The present year will be a momentous one for elections. Not only will South Africans be going to the polls, but so will around 2 billion other people in 50 countries, including those in heavyweight democracies like the United States and India. Today one of the first of these is underway in Taiwan. Most South Africans will at best be dimly aware of it – it certainly lacks the pizzazz and culture war appeal of the US vote later in the year, but the polls on this small island state of 23.4 million people may prove to be consequential for all of us.

Taiwan was one of the 20th century’s great democratic success stories. Its contemporary incarnation dates to the aftermath of the Second World War, the collapse of the Japanese Empire, and the handover of the island to the Republic of China (as the mainland Chinese state and allied co-belligerent was called at the point).

After 1949, Taiwan served as a redoubt for the defeated ROC government (Taiwan’s official designation remains the Republic of China), from which reconquest of the mainland would be organised. Until the late 1980s, it was a harshly repressive autocracy under the Kuomintang (the KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Party), a period remembered as the White Terror. 

But Taiwan had over this period undertaken a remarkable feat of economic transformation, from a successful land reform programme (much referred to in South Africa, though little understood), through light manufacturing such as textiles, into electronics and ultimately into high tech. ‘Made in Taiwan’ went from meaning cheap and shoddy, to cost-effective and reliable, and then to cutting edge. Taiwan became a highly educated, high-income, opportunity-driven society whose people demanded ever greater control over their lives. Its leaders, despite their origins, were modernisers, and recognised that repression was no longer a viable governing strategy. 

Beginning in the 1980s, civil liberties and political rights were expanded; in 1996, Taiwan’s first fully competitive presidential election was held, with technocrat and reformer Lee Teng-hui of the KMT, ‘Mr Democracy’, as the winner. Four years later in 2000, Taiwan passed another democratic milestone, when the candidate for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Chen Shui-bien, was elected, transferring power and ending decades of KMT rule.

In the intervening years, power in Taiwan has shifted between the DPP and KMT. In that sense, Taiwan is further along the path of democratic consolidation than South Africa. Taiwan is a free society, its democracy rambunctious but vibrant.

For outsiders, though, this is overshadowed by the unresolved geopolitical issue surrounding it: Taiwan’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China. Historically, at least into the 1990s, the relationship could be described as birth partners disputing claims to the inheritance – each claimed to be the sole, legitimate government of all China. This was codified in the so-called 1992 Consensus, in which – after tentative and not-quite-official outreach to each other – the two sides agreed on an undefined ‘One China’ principle. A statement from Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council put it thus: ‘Both sides of the Taiwan Strait agree that there is only one China. However, the two sides of the Strait have different opinions as to the meaning of “one China”’. The 1992 Consensus actually never really existed; it was the creation of the head of the Mainland  Affairs Council, Su Chi, who wanted an expression to facilitate interaction between the two sides. This would replace the less specific formulation ‘each side with its own interpretation’  that was in use in the 1990s. Lee Teng-hui, President during the 1990s, explicitly denied its existence. The phrase dated from 2000, and critics maintained that it was intended to constrain the China-sceptical DPP, which took power that year.

But the ground in Taiwan was shifting. Not only had the economic revolution in Taiwan made autocracy unworkable, but it was also opening up scope for debates about Taiwan’s identity. The KMT had seen Taiwan as indelibly Chinese and has sought to enforce this – to the extent that schoolchildren were punished for speaking Taiwanese Hokkien, the mother tongue of most of the population. Now, Taiwanese distinctiveness asserted itself. Hokkien was enthusiastically embraced in public. The historical connection to Japan – a sore point for the KMT – began to be acknowledged and even celebrated. The White Terror was discussed. And a generational shift meant that even those families who could trace their Chinese origins back to the KMT’s landfall in the 1940s were now linked to the mainland only by their grandparents and great-grandparents. 

Taiwan, in other words, was increasingly its own country, with its own culture that often looked towards Tokyo or California rather than Beijing for inspiration, and with many successes to celebrate. Its citizens enjoy a full suite of civil rights (administrative failings aside), there is an aggressively free media, and Taiwan was the first country in Asia to recognise same-sex marriage. Taiwan has even become a destination for foreign workers, doing everything from cleaning homes to managing financial flows.

This shows in polling. Data from the Election Study Center at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University demonstrates how self-perceptions of Taiwan’s identity have shifted. In 1992, close to half of Taiwanese (45.4%) viewed themselves as both Chinese and Taiwanese; a quarter (25.5%) saw themselves as Chinese; and fewer than one in five (17.6%) purely as Taiwanese. In 2023, close to two thirds (62.8%) saw themselves as Taiwanese. The proportion identifying as both Chinese and Taiwanese had fallen to 30.5%, and those seeing themselves as Chinese had collapsed to 2.5% – the latter figure being lower even than for those declining to provide a response.

