COVER STORY Democratic Progressive Party ousts Kuomintang
by Jeffry Babb
News Weekly, February 13, 2016
The Taiwanese election of January 16 saw the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rise to power in Taipei. This change has a significance out of all proportion to a simple election result. Few commentators have realised that this is the first time since 1928 that the Kuomintang (KMT) has not been the dominant power in the Republic of China. Indeed, most Taiwan journalists still habitually refer to the KMT as “the ruling party”.
In May Tsai Ing-wen will be
inaugurated as Taiwan’s first
This coming May, the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen will be inaugurated as the first female president of the Republic of China. Ing-wen means “English” in Chinese and Tsai is often referred to as “English Tsai”. She is 59, making her a full generation older than most of the voters who elected her. She is a former legal academic and trade negotiator. It is said that her mousy demeanour conceals an iron will.
She must overcome the reputation for incompetence and grandstanding bequeathed her by the former DPP president, Chen Shui-bian. Chen was constantly irritating Beijing with his fleabite comments, but few people outside the DPP, including the hierarchy in Beijing, took him seriously. Tsai has pulled back the DPP from any commitment to independence for Taiwan.
No doubt it will be said that the election, in which the DPP won not only the presidency, but also, for the first time in history, a clear majority in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s single-chamber parliament, represents a coming of age for Taiwan’s democracy.
Before we can examine this claim, it pays to know something about the parties involved. The KMT was a revolutionary party. The 5,000 years of dynastic history in China was overthrown in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911. Emperor Puyi, China’s last emperor, abdicated in 1912, leading to the formal establishment of the Republic of China. After a degree of chaos involving competing warlords, Chiang Kai-shek undertook the Northern Expedition, which unified the country. The Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, assumed power in 1928 and held it until the elections of January 16 this year.
From Chiang’s imposition of order until the invasion of China proper by the Japanese following the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937, China was showing remarkable economic growth, the like of which had not been seen again in mainland China until the last few decades. Chiang had to fight the Japanese and also combat Mao’s communists. Eventually, Chiang could not hold off the communists. Chiang, and in 1949, the KMT government and most of China’s elite, departed for Taiwan.
After an initial warm welcome by the Taiwanese, the 2-28 Incident pitted the local Taiwanese against the KMT forces. The incident involved a middle-aged cigarette seller being beaten by agents from the Taiwan Monopoly Bureau for selling untaxed cigarettes.
This incident initiated the period known as the White Terror. Apart from the KMT, the only political parties in existence were known as “tail parties”. In other words, they were simply attachments to the KMT. Elections for president were held by means of the National Assembly. The National Assembly was transplanted to Taipei along with the rest of the government in 1949.
Delegates in exile
In the era preceding the end of the White Terror in 1987, the delegates to the National Assembly were watched with hawk eyes. As the mainland had been “lost” there could be no more elections for the National Assembly, as it ostensibly represented the “whole of China”. When elections were held, the press had great fun tracing the perambulations of the delegates from one banquet to the other. A great many of the delegates lived in places like Los Angeles and only came “home” to vote. Any negative vote against the KMT presidential candidate in the elections was greeted with amazement and consternation. Even neutral votes were few and far between.
No credible formal opposition to the KMT existed. The opposition to the KMT was known as the dang wei, or “outside party” movement. Dang wei activists were imprisoned. “Disappearances” and extrajudicial killings were common. The White Terror concluded in 1987, just before the death of Chiang Ching-kuo in 1988. Chiang Ching-kuo was the son of Chiang Kai-shek.
As in most traditional Chinese families, love played little part in the relationship between father and son. Song Mei-ling, one of the famous Soong Dynasty, was Chiang Kai-shek’s trophy wife. She was not Chiang Ching-kuo’s mother. Nor was Chiang Ching-kuo’s brother Chiang Wei-guo, the natural-born son of Chiang Kai-shek. Soong Mei-ling rarely visited Taiwan after Chiang Kai-shek’s death. Soong Mai-ling, or Madame Chiang as she was also known, lived in Manhattan, passing away at the great age of 106.
