While the primary focus in international media revolves around each candidate’s stance on China, the policy proposals of the three contenders exhibit minimal differences. All candidates refrain from endorsing Beijing’s reunification efforts but also avoid advocating for Taiwan’s independence, acknowledging the delicate balance required to maintain regional stability amid US-China tensions. Notably, all three candidates advocate for an increase in Taiwan’s military budget to bolster defence against potential Chinese aggression. Ko Wen-je from TPP even went on record stating that the Taiwan defence budget should be increased to 3% of GDP, which is higher than the 2.5% requested by the current DPP government in its 2024 budget proposal.
Eight years of DPP governance
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) strategically leveraged the evolving desire for political independence from China and the escalating demand for democratic reforms within the Taiwanese masses to position themselves to achieve political dominance thus far. Riding on the momentum of various democratic grassroots movements, the DPP secured and retained power for two consecutive terms, ultimately defeating the Kuomintang (KMT). However, despite these early successes, the DPP’s popularity has waned over the past eight years, marked by a significant decline in Taiwan’s economy and increase in security risks.
President Tsai’s decision to step down from her leadership position within the party came in the aftermath of the DPP’s disappointing showing in the 2022 local elections, where the opposition KMT secured 14 mayoral or magisterial seats, while the DPP managed only 5.
President Tsai faced considerable criticism for the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, characterised by prolonged adherence to restrictive policies and ill-fated attempts to produce domestic vaccines without the necessary expertise and infrastructure. The vaccine produced by Medigen Bionics has since been discontinued, and the company faces allegations of insider trading and financial statement fraud.
Despite campaigning on promises of progressive economic policies, the DPP, under President Tsai, failed to depart significantly from the economic trajectory set by the preceding KMT administration. Stagnating wages, growing inequality, the erosion of high-tech and domestic industries, and a decline in exports have contributed to Taiwan’s economic challenges. The nation recorded its worst economic contraction since 2009 earlier this year, entering 2023 with a recession due to lacklustre economic growth.
The ruling government’s inability to improve living standards and address economic issues has provided the opposition KMT and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) with ammunition to challenge the DPP in local and upcoming presidential elections. Recent polls indicate a decline in electoral support for the DPP compared to their previous elections, putting their incumbency at risk.
The Influence of Hong Kong Events on Taiwanese Politics
Indeed, the Tsai administration and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) faced challenging times in the polls leading up to the previous Presidential Election held in 2019. However, their eventual success in the election was largely attributed to the unfolding events in Hong Kong during the same year. This period witnessed the largest series of demonstrations in the history of Hong Kong, which were brutally suppressed by China and the local puppet government. China’s response included deploying a significant number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops to Hong Kong.
The turning point came in May 2020 when the Chinese legislative body, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC), unilaterally tasked itself with drafting a national security law for Hong Kong, bypassing the need for approval from local legislators. This move was widely interpreted as China effectively dismantling the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, originally designed to ensure limited autonomy for Hong Kong under the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.
The brutal suppression of Hong Kong demonstrators, labelled as ‘separatist rioters,’ and the subsequent actions of the Chinese state apparatus, raised alarms among the Taiwanese population. The cautionary sentiment echoed the fears expressed by the Taiwan pro-independence Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014. The events in 2019 served to validate these concerns, leading to the default choice of Tsai and the DPP, perceived as advocates for Taiwan’s independence from China.
Looking ahead, the upcoming 2024 Presidential elections will likely be framed, in part, as a referendum on the Taiwan-China relationship. The pro-independence stance of the DPP still holds an advantage over the Kuomintang (KMT) which is historically labelled as having a friendly relationship with China. Additionally, the third candidacy of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) is expected to influence the electoral landscape by dividing the opposition vote, potentially tilting the balance slightly in favour of the DPP.
Caution Amidst Global Dynamics
Simultaneously, the Taiwanese populace exercises caution, cognizant of the potential dangers associated with heightening tensions between Taiwan and China, particularly as Taiwan navigates its diplomatic relations with the United States. Recent high-profile visits, such as Nancy Pelosi’s visit last year—the first by a top U.S. official in 25 years—received heavy condemnation from China. The accompanying week-long live-fire military exercise in the Taiwan straits disrupted civil aviation and commercial shipping in the region. Similarly, President Tsai’s meeting with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in 2023 drew similar aggression and warnings from China.
Confronting heightened hostility from the United States in recent years, Beijing has markedly intensified its military activities and incursions into the traditionally recognized territorial boundaries surrounding Taiwan. In 2017, the recorded entry of naval vessels into Taiwanese borders stood at a mere two; however, by 2020, this figure had surged dramatically to almost 4,000. This robust display of military prowess not only instils anxiety and apprehension about a potential Chinese invasion of the island but also depletes Taiwan’s vital resources.
The escalating military manoeuvres by Beijing have exacted a tangible toll on Taiwan’s defence expenditures. In the year 2020 alone, Taiwan spent nearly 900 million USD to respond to Chinese incursions, reflecting the substantial financial burden imposed on the island due to the sustained pressure on its borders.
Citing these statistics, opposition parties seek to persuade the population that the leadership of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is steering the Taiwanese masses toward economic chaos and threat of war.
