stand. The reason is quite simple, China cannot afford to use military means to take over Taiwan without contradicting its carefully crafted image of a non-threatening and benevolent power it is incessantly projecting into the world.

    That image has lost a lot of its lustre anyway recently. Any overtly coercive moves against Taiwan would destroy it completely. The CCP is not yet ready and willing to risk such an outcome as long as the Taiwanese take a stand that reverberates all over the world.

    Let them know that you never will give up your freedom, that you will defend your democracy with whatever it takes. An additional benefit of such an attitude would be a potent immunisation against further subversion of Taiwanese society and institutions by China.

  2. And what about the extremist nationalist sentiment of China for even wanting to take Taiwan back? China has reverted to full-on Maoist extremism with Han-centrism approaching Nazi Aryanism as an ideal. Moslem Uyghurs are being rounded up and literally put into camps like so many Jews or Gypsies. If you want to point a finger at ugly nationalism, you need to look to China for that. Taiwan is merely seeking self-determination but “fuck that sad sentiment” in your book, right?

    Where is your concern about nationalism there? Or is it because you are Communist and fully support anything China does from invasion of sovereign nations (Tibet, Taiwan) to outright genocide? Anything for the revolution, is it? No price too high? No double standard not very double-plus-good?

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