Walls of Water

By Asa Zuberman-Leibman

Before getting into this article, I wanted to briefly highlight a conference in which I recently took part at Brown University in Providence, RI. Strait Talk is a symposium that brings together students from the PRC, Taiwan, and the U.S. for a weeklong Interactive Conflict Resolution (ICR) session that seeks to establish a consensus document, essentially a resolution in which all 14 delegates agree on solutions to the multifaceted cross-Strait issues. The purpose of the symposium, and by extension, this article, is to promote cross-Strait dialogue and a better understanding not only of the issues surrounding China, Taiwan, and the U.S., but to also underline the important effects these issues have on the entire global community.

Since 1949, Taiwan and Mainland China have endured tenuous relations to say the least. When the Kuomintang fled to the island of Taiwan and established a government under the Republic of China, the primary objective in the years and decades ahead would be, without question, the reclamation of the Mainland. On the other side, for Mao and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the “liberation” of Taiwan was second only to social revolution. Today, while tensions have largely improved to the extent that Taiwan’s largest trading partner is China and business across the Strait is booming, cross-Strait issues certainly persist. Never before has a waterway embodied such pronounced cultural and political differences.

Taiwanese identity is a funny thing, really. Ask 100 Taiwanese citizens 10 years ago how they view themselves culturally, and you’re bound to get a dozen different answers. Now, there are 3 de facto answers: Taiwanese, Chinese, and Taiwanese with Chinese cultural qualities. Increasingly, younger generations of Taiwanese residents identify with the former, which lead to important status questions. Fifty, even twenty years ago, the majority of Taiwanese had either emigrated from the Mainland or had parents or other direct family members who recently fled the PRC. But today, the cultural connections between the island and the Mainland are dividing the two sides greater than the waterway separating the two.

Looking at the most recent election in Taiwan as a measure of both support for and opposition to China, the results especially in Taipei City paint a clear picture of Taiwanese citizens’ preferences for their country’s future relationship with China. In the mayoral election in the capital, the DPP-backed independent candidate Ko Wen-je defeated President Ma Ying-jeou’s former vice mayor, the KMT-backed Sean Lien. (In Taiwanese politics, the Kuomintang [KMT] was the original political party that battled the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] during the Chinese Civil War. After they lost the war in 1949, they fled to Taiwan to rule the Republic of China. In the 1980s, after decades of single party authoritarian rule by the KMT, Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of the long-time KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek, allowed for the Democratic Progressive Party [DPP] to become a formally recognized political party and thus to run candidates in national and local elections. However, the KMT have won most of the Presidential elections since the founding of the DPP).

But why was the Taipei City mayoral election generating so much buzz both in Taiwan and Beijing? Since Taipei has historically been a KMT stronghold and a key decider of Presidential elections, the loss could mean an even greater defeat in 2016 for the KMT and their Presidential hopes. A DPP win in 2016 would certainly result in a colder relationship across the Strait. The DPP has recently been mulling over whether they would “freeze” the independence clause in their charter for the new elections.

No matter the outcome, the DPP has been historically linked to independence for the island, regardless of the economic situation with the PRC. Recently, though, thanks to the increasingly threatening economic dependence Taiwan maintains with the Mainland, along with multiple economic framework agreements the younger generations in Taiwan have become unhappy with Ma’s KMT administration. Instead, as those who see themselves primarily as ‘Taiwanese’ and certainly not ‘Chinese,’ young Taiwanese want a more independence-focused government in place (read: Sunflower Movement). Therefore, the election in two years will precipitate an incredibly formative period in Taiwan’s history.

Politically, Taiwan and the PRC have clear divisions in their systems of governance. For the island, they have had a “democratic” system since 1949, and the PRC has maintained a ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ method of government since the same time (I place ‘democratic’ in quotations because it was only until the 1980s that the KMT allowed a second, legitimate political party to support candidates in elections). This major political difference has kept the two sides from any meaningful talks of reconciliation, as both the ROC and PRC will only accept the other under their particular system of government.

All of these cultural, political, and even economic differences have pushed Taiwan and the Mainland further from each other than they already were. Should the DPP candidate win in 2016, there is no telling what pro-independence course of action the President may take. One thing now is a guarantee, though: cross-Strait relations are not improving, but instead, because of this new “culturally-disconnected generation,” they are worsening.

For readers of TDI and people interested in and concerned about Taiwan-China affairs, it is important for us to continue this discussion online, in our own communities, and with other interested parties, as the cross-Strait issue is here to stay. It will certainly continue to affect all three sides for decades to come.

Image Source: Dulong (dulong.com)

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