What’s Going On in Taiwan?


The ineluctable drift of Taiwan outside of the PRC’s political orbit, with a helping shove from Taiwan’s DPP (Democratic Progressive Party), that’s what’s going on.

On March 18, on the occasion of the Crimean referendum, I wrote a piece speculating on what would happen if the United States decided to support a Maidan-style insurrection against an elected but unpopular and pro-Chinese administration in Taiwan.

Well, mirabile dictu, on the same day the insurrection appeared…but no US support, as yet, anyway.

The occasion was the occupation of the Republic of China legislature by student activists determined to prevent passage of the “Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement” (hereinafter CSSTA) between the ROC and the PRC, climaxed by a big demonstration against the pact in Taipei on March 30.

The CSSTA opens various Taiwan and PRC service industries to mutual investment.  It is a piece of neo-liberal free trade bullshit whose advantages to Taiwan’s economy have probably been oversold.  It will provide some windfall profits for some Taiwanese fat cats in the financial services sector as PRC money floods in, but will probably do little to boost wages and employment, or get the Taiwanese economy out of its overall economic rut.

The dangers of the pact, both to Taiwanese small businesses and as a piece of ominous Trojan-horse legislation meant to enable a mainland takeover of Taiwan, have probably also been oversold. The political significance of the pact appears primarily as a continuation of the usual process of buying the loyalty of local millionaires that has been neo-capitalist China’s stock in trade ever since it ditched class struggle and showered opportunities on Li Ka Shing and other Hong Kong plutocrats in order to grease the skids for the PRC’s absorption of the British territory in 1997.

The immediate reason that the CSSTA has precipitated a political crisis in the ROC is that the main opposition party, the DPP, decided it wanted to precipitate a political crisis over the CSSTA.  The DPP, which grew out of an underground organization of Taiwan independence activists brutally suppressed by the KMT, has not quite outgrown its conspiratorial roots and is addicted to pushing the political boundaries in order to punch above its weight (the DPP-led alliance commands the loyalty of about 45% of Taiwan’s voters) and get its way.

The dysfunctional character of the ROC’s constitution offers ample opportunities for mischief.

The Constitution of the Republic of China is not, it is safe to say, some of Sun Yatsen’s best work.  It was adequate to the task of creating a rubber-stamp legislature in a single-party state, as the ROC was for the first forty years of its tenure on Taiwan, but it is completely not up to the job of accommodating intensely adversarial partisan politics.  And to describe the relationship between the ruling KMT—born of the mainland occupation in 1949—and the DPP—which emerged from the independence struggle of Taiwanese indigenes—as adversarial is putting it mildly.

Particularly in the contentious issue of “cross strait ties” i.e. negotiating agreements between the PRC and the ROC, the powers of the Executive Yuan to unilaterally conclude agreements and the authority of the Legislative Yuan to review those agreements has not been clearly defined.  Instead, the review and approval of these agreements has been a matter of ad hoc jockeying and palavering between the “Blue” KMT-centered and “Green” DPP-centered parties.

The KMT has enough votes in the legislature (65 out of 113) to pass anything it wants to.  For the CSSTA, in order to provide a veneer of comity and consensus to the proceedings, Ma Ying-jyeou’s administration agreed to hold a series of hearings on the bill before it came to a vote.

Fatally, the inter-party negotiations were put in the hands of the speaker of the legislature, the KMT’s own Wang Jin-pyng.  Wang a native Taiwanese politician from the DPP’s southern stronghold and a failed presidential candidate, turned out to be a KINO (KMT in Name Only), and for reasons either of principle, ambition, or cussedness, concluded a generous agreement with the DPP that allowed for a series of 16 public hearings followed by a line-by-line review of the agreement in the Home Affairs Committee.

The DPP, which loathes the unilateral outreach of the KMT to the mainland and longs for a politically advantageous crisis, seized the opportunity Wang gave them to drag out the public hearings for over six months, even though the constitution stipulates that any executive order that isn’t acted on by the legislature automatically takes effect after three months.