Chiang Ching-kuo’s handpicked successor as president was Lee Teng-hui. Lee was an agricultural economist who had undertaken graduate studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. He was also Taiwanese, the first Taiwanese to be president of the Republic of China on Taiwan. Lee is sometimes called “the father of Taiwan’s democracy”.
Consternation is probably the best word to describe the reaction of the KMT party members to Lee’s election. Not only was Lee Taiwanese, he was known to be a former Marxist and also regarded Japan as the Motherland. Lee worshipped his brother’s plaque at the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo. His brother had died fighting for Japan in the Pacific War.
The emergence of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was hardly inevitable. The DPP raised the great taboo in Taiwan politics, Taiwan independence. During the White Terror, even saying those words could have landed you in prison. Far safer to say “Chiang tsung-tung, wan sui!” – “President Chiang, live 10,000 years!”
Perhaps one would describe the Chinese as courageous. Maybe they are just pig-headed. But the founders of the DPP showed a great deal of determination. They have finally gained power and look to have the makings of a credible administration. Implementing their policies, accepted though they were at the ballot box, will require steely resolve.
For the century they had been in power, the KMT cultivated client groups. The armed forces are one KMT base. Public servants, including teachers, receive astonishingly generous pensions. Often they make more when they retire than they did when they were working. They are paid 18 per cent interest on their savings. State enterprises are fountains of wealth.
The first thing to understand is that this election is about generational change. Tsai won 56 per cent of the vote. Eric Chu, the KMT candidate, won 31 per cent of the vote. Nuisance candidate James Chu, who would go to the opening of a box of Rice Krispies, won almost 13 per cent of the vote.
The voters rejected the KMT and the silverback grandees who rule it. Some have been in power for decades. They will not take easily to losing their grip on the levers of power. They will not help Tsai and they will not even aid outgoing KMT officials, like president Ma Ying-jeou, whom they blame for the debacle. Ma is an intelligent man with many achievements in government, but he ended his reign with very poor approval ratings. He has brought Beijing and Taipei closer together, and met President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Singapore, a real breakthrough in cross-strait relations.
Second, Taiwan is a very rich country, but it is a very unequal society. Young people struggle to achieve a standard of living that allows them to buy a house and educate their children. Education is very expensive in Taiwan. Attendance at cram schools is almost universal. Education is seen as the most dependable means of social mobility.
Taiwan has a plethora of so-called “universities” pumping out graduates, many of whom are unable to find jobs. Having spent four years at university, graduates expect better than $4 an hour at a juice bar for their efforts! Billionaires abound, but the wealth does not trickle down. Industries, such as tourism, do not generate a great deal of wealth but provide jobs for semi-skilled workers.
Taiwan is renowned for its tough-minded economic policies, but the DPP will have to pay as much attention to equity as to efficiency if it wants to get young people into jobs. With youth unemployment at 13 per cent, young people need jobs. The highly inequitable government pension scheme, for which the young will pay, looks set for some rectification.
Third, Tsai will aim to maintain the status quo as far as she is able. She has steered the DPP away from a commitment to independence. The PRC has red lines that, if crossed, would likely provoke a military response.
Tsai has not committed herself to the “1992 consensus”, which effectively has allowed both sides to agree that there is just one China, but that each side can define it as it sees fit. She has not rejected the 1992 consensus outright either.
Free trade, including membership of the TTP, is on Tsai’s agenda
Tsai will also enter into negotiations for a free trade pact with Japan, and seek membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the American-led partnership to develop trade flows in the Pacific region. The DPP will also take steps to develop Taiwan’s diplomatic presence, especially in international organisations.
Some of the DPP’s policies are best described as loopy, such as phasing out nuclear power and replacing it with renewable energy. This is not likely to occur, but it appeals to the green fringe of the DPP. People without power get very angry, as Tsai Ing-wen no doubt knows. A scheme to encourage private landlords to build social housing might work – or it might not.
The KMT era is over. It has achieved much. Taiwan has experienced something unusual – a peaceful transition from dictatorship to full democracy. Now the young have taken power, only time will tell what they can do with it. Tsai Ing-wen is no glamour puss but she has a reputation for being a tough and determined negotiator. She was elected to make Taiwan a fairer society. It will be a tough undertaking.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer originally from Perth.