What Do the Taiwanese Really Need? Unfolding Public Sentiment Amidst Taiwan’s Emerging Populist Politics

What Do the Taiwanese Really Need? Unfolding Public Sentiment Amidst Taiwan’s Emerging Populist Politics

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What Do the Taiwanese Really Need? Unfolding Public Sentiment Amidst Taiwan’s Emerging Populist Politics

For Taiwan, 2024 could become a year of external threats and internal challenges, in which non-traditional political voices rise to the highest level. In the presidential election in 2024, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP, 民進黨) candidate Lai Ching-te (賴清德) won, giving a victory to Taiwan’s green camp. However, the result of this electoral cycle shows that the traditional blue-green party divisions in Taiwan are breaking down, giving way to the emergence of non-traditional political figures. Lai Ching-te’s victory was quite slim, winning with merely 40.05 percent of the popular vote—as compared to former president Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), who won with 56.12 percent in the 2016 presidential election and 57.13 percent in 2020. Instead, the percentage of “Third Party/Independent” voters grew to 26.46 percent, reaching the highest point ever. During the election season, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP, 台眾黨) won 8 seats in the Legislative Yuan. The rate of support for Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) reached 31.9 percent in polling in November 2023, which even surpassed the support rate of Lai Ching-te for around one week.      

For me, 2024 marks the beginning of my personal academic journey exploring Taiwan, and Strait Talk was instrumental in setting me on that path. During the Strait Talk conference, as a representative of mainland China, I engaged in a conversation with a Taiwanese girl who studies in Washington DC. She explained to me the challenges that she faced in asserting her Taiwanese identity globally, including bullying during her university years. This encounter prompted me to reevaluate Taiwan’s international identity crisis within the context of cross-Strait relations. One year after Strait Talk, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Hong Kong, focusing on Taiwan’s domestic electoral trends. Today, the manifestation of Taiwanese political identity extends beyond individual concerns to broader societal grievances, which are reflected in recent voting patterns.

What would Taiwanese do when they are under the severe deprivation of political identity? Taiwan has cultivated a “Taiwan Subjectivity” (台灣主體性) during the process of its decolonialization and democratization, especially since the early 2000s. Yet, the cultivation of this imagined community does not bring Taiwanese more hope. As international marginalization worsens, the economic integration with mainland China increases, and the possibility of military conflict in the Taiwan Strait escalates. The most crucial task for Taiwan alarmists used to be building a self-conscious nation state, in order to survive and to avoid annexation. [1]

Times have changed, and since then a distinctive Taiwanese identity is no longer at the forefront of discussion. After seeing how the Chinese Communist Party suppressed the Hong Kong protests in 2019, it is evident that Taiwan’s own imagined communities and distinct sense of identity can only exist in a bubble. Counterintuitively, this anxiety has pushed Taiwan’s domestic elections in a direction where voters prefer political figures with less polarized policies. These figures usually emphasize the living standard of Taiwanese people, such as better economic conditions and environmental-friendly facilities—presented as quasi-populist campaigns—mainly because people wish to have an alternative choice to save them from this struggle without interrupting their current social conditions.

The Rise of the TPP

A charismatic figure with a non-political background, Ko Wen-je is a non-traditional politician. Also referred to as “Professor Ko,” Ko Wen-je is a former trauma surgeon with a doctoral degree in medical science. In 2014, Ko transitioned to politics, winning the Taipei mayoral election as an independent candidate. His leadership style, often characterized as pragmatic, focuses on public health, urban development, and social issues. Ko’s non-traditional political approach and his dedication to improving Taipei’s infrastructure have made him a special figure in Taiwan’s political landscape. As the president of the Taiwan People’s Party, Ko Wen-je aims to provide voters with “an alternative choice” in Taiwan politics.

However, political commentators have criticized Ko Wen-je and his TPP for being politically opportunistic and having no clear political positions like the DPP and Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨). From their perspective, the success of the TPP should be largely attributed to Ko Wen-je’s personal charisma. In fact, the TPP, as a newborn party founded in 2019, does not set clear goals for Taiwan’s overall development, especially in relation to its lack of economic plans and clear political agendas. Although Ko Wen-je and his TPP claim themselves to be an independent party that is neither green nor blue, the key question of “reunification-versus-independence” and Taiwan’s diplomatic dilemma must be answered if this party expands its presence in Taiwan politics. Once Ko and his party reach greater prominence, they may turn out to choose to walk the same familiar paths of the DPP or the KMT. 

Populism as an Alternative Choice

This is not the first time that non-traditional politicians have appeared in Taiwanese politics. During the electoral cycle of 2018-2020, the unexpected rise of Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) from the Kuomintang’s Pan-Blue camp, whose charisma resembles Ko Wen-je and whose political agenda is also quasi-populist, pushed forward populist discourse similar to “make [the] ROC great again.” [2] The performance of Han Kuo-yu also follows the demagogy of populism and the pursuit of Taiwanese people’s daily interests, attracting the working class in Taiwan’s traditional deep green cities like Kaohsiung. 