The measure of Ma Ying-jyeou’s anger was that he orchestrated Wang’s expulsion from the KMT and removal from his speakership; an indication of the profound dysfunction of Taiwanese politics is that Wang obtained a court stay to keep his job and has been decidedly obstructionist with respect to the KMT’s desperate attempt to keep a lid on the CSSTA debate in the legislature as the process dragged on, suspicions and concerns were indefatigably advertised, and concerns of the public at large concerning the lack of transparency surrounding this rather insignificant agreement snowballed.

Matters reached their sorry climax in mid-March as the DPP attempted to take control of the Home Affairs Committee rostrum in order to set the agenda for the line-by-line review and further drag out the process.  The KMT resolved that it would draw the line with the DPP, use the three-month review stipulation to declare that the Home Affairs Committee involvement in the pact was over, and the KMT-dominated legislature could finally vote on it.

On March 17, after the usual partisan roughhousing—including a battle over control of the precious microphone that allowed remarks to be put on the record—the KMT claimed its point man had successfully seized the mike (or, the DPP alleged, a bogus mike from another meeting room since it claimed to have seized all the legitimate mikes) and announced that the pact was now in the hands of the legislature.

The DPP responded by supporting a move by student activists to occupy the legislature.

The combination of “students” and “political demonstrations” emerged to work its political and media magic once again and, to be fair, it appears that students still enjoy their special aura of perceived selflessness and moral rectitude in Taiwan, as in other parts of the world.  As the occupation dragged on, on March 30, a crowd of somewhere between 116,000 (police estimate) and 500,000 (organizers), apparently aggressively organized by the DPP but also, I expect, containing quite a few people dissatisfied with the policy dysfunction and economic failure of the Ma presidency and supportive of the students, congregated peacefully in front of the presidential building.

The irony of students occupying the legislature to block a democratic vote in the name of democracy—or for that matter, the irony of the leader of the student activists issuing ultimatums to the ROC’s elected president in the name of democracy–was lost on pretty much everybody.

Well, almost everybody.  David Brown, a professor at Johns Hopkins and a member of the board of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto US embassy, pointed out some of the holes in the democratic logic of this exercise in an open letter to the Nelson Report.

Beyond the AIT’s engrained discomfort with the DPP and the nagging fear it will upset the US-PRC diplomatic applecart with an unplanned Taiwan crisis, one might speculate that the Obama administration is not keen on establishing the precedent that its cherished Trans Pacific Pact or TPP—a lobbyist-penned giveaway to multinational corporations that, ironically (or if you’re a cynic, inevitably) recapitulates the CSSTA in its globalization lineaments, free trade principles, and need for discrete executive negotiation to keep the populist hounds at bay—might also be subjected  to the indignant scrutiny of a crowd of flower-waving, slogan-chanting students.

The DPP’s furious response to Brown came from the DPP’s representative to the United States, Joseph Wu.

Per Focus Taiwan:

Wu said seeing the movement as a DPP election mobilization effort rather than as an extension of previous activist movements against land expropriation in Miaoli County and the controversial Fourth Nuclear Power Plant constituted “slander of the 500,000 people who took to the streets” Sunday.

Say what?

If the best example of KMT anti-democratic tyranny the DPP can come up with is the KMT’s studious disregard of a county government landgrab and the issue of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, the DPP is pretty much working with “intense feelings of grievance”—which it holds in abundance and can summon up on any political occasion—as opposed to “genuine grievances incapable of redress through the democratic system” to justify its anti-democratic charge.

Consider this August 2013 report on the contretemps surrounding the Fourth Nuclear Power Station, which the DPP adamantly opposes:

A parliamentary vote in Taiwan on whether to hold a referendum on the completion of the Lungmen nuclear power plant descended into a brawl between opposing parties.

The vote, proposed by the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) party, had been scheduled today in the Legislative Yuan on whether construction of Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant, which is already nearing completion, should continue.

