Some Reflections of the Taiwanese Presidential Election 2016

Tsai Ing-Wen’s recent election  as Taiwan’s first female president and the first female ethnic Chinese head of state, has seen the international media full of praise of this historic moment. However, we should not get carried away. This is a historic moment similar to  Barack Obama’s election as the first Black president of the United States of America and, if it comes to pass, Hilary Clinton’s election as the first female US president. In times of prosperity and stability, these are s that are worthy of wide celebration and even euphoria, in times such as ours  -uncertain and going from crisis after crisis – the impact has a rather different effect. This is why Obama’s election, apart from some notable exceptions ie diplomatic foreign policy in the case of Iran and the Affordable Care Act, was largely symbolic, with business going on as usual. Apart from some fines levied on the Wall Street banks, there are no criminal convictions of bankers. It was the first time in American history that no criminal bankers have been brought to justice after a major financial fraud; an enormous opportunity missed to reform a not-fit-for-public-service financial system. The West is still mired in the Middle East, even though military interventions were restrained. US military spending experienced hardly a dip despite of sequestration (automatic cuts to federal spending) because of the liberal use of the Overseas Contingency Operations  (OCO) fund to make up any shortfalls. Profits of major defense contractors actually went up significantly during the Obama years and US arms sales to the rest of the world has gone from strength to strength.

The legacy of the Civil Rights movement also experienced a strong and effective pushback, such as disfranchisement of minority voters and extrajudicial killings of African Americans people by the police. These are still ongoing even after the high point of the struggle for Civil Rights, the election of the first Black American president. My point is that a symbolic moment is just ‘symbolic’; we should not let it make us lose sight of the ongoing struggle for social justice and the wider issues we are facing now.

Let me bring us back to the case of Taiwan. When Ms Tsai was lauded by the commentators as the first elected female head of state in the history of the Chinese civilization, my first reaction was so what. I believe females can make better heads of states and welcome more of them s  so why do I feel this way in Taiwan’s case? On one level,  my concerns relates to Ms Tsai’s  record of indecisive and  insincere behaviour. Moreover  and most importantly. I have no idea where her vision for Taiwan is. I know for sure she won’t formally declare the creation of the Republic of Taiwan and she won’t allow the unification of 2 states to form the Greater China. She probably wants business as usual and more independence. However, isn’t Taiwan  independent in practically every way, apart from a UN seat and the associated formal diplomatic speeches? So what do her policies add up to? More worrying what other factors has the Taiwanese electorate voted for that might be of great concern?

What is she going to do with the vested corporate interests and the rising inequality? How about corruption? Why did she bring the major henchmen of corruption-ridden former President Chen back into her inner circle? What is she going to do with our declining economy and international trade? TPP, yes but CSSTA, no; both are neoliberal free market treaties for the interests of multinational corporations. Sowhat’s the economic justification for one but not the other? Oh, and yes – China! As mountainous islands, Taiwan is prone to flooding and droughts, made significantly worse by the climate change. In Taiwan, we don’t deny climate change, we simply ignore it. I’ve not heard a single discussion about what we are going to do with the biggest ever threat to humanity. Well, this might be a very cunning plan to unify greater China by stealth since no one will be able to object to going to China once Taiwan has become inhabitable or lost under rising sea levels. The Kuomintang certainly won’t object since they still believe we own mainland China anyway, and President Tsai wouldn’t mind either,  since her own party DPP’s political heavyweights have strong business interests in China –  in direct contrast to their own rhetoric.

I have no answer for all the above questions because President Tsai and The Democratic Progressive Party do not offer any. Everything can be boiled down to “China bad, Taiwan good”. Repeat it three times, and you will find the truth: Taiwan has one more letter than China. (Since everything Chinese is bad, we like to write the name Taiwan in English in slogans rather than in Chineseo this is really good fact to know. Even if you can’t read English, a 6-letter word will never get confused to mean China.)

