What’s Next for Taiwan?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On January 11, Taiwanese will go to the polls. Their election pits the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors greater distance from Beijing, against Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomingtang, which favors warmer relations with the mainland.

In early December, Taipei’s populist mayor Ko Wen-je said Beijing was too distracted by the situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and by China’s slowing economy, to focus on Taiwan. But many fear Beijing will meddle in the election.

What’s at stake in the 2020 Taiwanese election? And what role will Beijing play? —The Editors


The long-term viability of the Kuomintang (KMT) will become more evident after the 2020 presidential elections in Taiwan. Although the KMT seemed resurgent after its November 2018 victory in local elections, in the last few months its popularity has visibly nosedived. The two major reasons are the numerous gaffes and scandals from the KMT presidential candidate, Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu, and the unpopularity of its list of legislative candidates, who surprised the public with the extent of how pro-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) they were.

The KMT, which advocates cross-strait unification, is the political force the CCP backs in Taiwan. Though Taiwan has seen waves of blowback against the KMT, from the 2014 Sunflower Movement onward, Beijing continues to support the party. But if the 2020 elections show that the KMT is disconnected from Taiwanese society, and that the 2018 elections were just an outlier, Beijing may attempt to back other political forces.

This could focus on efforts to prop up Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je’s newly formed Taiwan People’s Party. Ko entered politics in 2014, successfully winning the Taipei mayoral election with the endorsement of the pan-Green camp, which leans toward independence. However, Ko is increasingly perceived as having become pro-China. He conducts controversial city-based exchanges between Taipei and Shanghai, and makes public appearances with pan-Blue politicians, who favor closer ties with China.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 victory incited a crisis within the KMT: The party debated whether it should localize, or instead double-down on party fundamentals. The KMT never resolved that crisis, and a Tsai victory in January would exacerbate it. If China signals that it may stop backing the KMT, this could provoke a new round of existential self-questioning, and widen chasms within the party. Could the KMT survive this?

As the January 11 elections rapidly approach, a lot is on the table. The results could hold significant implications for the future of Taiwan, cross-strait relations, and regional or global stability. But what is really at stake is the past—specifically, a century-long struggle by the people of Taiwan for a voice in the political decisions that affect their lives. In this historical view, the upcoming election is part of a process within which the people of Taiwan have negotiated with each other, with the governing regime, and with international politics, as they have endeavored to practice democracy.

Phase one of participatory politics on Taiwan involved contradictory impulses among the Chinese-descended (that is, non-indigenous), mostly urban-dwelling people who became subjects of Japan’s emperor in 1895. As early as the 1910s, some advocated for rapid assimilation in order to obtain all of the political rights of Japanese citizens. Later, as larger segments of this group formed new Taiwanese identities amidst continued exclusion by Japanese settlers, they expressed different political impulses. Some joined the state-mandated municipal, prefecture, and colonial consultative councils to express their autonomous interests; others petitioned for a Taiwan Assembly that would parallel Japan’s National Diet; and some anti-colonial activists called for an independent Taiwan.

Immediately after the war, as the Nationalist Chinese government and Chinese settlers replaced the Japanese, Taiwanese embraced this macro-level political change and sought to use the new institutions of local governance to rebuild the island and promote the interests of their communities. The 2-28 Uprising of 1947, which the government violently suppressed by slaughtering thousands of peaceful protesters, was more about demanding a voice in Taiwan’s affairs than about independence. After its suppression, Taiwanese pursued participation through accommodation (joining the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), engaging in dangwai electoral politics through non-KMT candidates when permitted) and opposition through expatriate and underground independence movements, as well as new parties and mass movements that eventually ended single-party rule.

After the political system began to open in the early 1990s, the range of voices expanded and movement politics diversified. One of the most significant aspects of this third phase was a redefinition of “Taiwanese.” Long associated only with the descendants of Qing-era Chinese settlers (benshengren), it began to include the indigenous peoples and the waishengren who have become rooted in the island. This collectivity remains deeply divided, but all of its members can lay claim to being Taiwanese.

Beijing’s role in all of this, and in the upcoming election, has mostly been as a foil against which Taiwan’s people have pursued political participation. Both in a drive for formal independence, and as the fulfillment of Republic of China ideology, democratization has moved Taipei further away from Beijing. Recent events in Hong Kong clarified for many the dangers of “one-country, two-systems” scenarios, and confirmed the cross-straits divide. Beijing’s role in January’s election, therefore, seems limited to solidifying popular support for the democratic process. What is at stake is not only Taiwan’s future, but also the legacies of a hundred years of political activity.

From its semiconductor industry to its hacker-turned-digital-minister, Taiwan is a high-tech place. But it’s also refreshingly low-tech. Unlike the People’s Republic of China, I can actually use cash without getting quizzical looks. And unlike democracies that rely on electronic voting, counting votes entails taking “each ballot out of the box one by one consecutively, and display[ing] it to the attending public witnesses,” according to a Taiwanese government website. This paper trail, along with other checks, like requiring in-person voting, will make it difficult for Beijing to meddle directly with the ballots. (More troubling are the disinformation efforts tied to China, against which Taiwan’s government and civil society are fighting.)