Some 40 lawmakers from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) barricaded themselves inside the legislative chamber yesterday. They remained there overnight in an attempt to stop today’s session, including the vote, taking place. The DPP is calling for the Lungmen plant to be scrapped without even holding a referendum.

The brawl broke out this morning as KMT lawmakers tried to take possession of the podium to allow the vote to proceed. Television footage showed two male legislators wrestling on the floor while groups from the opposing sides threw bottles and cups of water at each other.

The scuffle led to the session being suspended, without the vote on the referendum taking place. This will now be rescheduled.

The anti-nuclear DPP claims that it would be difficult to get at least 50% of the population to vote in a referendum with the majority voting against the plant’s completion. The party said that it would do whatever it can to stop the referendum proceeding.

It will come as no surprise that no referendum has been scheduled.

An interesting case could be made that the DPP genuinely and accurately embodies popular will in a perfect fashion that renders conventional democratic practices moot, but it’s clear that one-person one-vote democracy for its own sake is not a DPP fetish.

The hapless KMT has subsequently agreed to a line-by-line review of the pact.  Inevitably, the DPP has escalated in response to its opponent’s collywobbles (the operative phrase for taking advantage of an enemy’s helplessness, “beating a dog in the water” applies here), endorsing the students’ demands for a implementation of a new oversight mechanism for cross-straits negotiations before the review can commence.

Oversight is a nice idea in principle; in practice it compounds the institutional dysfunction of the ROC government and offers the DPP an additional venue for obstruction.  So expect the KMT and the business community to be disappointed if they believe that this concession will finally smooth the way for the anodyne CSSTA, or that the KMT will gain much political respite as it trudges toward the presidential 2016 election season.

Setting aside the questionable elements of the DPP campaign against the CSSTA, it looks like the campaign of polarization has achieved an important purpose by revealing that the KMT lacks the will, clout, and resources to overcome the resistance of a sizable minority determined to sabotage its cross-strait initiatives.

There are also some concerns that the KMT will try to fight fire with fire i.e. try to match the DPP’s advantage in confrontational street action by greenlighting a PRC-linked underworld figure, Chang An-lo, to put KMT-friendly goons on the street.  Indeed, Chang and a rent-a-mob appeared in front of the legislature on April 1 to denounce the students, but was faced down by students and a phalanx of policemen.  If the KMT has to rely on the foul-mouthed Chang An-lo, a.k.a. “White Wolf” to serve as the face of public support for the CSSTA, the KMT is in sorry straits indeed.

It is perhaps more likely that that the faction-ridden KMT, with its jello-like adaptability, will opportunistically slosh over into the “warier of the blandishments of the mainland” position instead of trying to intimidate the DPP with a mainland-friendly street presence.

Therefore, it’s unclear that the humiliation of Ma Ying-jyeou will translate into decisive broad spectrum support of the DPP, whose addiction to confrontation and crisis as a political strategy and its insistence on threatening to play the independence card many voters find disturbing.

If the DPP does gain the presidency in 2016, the PRC will be facing an interesting situation in which four of the Asian democracies—Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and India—are committed to a policy of resisting the PRC’s eastward military and economic expansion and preferentially developing their own China-excluding economic and security order.

Superficially, this looks like a godsend for the US pivot.  Practically, however, it would mean that the Asian democracies as a Japan-led bloc (the DPP and Japanese ultra-nationalists quietly and persistently pursue their shared anti-PRC agenda) are achieving a critical mass and the United States, instead of exercising its treasured leadership, is regarded more as a powerful but problematic asset for these nations as they chart their independent course.

In the matter of Taiwan, the ability of the United States to restrain the island’s political and diplomatic aspirations is decreasing, and the day that Taiwan declares de jure independence has probably crept a little closer.

Peter Lee wrote a ground-breaking essay on the exposure of sailors on board the USS Reagan to radioactive fallout from Fukushima in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He edits China Matters.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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