Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Fortnightly Review

Taiwan President Reinforces Call for Strengthening a Community of Democracies in Stopover US Speech

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) transited through the United States on her way to several of the country’s nine diplomatic allies in the Latin America and Caribbean region. The transit comes amid Beijing’s aggressive poaching of the island-nation’s diplomatic allies—five since May 2016—which is part of an unrelenting pressure campaign intended to isolate the Tsai administration. In an uncharacteristically long stopover in New York from July 11 to 13, which was twice as long as the Taiwanese president routine transits through the United States, Tsai made several public appearances that included events with lawmakers, representatives from its diplomatic allies, business community, expatriates, and scholars, as well as private meetings with senior and former officials. Besides the pageantry, which is welcomed by many of the relationship’s supporters for its departure from self-imposed protocols, remarks that she gave in a public speech at Columbia University stood out for its substance.

In remarks at the Ivy League university on July 12, President Tsai highlighted the competition between democracy and rising authoritarianism. The president of the only Chinese-speaking democracy in the world underscored how the existence of Taiwan’s robust democracy served as the antithesis to the belief that China’s rise will inevitably subsume Taiwan, or that democracy is incompatible with Asian values. As a case in point for the threat of rising authoritarianism on freedom, she pointed to the unfolding political crisis on Hong Kong. “We are seeing this threat in action right now in Hong Kong. Faced with no channel to make their voices heard, young people are taking to the streets to fight for their democratic freedoms. And the people of Taiwan stand with them,” President Tsai declared. She added “Hong Kong’s experience under ‘one country, two systems’ has shown the world once and for all that authoritarianism and democracy cannot coexist.”     

Tsai’s Columbia speech echoes the symbolic precedent set by her August 2018 transit through California and remarks that she made at the Reagan Library in front of a Berlin Wall exhibit. In that short speech to the press corps, Tsai extolled President Reagan’s lifelong commitment to the values of freedom and democracy, which she described as having inspired the wave of democracy that brought down the Berlin Wall and presaged the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Specifically, President Tsai stated in that speech:

… the values of freedom and democracy are important to Taiwan, as a country to that stands behind its commitment, Taiwan is willing to work with other countries—     in line with its national interests, as well as the principles of freedom and democracy—to spur regional stability and peace. We will keep this uppermost commitment in mind. President Reagan once sad something well worth reflecting on-’everything [was] negotiable except two things: our freedom and our future.’ I believe this is how the people of Taiwan feel today.

The most recent New York transit, which will be followed by a stopover in Colorado on her return leg, follows a steady upgrade in the strict diplomatic protocols that have traditionally constrained these transits. It may be worth remembering that in addition to speaking with the press corps at the Reagan Library, President Tsai also engaged with expatriate communities of Taiwanese-Americans and was permitted to visit a federal-agency. 

Over Beijing’s repeated objections, Washington not only approved these stopovers but appears to be gradually elevating the form of these transits made by Taiwan’s leaders. As Beijing squeezes Taiwan’s international space ever more tightly, the US government seems to be incrementally normalizing these transits to become more visit-like for this democratic ally. After her Colorado transit, President Tsai will have made 10 transits [1] through the United States since becoming the president of Taiwan in May 2016. 

While calling for a coalition of democracies to promote shared values, President Tsai refuted the culturally-deterministic argument generally proffered by Beijing, stating “Ours is a story of why values do still matter. The cultural and political differences across the Taiwan Strait only grow wider by the day; and each day that Taiwan chooses freedom of speech, human rights, the rule of law, is a day that we drift farther from the influences of authoritarianism.” Furthermore, she stated “History tells us that democracies are strongest when united, and weakest when divided. Without Taiwan, the international coalition of like-minded countries will lose a crucial link in working to ensure our values are passed on to the next generation.” The focus of President Tsai’s speech is consistent with the overall shift undergoing in the United States in its policy towards China. While disagreements in the approach remain, there is a greater convergence of views that great power competition with China is the mainstay of the new era.     

In closing her Columbia speech, President Tsai pointed out that “Taiwan’s survival is about more than just cross-Strait relations. We are a vital bastion of democracy in the Indo-Pacific, and the entire world is closely watching the precedent we will set for the future of democracy.” Indeed, the incremental upgrade in diplomatic protocol afforded to Tsai’s transits over the years and also her Columbia speech reflect the desire in Washington to provide reassurance to Taiwan as it faces growing pressure from China, as well as growing trust between the two governments and alignment in their policy agendas. 

The main point: President Tsai’s transits through New York and also her speech calling for the strengthening of the community of democracies reflect growing trust between the governments of the United States and Taiwan, greater alignment in their respective policy agendas, and Washington’s desire to provide further reassurance as Taiwan faces growing pressure from China.

