The Radicalized Generation and the Populist Party Where will the Cross-Strait Relationship Go?

On January 16th, 2016, Tsai Ing-wen, candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won the fourth presidential election of Taiwan with 56.4 percent of the vote, nearly twice as much as her main opponent, Chu Li-luan, representing the ruling KMT party. The overwhelming victory of both the presidential election and the 2014 local elections marks the absolute dominance of the DPP on the Taiwan political stage for at least the next four years. One of the major political messages of the DPP is stressing its “native Taiwanese identity”and supporting the independence of Taiwan, a populist strategy that has been proven quite effective during the campaign. It is predicted that the pro-independence and the De-Sinicization movement in Taiwan will be encouraged after Tsai’s inauguration in May 2016.

The voting rate of the 2016 Taiwan presidential election was 66.2 percent, which is the lowest of all the presidential elections since 1996. However, according to surveys, 54.2 percent of the voters aged 20 to 29 voted for Tsai, and only 6.4 percent voted for Chu. Also, the voting rate of this group reached 74.5 percent, which is much higher than the average rate. For voters aged 30 to 39, Tsai and Chu won 55% and 5% of the votes, respectively. These two groups of voters were generally born after 1980. This “new generation”that experienced the end of the authoritarian era and the transition to democracy are becoming the driving force of Taiwan politics. The huge advantage that Tsai won with the new generation became the decisive factor of her final victory in the election, which reflects a noticeable fact: the new, younger generation of Taiwan is overwhelmingly “green”(the color that represents the DPP). They have become the pivotal boosting force of “Taiwanization”, which stresses Taiwanese local culture, the identity as a Taiwanese rather than Chinese, and Taiwan independence from China.

The apex of the Taiwanization movement came with the Sunflower Movement in 2014. It started with the objection to the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSAT), which aimed to liberalize bilateral trade with the mainland and open the service industries on both sides for investment. After KMT legislators used only 30 seconds to close the review session for CSSAT in March 2014, college-student protestors rushed in and occupied the Legislative Yuan (Congress), marking the start of the Sunflower Movement. The student leaders demanded the KMT legislative leadership explain the hasty review process, retrieve the CSSAT for further discussion, and demanded President Ma Ying-jeou’s come to the Legislative Yuan to apologize. The DPP sided with the students during the movement. DPP leaders, including Tsai Ing-wen, participated directly in the protest. Eventually, the KMT President of Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng, announced that the CSSAT was not to be passed until further review. The students vacated the Legislative Yuan after 23 days of occupation.

The Sunflower Student Movement was a turning point for cross-strait relations, demonstrating the fact that the new generation of Taiwan has become active against closer relations with mainland China. The slogans and banners of the movement expressed radical opinions towards the cross-strait relationship such as Taiwan’s immediate independence, anti-China ideologies, and depicted the Ma administration as a “collaborator of the Communist Party of China”, etc. At the same time, Taiwan’s internet users have also grown overwhelmingly radical in their online posts and comments. They use extreme, and even insulting words to attack mainland China and Chinese, and whoever disagrees with them. The pro-DPP media in Taiwan, social media homepages, and local BBS have all become their “battlefield”, in which they spread their growing hatred towards China and the KMT, blaming them for economic downturn and other social problems of Taiwan in the last four years. To an extent, the “radicalized generation” has posed considerable influence on Taiwan’s elections in both 2014 and 2016, which resulted in major victories for the DPP in both.

The DPP, as the beneficiary of the growing political participation of the “radicalized generation”, is more than willing to see the wider spread of this phenomenon. In July 2014, three months after the Sunflower Movement, Tsai Ing-wen describes the young people in Taiwan as the “born-to-support independence generation,” another clear populist strategy to win them to the DPP camp. With the DPP winning all general elections in Taiwan, it is certain that the new leadership will use this definition to construct the legitimacy of DPP’s pro-independence policies to fight back mainland China’s reunification efforts. On the other hand, upon winning the election, the DPP announced that it will reopen negotiations with mainland China on CSSAT for more beneficial clauses. This is a clear signal that the DPP is trying to play the politics of both sides: on the one hand, it gains support from the radical young people by advocating Taiwan independence, which is directly against mainland China’s core interest in cross-strait relations; on the other hand, the DPP wants to get more benefits from mainland China through the renewed CSSAT, so that it can gain the reputation of both “independent hero”and “economic hero”.

But this strategy has now received double challenges from both mainland China and Taiwan. China took back eight Taiwanese from Kenya in April, charging them with telecommunication fraud against Chinese, and refuses to open a conversation with Tsai Ing-wen as the elected president. Also, China’s Taiwan Affair’s Office of the State Council (TAO) has been repeatedly stressing the importance of the 1992 Consensus. Ma Xiaoguang, the spokesperson of TAO, called Tsai Ing-wen and the DPP to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus (the One China Principle) twice in May, which never happened during the Ma Ying-jeou administration. China’s adamant attitude suggests a tougher environment for Tsai and the DPP in the future, which could possibly jeopardize further economic cooperation and even mutual political trust between China and Taiwan.

Internal challenges from the new generation is also imminent. As Tsai Ing-wen tries to renegotiate the CSSAT, the DPP proposed a supervision regulation to be passed in prior so that future agreements with China will not be accused of as being “against the people’s will”. However, Huang Guo-chang, leader of the Sunflower Movement and the third largest party of the Legislative Yuan ”New Power Party (NPP), insisted on adding the clause that clearly defines Taiwan as an independent country rather than a region, which represents the view of the student protestors during the Sunflower Movement. This will impose a serious challenge to the DPP’s effort of negotiation, as China will never accept treating Taiwan as an independent state. Now that the DPP is in conflict with its biggest supporters during the election, Tsai Ing-wen will have to struggle against both the KMT and her “born-to-support independence generation” .

With Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration on May 20th, challenges from opponents and allies both rest on her way to a “better Taiwan”. For her, the radical anti-China campaign strategy must be eradicated to make way for economic resurrection, and at the same time the balance between the DPP and NPP must be maintained to ensure the consolidation of her winning coalition. The road ahead will be tough for Taiwan’s first female president, so will it be for the cross-strait relationship.


The following two tabs change content below.

Shihao Han

is a staff writer for China Focus Blog. He is a second year student at GPS, studying International Politics with regional focus on China and Latin America. Shihao's interests  include Chinese politics, China's foreign relations, and the geopolitics of China with neighboring countries.

Start typing and press Enter to search