Taiwan's Identity Crisis

"The conundrum for the DPP is that the Taiwanese identity that has been trampled on and discarded under Ma is both a trump card and a liability."

Several months have passed since the dramatic intervention of students occupying the main chamber of Taiwan’s parliament building, and Taiwanese politics is back to business as usual. Among other things, that means a preoccupation with the electoral cycle. Preparations, not to mention machinations, are well under way within the major political parties ahead of Special Municipality and local government elections in November—what some observers call Taiwan’s mid-term elections—which should set the tone for the combined legislative and presidential elections slated for spring 2016. Coming on the back of the Sunflower Movement, the forthcoming elections are particularly interesting for those looking to see whether Taiwan will break from the path of an incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou, who is unpopular within the electorate and his own KMT party. Ma is at the midpoint of his second and final term in office and the jockeying to replace him has begun. After the drama of the Sunflower Movement in March and April, tentative answers have emerged to a number of questions.

Despite significant political and social opposition, including the students who occupied government buildings, it appears likely that the keystone policy of Ma’s second term, the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) that extends the earlier Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China, will proceed after all. Although Ma has appeared futile for much of his second term, if and when CSSTA is enacted, the momentum toward institutionalizing economic integration that he has facilitated in cross-Strait relations will be hard for his successors to resist. It also seems that competing factions within the KMT have decided they have sufficiently common interests, and no better options, that a split is now unlikely. Despite their differences, common disdain for Ma and the fact that the KMT remains the ultimate vehicle for political advancement in Taiwan, is enough to keep the party together. Finally, it looks like the opposition DPP has been unable, as yet, to capitalize on the KMT’s woes. Instead, widespread dissatisfaction with Ma has mutated into disenchantment with politics and both major political parties.

After many years of forbearance, the Taiwanese, who have taken to the streets in their tens of thousands, are fed up with the failure of the main parties to put aside their self-centered and self-serving partisan battles for the good of the nation. There is a serious disconnect between Taiwanese, especially younger cohorts, and their representatives and politicians. Alienation is commonplace in mature democracies, but it is a recent development in Taiwan, where turnout in five presidential elections still averages around 75 percent. Clearly, something is amiss. The common thread among young Taiwanese I have spoken to recently is that politics is passing them by, or rather that politics and their lives are running on parallel tracks. A possible explanation for this feeling of absence is the recent “disappearance” of Taiwanese identity from the political menu. For much of the democratization era, national identity was the major cleavage in Taiwanese society and the major fault line in Taiwanese politics. But after the apotheosis of Taiwanese identity during the rule of Chen Shui-bian, a period in which all politics and much governance was refracted through the lens of Taiwanese identity and Chen’s imperative of Taiwanization, it has declined in salience in political discourse.

Where did Taiwanese identity go? The traumatic unravelling of Chen’s eight years in power, which culminated in the DPP’s devastating electoral performances in 2008 and a jail term for corruption for Chen, led to a period of retrenchment and internal debate about the role of Taiwanese identity in the party’s platform. Nervous of reminding voters of Chen’s ideological excesses, the party downplayed identity. For President Ma Ying-jeou on the other hand, Taiwanese identity was neither expedient, given his focus on improving relations across the Strait (Beijing is unable, or chooses not to distinguish between Taiwanese independence and nonthreatening expressions of Taiwanese identity), nor ideologically attractive, given his predilection for Chinese national identity and his project to incorporate Taiwan into Greater China. Reversing many of Chen’s initiatives, Ma has sought to “re-Sinify” Taiwan by incorporating it into narratives about the Chinese nation. My research of many of Ma’s speeches since 2008 shows that Taiwanese identity has all but disappeared from the presidential lexicon—with the notable, and transparently instrumental, exception of his election campaigns. There are signs that the Taiwanese have more pressing things on their minds than identity too: neither the Sunflower student occupation, nor the plethora of social protests that have mobilized tens of thousands of people, were, on the surface, fought in the name of Taiwanese identity. However, to think that we have reached a post-identity moment in Taiwan is misguided—and for pro-unificationists in Taiwan and China, wishful thinking. Taiwan’s status is too fragile and too contested for that: The latent identity cleavage exists, and at some point, it will resurface as a major driver of Taiwanese mass political behavior and elite political competition.