Leif Nachman recently returned to the United States after living in Taipei for more than two years, where he was a Fulbright scholar and studied social movements and political parties in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Nachman, who also previously lived in Taiwan, is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In a conversation with Senior Brookings Institution Fellow and Chair of Chen Fu and Cecilia Yen Kou in Taiwan Studies, Ryan Haas, Nachman provides insights into the relationship between Taiwanese identity and support for Taiwan independence, factors motivating Taiwanese voters, and the prospects for Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election.
I have studied the movement of parachutes in Hong Kong and the movement of Taiwanese sunflowers. What do the results of these two social movements tell us about the political direction of developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan? And how – if any – do you see developments in Hong Kong affecting future political trends in Taiwan?
In 2014, both the sunflower and canopy movements mobilized fears of systemic changes that would give the People’s Republic of China [People’s Republic of China] Dangerous amounts of agency over their political systems. Both had lasting effects on each other’s political systems. Both were important precedents in the 2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition protests. The most visible impact of Hong Kong’s activism on Taiwan was recently during Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election. [President] Tsai Ing-wen made the Hong Kong protests a central frame of reference for her re-election campaign, and for every political party (even the KMT). [Kuomintang]Provide at least rhetorical support to the Hong Kong protesters.
With the introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, Hong Kong residents view Taiwan as their ideal choice for a new home, creating a new domestic political issue in Taiwan about how to address the large number of Hong Kong residents looking to permanently immigrate to Taiwan. . In the end, Hong Kong is the “canary in a coal mine” for the Taiwanese people. The worse Hong Kong’s system gets, the more Taiwanese are pushed out of the People’s Republic of China.
Taiwan will hold a series of referendums this year. Why have referendums become a popular governance mechanism in Taiwan? What social forces do you expect to influence the outcome of these referendums?
Referendums and recalls have become a popular political tool in Taiwan, though not necessarily in the most productive way. It began in 2017 when Taiwan pushed for changes to laws backed by “Pan-Green” parties, including both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the New Power Party. Their goal was to create a mechanism that would allow civil society to push politicians to pass a more progressive pro-Taiwan policy. The law significantly reduced the necessary signatures needed to put an issue to a vote by referendum.
But ironically, those who have benefited from such rule changes have largely been “blue nationalist” opposition forces such as the Kuomintang (KMT), who use referendums to attack or disrupt the DPP’s agenda. The details of this year’s referendums are particularly complex and fraught with the switch positions of the Croatian Democratic Party and the Kuomintang. For example, imports of ractopamine meat and construction of an energy pipeline on algal reefs were opposed by the KMT and supported by the DPP. But 10 years ago, the DPP was against the same policies and the KMT was in favor of them. The ractopamine vote is particularly risky because allowing imports of ractopamine-treated pork was considered necessary for Taiwan to start bilateral trade talks with the United States, so if passed, it would be a Bad outlook for future business talks.
What does public opinion polling data actually tell us about Taiwan’s preferences in managing cross-strait relations and about evolving views of Taiwanese identity?
There is reliable survey data showing that the number of Taiwanese who identify as exclusively Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, is increasing, while the number of people who identify as exclusively Chinese, rather than Taiwanese, is still small. But this does not translate into an increase in the number of Taiwanese voters in favor of immediate independence at the same rate.
one longitudinal study It shows at National Chengqi University that the vast majority of Taiwanese support some version of the status quo, not immediate independence. A “status quo” such as independence or consolidation is of course a spectrum – for example, one could be status quo and independence later, or status quo and consolidation later. At least this tells us that Taiwanese voters are more pragmatic than we usually assume given the growing number of “Taiwanese-only” IDs. Taiwanese live in a context in which any path to immediate independence is likely to lead to a deadly conflict with the People’s Republic of China, so pressure for formal independence is unlikely any time soon – precisely because Taiwanese voters value living in a status quo free of conflict. .
Looking at the presidential election in 2024, what issues do you expect will drive the political debate? Do you have any expectations about politicians who might be in a better position to speak up at the moment?
We know from extensive political science research that the dominant political factor in every Taiwanese election is China. All other issues are minor or filtered through the lens of the China factor. It’s no secret that the DPP’s top two contenders are current Vice President William Lai and Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wensan. From the KMT, Hou You-yi is in a strong position as mayor of New Taipei, but given the KMT’s current internal struggle for the next party chair, we are still one year away from figuring out who the most likely candidate will be. We also have the unknown variants of Taipei Mayor Koo Win Ji and businessman Terry Gu, who may run again in 2024.
Richard Bush And Maggie Lewis To each write and speak about Taiwan’s need to nurture and enhance its vitality, including by forging a political consensus to address internal challenges such as job creation, energy, etc. How optimistic are you that Taiwan’s leaders will be able to overcome party divisions to tackle these internal challenges?
This remains the biggest challenge for a disputed country like Taiwan whose political spectrum is defined by its relationship with China – how to mobilize voters and politicians to take action on crucial political issues that may not win their votes or matter to them during election times. It is difficult to persuade the KMT and the PDP to work together (as is the case with most dominant bipartisan political systems) but increasingly on contemporary social issues unrelated to the PRC.
One recent example is the treatment of migrant workers from Southeast Asia during the coronavirus outbreak, who were prevented from leaving their factory dormitories. Some DPP politicians spoke out against such treatment, but in the end little was done to reform any of the repressive rules governing migrant workers from Southeast Asia. There is little incentive to do so – only politicians who recognize the moral obligation to improve the livelihoods of Taiwan’s growing workforce will push for policy change.
Until China becomes less important to Taiwan’s domestic politics, which unfortunately won’t happen anytime soon, I find it hard to see voters demanding significant social reform on these kinds of issues.
This does not mean that Taiwanese do not care about social reform. But when it comes to national elections, voters are voting on China, not local performance.