Economic Interdependence and the ‘Microchip War’
Adding another layer of complexity is the Taiwanese economy’s high dependence on China and vice versa. Taiwan’s firms have historically grown by outsourcing labour-intensive processes in the chip-making industry to China. For instance, Fujian province, situated just across from Taiwan, has thrived due to Taiwanese capital investment and trade, making up a significant portion of Taiwan’s information and communications technology exports. The economic interdependence is evident in Taiwan’s trade surplus with China, which has been sustained for 19 years. Integrated circuits or chips amount to 62% of the island’s total export to China.However, the United States has officially declared a ‘microchip war’ and is actively seeking strategies to obstruct crucial chip supplies to China. This includes the relocation of some chip production facilities outside Taiwan, strategically distancing them from China. In December 2022, for example, the Taiwanese chip manufacturing giant TSMC announced that it will triple its investment to 40 billion USD in Arizona to build two chip fabrication plants by 2026. Similarly, the chip giant has also approved 3.8 billion USD for a production plant in Germany recently, with partial backing by local, EU and Dutch subsidies.
In the wake of the ‘microchip war,’ both the United States and China are channelling hundreds of billions into microchip production and research, fostering the growth of domestic companies, such as Intel in the US and SMIC in China. The inevitable consequence is that Taiwan stands at the risk of losing its prominent market share in global microchip production and this will have a significant impact on its local economy.
In recent years, the Kuomintang (KMT) has actively sought to redefine its image, distancing itself from perceived close ties with China and expanding its appeal beyond the party’s traditional base of mainland immigrants and their descendants. Notably, the current Presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, undertook a diplomatic mission to the United States, seeking clarification from American defence committees regarding their commitment to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression. In a nuanced approach, Hou Yu-ih has articulated the importance of maintaining open dialogues and negotiations with China to ensure regional peace.
Against the backdrop of escalating military tensions with China, which directly contributes to the mounting military budget pressure on Taiwan, Hou Yu-ih and the KMT’s advocacy for reestablishing diplomatic relations with China have led to a surge in their popularity in recent polls. However, this trend is counterbalanced by lingering public scepticism about KMT’s historical ties with China, posing a potential obstacle to Taiwan’s pursuit of full sovereignty.
Both the KMT and the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) vehemently deny any affiliations with China, pledging unwavering commitment to safeguarding Taiwan’s sovereignty. Nevertheless, TPP leader Ko Wen-je has strategically sidestepped extensive commentary on China-related issues, channelling his campaign focus towards critical economic concerns such as inflation, soaring property prices, including rents, and the stagnation of wages in Taiwan. This emphasis has resonated with the younger demographic, grappling with the challenges of sustaining a dignified livelihood amid low wages and a rising cost of living.
Yet, none of the Presidential candidates has managed to articulate a definitive roadmap addressing Taiwan’s pressing economic and security challenges. Each candidate asserts their capability to sustain the existing status quo in Taiwan’s relationship with China, averting any escalation to armed conflict and they concurrently pledge to fortify the island’s economy. However, these assurances remain devoid of concrete programmes or policy outlines, leaving the electorate without a clear choice in this election.
The way forwards for the Taiwanese masses
Unfortunately, none of the major political establishments in Taiwan can provide a steadfast commitment to either preserve the existing status quo or decisively steer towards independence. Equally, they lack the capacity to resolve Taiwan’s economic challenges or elevate the living standards of the ordinary workforce. Over time, mainstream political parties in Taiwan will inevitably yield to the influence of one of the two competing imperialist forces vying for dominance in the surrounding regions.
The way forward for the Taiwanese masses lies in organising the working class into a robust political entity capable of formulating and advocating for a coherent programme of liberation from the grasp of the Chinese capitalist state. Simultaneously, Taiwan requires leadership capable of resisting efforts from U.S. imperialists seeking to exploit the island as a pawn in their broader geopolitical ambitions.
A mass party rooted in the working class with progressive economic demands and programmes can offer leadership aligned with the aspirations of the masses, independent of influence from capitalist bosses or international forces. However, achieving this goal necessitates a well-defined plan to transition toward a socialist economic system. Such a shift not only challenges the prevailing dominance of capitalists in favour of the broader masses but also provides a viable path to navigate away from the looming threat of war in the region.
We advocate for the preservation of all democratic rights, including freedom of speech, press, the right to assembly, and decent working conditions. Our commitment extends to championing independent trade union rights and fostering a robust union presence across workplaces, encouraging workers to establish political committees within their spheres. We unequivocally call for an immediate halt to any measures punishing workers, such as detrimental changes to wages and conditions, to fund increased military expenditure.
The Sunflower Movement, orchestrated by the youth of Taiwan, stands as a potential wellspring of inspiration for future uprisings among the masses. Nevertheless, akin to Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, the Sunflower Movement encountered a limitation – the absence of a clear leadership with a robust political program and a focus on organising the working class. Had there been a formidable revolutionary organisation in Taiwan during that period, the momentum of the mass movement could have been channelled toward an organised path of struggle led by the working class, leveraging strike actions, and culminating in the establishment of a potent workers’ party
Our unwavering stance emphasises the importance of building a united struggle, reaching out to the masses grappling with challenges in Hong Kong and mainland China, urging collective action. We firmly believe that the future of Taiwan should be determined by its population, supporting the right to self-determination for Taiwan. This entails empowering Taiwanese workers, youth, and the less privileged to decide their government and shape their future.
To achieve such transformative power, we advocate for a mass party programme that resonates with the working class, coupled with an outreach strategy appealing to workers across the region. The key lies in building a movement that unites diverse communities and fosters a collective vision for a more just and equitable society.