Before I go on to explain further, let me clarify by saying KMT is worse, much worse. It is an incompetent, corporate bottom licking, and completely corrupt sunset political party. I would have been quite just as angry if the KMT candidate got elected as president this time.

Now, let me go on to the second reason why President Tsai is bad news for the long-term future of Taiwan. The last 8 years of Ma’s presidency has seen a series of scandals, incompetency, stagnating economy, rising inequality and worsening environment. This  was quite an achievement   given President Chen had set such a low standard of reference beforehand. Despite this, KMT still controlled both the Executive Office and the Legislation Office of the government throughout the 8 years. To counter this, many civil society groups, NGOs and trade unions partnered with DPP. In the process, they have become too friendly with DPP (to put it mildly) and in many cases, co-opted, as seen in this election. Partnering with DPP helped them get into  powerful circles,  but it probably did more harm than good.

For a starter, every issue is now looked at through the lens  of China bashing. Everything that can’t be recast in this angle has been pushed out, for example, environment and climate change. There are plenty of justified and well informed economic and political reasons to oppose CSSTA, but all is lost in the midst of “China bad Taiwan good” rhetoric. It give rise to the simplistic argument that CSSTA is bad because it is just another step for China to take over us and – as we know – China is evil. This explains why DPP supports TPP and the rest of the civil society is quiet on the issue: TPP is good because it is the best way to counter China; trade with the rest of the world then we don’t need to trade with China. Forget about the fact that TPP is all about the interests of corporate America and American political interest in isolating China; and we are already heavily trading with the rest of the world. As corporate Taiwan has discovered,  their business is best done through China to the detriment of local economy in Taiwan, TPP simply won’t change this fact.

Now DPP is in power, who is going to oppose the government for the benefit of society and environment? Certainly not KMT, they are beyond useless. Not major civil society groups and NGOs, they are either co-opted or China bashing cheerleaders. That leaves us with only the voiceless civil society groups and NGOs. The already weak Taiwanese civil society has now been weakened and divided to such an extent, that DPP probably can do whatever they want and all the people can do is to hope for the best. Taken in this context, we certainly should celebrate the sex of Taiwanese president since it probably is the only thing worth celebrating about in the next few years.

But maybe not.

During Chen’s years, there was a very strong Anti-Arms Purchasing Alliance. Chen’s rhetoric was pro-independence and anti-China (despite his and his party’s many business dealings in China) and his counterpart in USA at the time,  President Bush, was more than willing to sell arms to Taiwan. There was a real risk of escalating the military tension and break the delicate political balance between China and Taiwan. And have I mentioned that the weaponry that countries are willing to sell to Taiwan were mostly expensive junk?  Otherwise, how would they be allowed to sell (remember the evil China? If they are really cutting edge realiable weaponry, surely China will put a lot of pressure to deter any sale actually going through)?  This all changed after Ma became the President. Ma still wanted to buy the same pile of military junk, but now there was no risk of escalating the tension – China at least needed to pretend KMT was on its side. It couldn’t be seen that she had no support/friend in Taiwan, could she? The opposition DPP wouldn’t support the anti-arms purchasing movement – that would be stupid, wouldn’t it? How would Taiwan have any military leverage to declare ‘independence’. Never mind defending the new Republic of Taiwan with just the existing out-dated weapons? The only things that stopped Ma from going on a spending spree was the bad state of economy after the global financial crisis and his dream of making historic legacy on the cross-strait diplomatic relations.

With Miss Tsai’s presidential victory, the situation has changed again. The economy is getting worse; the risk of escalating tension is high in the midst of China’s negative stance towards DPP and its recent projection of power around East and South China Seas; it is likely the next US president will be more hawkish towards China than Obama; social issues such as inequality and low income won’t go away anytime soon; climate change is getting worse and its potential to create social dissatisfaction is rising. There is a real likelihood that the anti-arms purchasing movement can kick start again.