For outsiders, this is probably the key trend. Taiwanese public opinion is increasingly oriented towards a future apart from China; and for China this represents an unacceptable and existential challenge. China, particularly under the leadership of Xi Jinping, has sought to position itself as the pre-eminent global power, a role for which history itself has ordained China (the Chinese term, Zhōngguó, 中國, signifies the ‘Middle Kingdom’, the centre point of the world). Part of this – the ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ ̶ ̶   involves bringing Taiwan under Chinese control.

This is more than a matter of national pride. Taiwan is situated in a chain of territories, from South Korea in the north to the Philippines in the south. Broadly aligned to the United States, they form a barrier to Chinese naval power projection into the Pacific. ‘Unification’ on China’s terms would stand to change the balance of power in the region and beyond.

On Taiwan, meanwhile, the attraction of unification has declined not only as a result of a growth of a Taiwanese consciousness but because of China’s growing authoritarian assertiveness. At one time, the lure of being part of a China’s stratospheric growth was powerful. But bullying during emergencies – preventing World Health Organization support during the 2003 SARS pandemic, or the more recent COVID outbreak (Taiwanese observers were among the first to recognise that something was afoot) – contributed to alienating Taiwanese sentiment. So too has the threat of force from China, both in rhetoric and in incursions by Chinese aircraft into Taiwanese airspace. 

China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong (a jurisdiction in which many Taiwanese have personal and professional contacts) had a particularly profound effect on Taiwanese opinion. As they unfolded, the Election Study Center showed a sharp uptick in support for independence and a sharp drop in support for unification. Hong Kong was a test case for China’s offer,  ‘One Country two Systems’, and it was exposed as a fraud. Taiwan’s incumbent President, Tsai Ing-wen, took a strong position in favour of the protestors and promised that Taiwan would not succumb to the Chinese model. Around the same time Tsai denied the validity of the 1992 Consensus, as being an expression of the ‘One Country Two Systems’ approach. 

Latterly, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has emphasised that war is neither a relic of the past, nor confined to obscure countries about which most people know little and understand less, but that it may still be the reality of prosperous, developed societies. The sense of unease could not have been helped by the close relationship between China and Russia. Civil defence and weapons training have grown rapidly across Taiwan, and military service extended from four months to a year. Defence acquisitions are being accelerated.

Chinese pressure and the lure of its markets have isolated Taiwan politically, and today it has formal relations with only 13 countries. But it’s an odd ostracism, since Taiwan retains a significant presence around the world: official links in all but name. Japan, for example, regards Taiwan’s security as intrinsically linked with its own. President Biden has been clear that the US has an obligation to come to Taiwan’s aid in the event of war. The Covid pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and Chinese diplomatic heavy-handedness and bellicosity (not only towards Taiwan), have served in places like the Czech Republic to generate a level of sympathy with Taiwan that would probably not otherwise exist. Equally important is Taiwan’s world-leading semiconductor industry. This is the internal combustion engine of the digital age, and in a polarised world, an asset that the world’s democracies would be loath to cede to their authoritarian opponents.

So, Taiwan votes at an interesting and hazardous juncture in its and the world’s history. In some ways, it is less isolated than it has been for a long time. It has the motivation to hold its ground and good reasons to feel emboldened. On the other hand, it faces a resolute opponent for which not only the possible outcome of the election may be a provocation, but the entire (inconvenient) democratic process itself.

Surprisingly for outside observers, geopolitics is unlikely to be the key driver in the election. Rather, Taiwanese voters are far more concerned about the material concerns that tend to dominate elections around prosperous and aspirational electorates, particularly in volatile times. Concerns about cost of living and income stand out as more immediate concerns. Polling conducted by Taiwan’s Election and Democratization Study found the largest single concern for a future president was economic issues, with 34.2% citing it. Some 18.1% cited cross-Strait relations, and a further cumulative 30.8% listed education policy, judicial reform and pension reform. The rise of a third party, the Taiwan People’s Party (attempting to break the DPP and KMT dominance of the system), is widely seen as an expression of people’s day-to-day frustrations. In this, Taiwan mirrors many other countries where insurgent or outsider formations attempt to disrupt long-standing political arrangements. The China factor, in other words, looms, but not decisively.

Most Taiwanese – around six out of ten – tend to favour either maintaining the status quo or deferring ‘resolution’ of the issue. Let life carry on imperfectly but predictably. But among those favouring either formal independence or unification, the balance has been shifting steadily towards the former. Taiwan’s younger generation leans towards independence, and there is no apparent prospect of this reversing itself. Whether the more conciliatory (towards China) KMT or TPP or the more confrontational DPP takes charge will not alter this long-term trend.

And confronted by an autocracy that considers itself on the cusp of its hegemonic moment, in an unstable world, the risks for Taiwan, the region and the world at large are extensive.

Post script: The election was won by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with the president being Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)

[Photo: by Lisanto 李奕良 on Unsplash]

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.