Kaohsiung Mayor Decisively Wins KMT Primary

With only six months to go before presidential and legislative elections are to be held in the island-democracy, the two major political parties in Taiwan have finally decided on their candidates for the top political office. A month after the ruling-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) decided to elect the incumbent president as their candidate, the largest-opposition party, the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT), completed its presidential primary. The hotly contested and uncharacteristically open primary race was determined entirely by five public opinion polls using only landline calls. Commissioned by Party headquarters and conducted by TVBS, Shih Hsin University (世新大學), All Dimension Survey & Research(全方位市場調查有限公司), Taiwan Real Survey (全國公信力), United Daily News Group (聯合報系), the clear victor that emerged was the incumbent first-term Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜, b. 1957).

The primary result, which was released on July 15, was based on a weighted average of the aforementioned five polls conducted over the period from July 8 through July 14. The polls, which asked respondents to choose between five possible contenders and also in a match up against the other political party, the first-term mayor of Kaohsiung decisively won. Mayor Han received the highest support rate with 44.80 percent and business tycoon Terry Guo (郭台銘) was in a distant second place at 27.73 percent. The KMT’s former presidential candidate and clear establishment favorite, Eric Chu (朱立倫), lagged far behind coming in third place at 17.9 percent, whereas another establishment candidate, former Taipei County Magistrate Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋), mustered only 6.02 percent, and the principal of the Sun Yat-Sen School, Chang Ya-chung (張亞中), received only 3.54 percent support.

Han’s primary victory continues the trend of the KMT establishment-wing’s marginalization. Indeed, the party has been experiencing a swinging pendulum effect since 2014 after the KMT’s defeat in the local elections, defeat in the presidential and legislative elections in 2016, and apparent resurgence in the 2018 local elections. 

The party flirted with a conservative lurch in the botched candidacy of former Chairwoman Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱). The establishment wing seemed to have recovered its control over the party after Wu Den-yih(吳敦義)took over as party chairman in August 2017. Moreover, Wu ostensibly guided the party back with its sweeping victory in the 2018 local elections and should have been able to take credit for the return of the establishment wing of the party. However, a deeper analysis about the results of the 2018 election may have missed the key variable of the 2018 elections, which was not the return of the establishment camp but the victory of the populist candidates represented by Han Kuo-yu in Kaohsiung. 

The fluid and increasingly unpredictable preferences of voters was on further display in KMT’s primary. Han’s victory in the KMT primary seems to indicate a continuation of that trend. Indeed, rather than an indication of the preference of supporters of the political party, both polls seem to indicate a national sampling of the preferred candidate. 

To be sure, while most public opinion polls showed Han as the favorite to win the KMT’s primary, there was still skepticisms among informed observers about his viability prior to his primary victory. Some have pointed to his lagging approval ratings from earlier in the year as indication of his candidacy’s short shelf life. However, such a temporal analysis largely overlooks the structure of his support base, which may be broader and deeper than most analysis have taken into account. Since according to the political commentators, despite his lack of political experience he still commands extensive factional support due to his family ties. According to the political commentary blog Frozen Garlic

He is a mainlander who came up through the KMT Huang Fu-hsing (military) party branch, so maybe it isn’t all that surprising that they love him so much […]. We often think of him as a populist, throwing bombs from the outside. He has offended some KMT insiders, such as former president Ma, but his offenses are stylistic rather than ideological. On policy, his views fit in quite comfortably with standard KMT views. Economically, he wants to develop by integrating Taiwan’s economy into China […] Han also isn’t really challenging the 92 Consensus, though he doesn’t always phrase his ideas in those terms.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that the primary poll results cannot be seen as necessarily reflective of KMT members’ preference since they were conducted through a random sampling of the entire population and not specifically of party members. Also, restricting the respondents to only those with a landline seems to limit the sample of younger voters and would presumably favor those more ideologically inclined since they would have the incentive to stay at home in order to receive and answer the polling call. Nevertheless, the contested primary within both the ruling party, which ran its primary on a similar system, and opposition parties seem to suggest a greater division among the voting public about the direction that parties and the country should take. 

Consistent with polling data from earlier in the year, the most recent weekly poll conducted by Apple Daily released on July 16 showed Han with a comfortable 10 percent lead standing at around 36 percent in a prospective three-way race against President Tsai and Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. To be sure, voter preferences are very fluid and it remains to be seen whether the two primary results will have a consolidating effect on voter preference when it comes time to vote. And it is important to remember that polling preference does not necessarily follow voter mobilization and whether people will actually come out to vote on election day. Notably absent in the press conference announcing the KMT’s primary poll results are the two other front runners: Terry Guo and Eric Chu. That said, as the presidential candidate for the KMT, Han must be taken seriously. Most of the chips of the 2020 election are now on the table, the next to bet will be Mayor Ko. 

The KMT primary poll result has been submitted to the KMT Central Standing Committee and a final and official announcement is expected to be made on July 28. 

The main point: Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu emerged as the clear victor in the KMT primary and may portend the further marginalization of the party’s establishment wing. 

[1] June-July 2016 (Miami, Los Angeles), January 2017 (Houston, San Francisco), October-November 2017 (Hawaii, Guam), August 2018 (Los Angeles, Houston).