Despite questions about the accuracy of polls, the incumbent Tsai Ing-wen is likely to win. Having recently helped my kids write letters to Santa Claus, here’s my Christmas wish list for a second-term President Tsai:

  • I wish for an end to the death penalty. President Tsai allowed an execution during her first term. Despite widespread support for the death penalty, President Tsai should pledge that no further executions will take place during her time in office, and call for incorporation of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a foundational human rights treaty.
  • I wish for full marriage equality. A Tsai administration bill resulted in the legislature legalizing same-sex unions in May, just days before the deadline imposed by the constitutional court. But it did so without using the word “marriage.” Instead, the legislature just described the procedures as implementing the court’s interpretation. President Tsai should advocate revising Taiwan’s Civil Code so that references to marriage are gender neutral.
  • I wish for the rights of all people to build families. The Tsai administration should advocate for joint adoption by same-sex couples, as well as for legalizing assisted reproductive technologies by same-sex couples and single women.
  • I wish for a refugee law. Taiwan lacks laws under which political refugees can seek asylum, which is an all the more glaring omission given the Hong Kong protests.

These wishes do not rest on President Tsai alone; who wins the legislature is critical. But without leadership from the executive branch, these wishes have no hope of being fulfilled.

Finally, two wishes regarding how those outside Taiwan talk about Taiwan:

  • I wish for more emphasis on Taiwan and less on cross-strait relations. I wish that every major international newspaper would write at least one Taiwan story in 2020 that does not mention China. Taiwan is an important story in its own right.
  • I wish for the words “female” and “woman” to not be in the same sentence as “President Tsai.” And I wish that comments about her decisions not to marry or have children likewise are eradicated (a wish that applies equally to audiences within Taiwan). Tsai is the first female president of Taiwan. That’s wonderful. Opposition politicians, journalists, and voters have mentioned it countless times. Focus on what she does, not what sex she is.

When Han Kuo-yu gave a closed-door briefing at Harvard University in April 2019, the newly-elected populist mayor of Kaohsiung seemed unstoppable. He dodged questions about pension reform and cross-strait relations with charm and eloquence. Indeed, his primary target was not those in the audience, but Taiwanese voters. An official visit to a prestigious American university bestows an aura on would-be contenders for top leadership—even populists in Taiwan want to visit Harvard. Soon after his return, Han declared his bid in the Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) presidential primary, which he won easily in July.

But soon after clinching the nomination, Han’s support rate plummeted. Now, with less than two weeks before the election, he trails the Democratic Progressive Party’s Tsai Ing-wen by an estimated 19 to 38 percent. In Taiwan’s previous six presidential elections, no candidate has ever overcome such a disadvantage to win. Yes, Han still enjoys solid support from his hard-core fans, but many more moderate voters have deserted him.

What happened? The months-long anti-extradition protest in Hong Kong has taught Taiwanese what Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula actually means, which made the KMT’s more conciliatory approach to China less attractive. Han is particularly vulnerable because he visited the Central Liaison Offices in Hong Kong and Macao shortly after becoming mayor, an act that most KMT leaders avoid because of its symbolism. Only after Hong Kong’s protests flared up did Han announce his opposition to the one country, two systems solution.

Han led a populist insurgency, dubbed the “Han Wave” by his supporters. He has campaigned as a “president for the common people,” and spoken colorfully about Kaohsiung “getting hugely rich” (发大财). This created a wave that helped the KMT win the local elections in November 2018 and Han win the southern metropolis that the Democratic People’s Party had ruled for the last two decades.

However, scrutiny over his past helped destroy that momentum, and his image as a man of the people. Scandals beset him over the ownership of luxury apartments, his father-in-law’s controversial gravel business, and a mansion his wife owns that was built illegally on farmland, among others. And Han’s sometimes sexist, racist, and obscene remarks have alienated some voters.

The KMT has traditionally been the establishment party, and its leaders were typically upper class, with doctoral degrees from prestigious universities. Top officials with links to the KMT, including former President Ma Ying-jeou, former Premier Lien Chan, as well as Chairman of the People First Party James Soong, former KMT Chairman Eric Chu Li-luan, KMT Vice Chairman Jason Hu, and former parliament member Ting Shou-chung all fit this profile. Han’s astute instinct to distance himself from this elitist tradition helped fuel his meteoric rise. Regardless of the result of the 2020 election, the KMT will struggle to find its identity in the wake of the Han wave.

Cross-strait relations matter. But how will the election affect the 23 million Taiwanese citizens? There is much more at stake for them this January than just relations with the People’s Republic of China. Unfortunately, neither the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) or the Kuomintang (KMT) offers a particularly bright future for domestic policy. Despite their best efforts, the DPP blundered most of their progressive reforms over the last four years. Meanwhile, the KMT wants to repeal the few reforms the DPP has passed and replace them with more conservative, pro-China policies.

This is especially concerning under KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu. Han has flip-flopped over whether he will undo the recent Marriage Equality Act, which heralded Taiwan as the first country in East Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. In November, Han said he now supported same-sex marriage, even though he had previously opposed it, and Han’s wife Lee Chia-fen claimed that marriage equality has been “overexploited.” Han has also said he will overturn some of Tsai’s unpopular labor reforms, which involved the length of the work week and mandatory time off.

A reelection of President Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP would likely lead to more attempts at progressive policy, but with lackluster results. Even when the DPP controlled the presidency and the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, from 2016 to 2018, its reforms were tepid. And if Tsai wins reelection to the presidency but the DPP loses control of its majority in the parliament, its ability to take even symbolic steps towards progressive reforms will be limited.

The DPP will likely continue to expand trade with countries other than China. The “New Southbound Policy,” one of Tsai’s progressive trade highlights, pushes for economic relations that don’t jeopardize Taiwanese sovereignty; it would likely cease under a KMT administration.

Hong Kong has been a major talking point this election. But despite Taiwan’s status as a common destination for Hongkongers fleeing from political persecution, the DPP has done little to help them in terms of policy changes. When the democracy leader Joshua Wong called on Taiwan for help, Tsai responded, “Our current laws have provided sufficient foundations for us to offer assistance to Hong Kong’s people when necessary.” The KMT would likely be even chillier.