From a general perspective, the emergence of populist figures in Taiwan is reminiscent of populist movements in other global liberal democracies, emphasizing political opportunism and responding to the so-called public desire that politics should respond to the people’s general will. Global populist movements focus on income inequality and industrial inequality. For example, Spain’s Podemos party emerged from anti-austerity protests to address economic difficulties and income inequality following the 2008 crisis. Italy’s 5-Star Movement criticizes economic inequality and advocates policies such as a universal basic income. Industrial inequality is also a key focus for populist movements. France’s Yellow Vests movement has protested against fuel taxes and living costs, highlighting the economic disparity between urban and rural areas. In Brazil, a truckers’ strike in 2018 highlighted the plight of an important industrial sector and led to policy changes.  

Both Ko Wen-je’s political agenda and Han Kuo-yu’s slogan cater to the experiences of common people, either through the improvement of public health or the economic struggle of the working classes. These Taiwanese populist politicians rise from nonpolitical backgrounds and win elections by appealing to the grievances and aspirations of common people through a political dimension. [4]

As highlighted by David Cayla, a French economist, populism effectively offers individuals “an alternative choice” to regain control over the trade market, particularly when they feel their votes do not play a part in solving social problems. [5] In Taiwan, populism represents a denial and fatigue with the fatal dilemma of “independence-versus-unification.” Taiwanese people wish for another choice that ensures Taiwan’s national security and sovereignty without bringing on an economic crisis. As such, populism in Taiwan is not only the reflection of the inequality brought by the international trade or social modernization process, but also the urgent need to balance “Taiwan subjectivity” with cross-Strait relations.

Is There Really a Third Choice?

However, do these populist politicians really grant Taiwanese genuine alternative options? Han Kuo-yu won Kaohsiung when he claimed to revive Taiwan, but he lost the presidential election when there was suspicion that he had connections with Beijing—that is, he again chose an old option that other classical Taiwanese politicians have followed. The Hong Kong protests contributed to Han Kuo-yu’s failed election and resulted in Taiwan’s increased distrust towards the PRC’s “One Country, Two Systems” framework. As Beijing becomes more authoritarian domestically and assertive internationally, the number of Taiwanese who support unification have dropped to a very low percentage. Yet, the pro-independent vote is not dominant, either. Instead, the most prominent choice is maintaining the status quo forever, showing the public’s hopes for a third choice. 

Unfortunately, the world has not granted Taiwan a third option. Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), the former vice president of Taiwan, called for a third choice, the Taiwan neutrality option. But even this neutral option seems unworkable in light of an extremely strong-willed Beijing, which will perceive anything other than unification as separatist or pro-independent, leaving no room for an alternative. 

The choice in cross-Strait relations for Taiwan, therefore, is false binary, choosing from either “submitting to Beijing” or “not submitting.” When Lai Ching-te was elected, he simultaneously confirmed that he would not claim Taiwan’s independence and that “there is not such an independent route.” Facing the direct military threat that Taiwan can never compete with, even deep green politicians like Lai Ching-te hesitate and choose framings that seem to confirm Beijing’s stance.  

Han Kuo-yu’s failure demonstrates that the selection of a crucial path for cross-Strait relations casts aside the benefits gained from having a pragmatic political agenda and being charismatic. Although Ko Wen-je and his TPP have not yet touched this sensitive diplomatic topic, he will face this option once he and his party have grown large enough to compete with the green or blue camp. By that time, we shall find out whether Ko Wen-je’s independent route is an alternative option for Taiwanese or just the old routes that DPP and KMT have already walked upon. 

What could Taiwanese youngsters do under this predicament? Perhaps it is time to stay calm, face Taiwan’s domestic social grievances, and build up Taiwan’s confidence. Like a famous quote in the early 2000s, when Taiwan was still a confident body, we need to “establish youngsters on Taiwan, have concern for the mainland, and open young people’s eyes to the world” (“立足台灣、胸懷大陸、放眼世界”). [6] Participating in events such as Strait Talk is helpful, for it grants us chances to not only critically rethink Taiwan’s current security challenges and international recognition dilemma, but also to express ideas and sentiments to wider groups of people who can actively influence and change the world.

The main point:  Fatigue and anxiety over having to choose between “unification” and “independence” has led Taiwanese voters to pursue an alternative choice by voting for non-traditional politicians, such as Ko Wen-je. However, it’s unlikely that Ko truly represents a third choice, and Taiwanese people are faced with the difficult task of re-evaluating Taiwan’s current dilemmas regarding security and identity if they want to find a true alternative.

[1] Daniel C. Lynch, “Taiwan’s Self-Conscious Nation-Building Project,” Asian Survey 44, no. 4 (July 2004): 513–33, https://doi.org/10.1525/as.2004.44.4.513.  

[2] Frédéric Krumbein, “Populist Discourses in Taiwan and the Case of Han Kuo-Yu,” International Journal of Taiwan Studies, July 24, 2023, 1–35, https://doi.org/10.1163/24688800-20231313.

[3] Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist,” Government and Opposition 39, no. 4 (2004): 541–63, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x.  

[4] Ernesto Laclau, “Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics,” Critical Inquiry 32, no. 4 (2006): 646, https://doi.org/10.2307/3877130.

[5] David Cayla, Populism and Neoliberalism (London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2021), 126.

[6] Stéphane Corcuff, “The Symbolic Dimension of Democratization and the Transition of National Identity under Lee Teng-hui,” in Stéphane Corcuff, ed., Memories of the Future: National Identity Issues and the Search for a New Taiwan (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2002), pp. 73–101.