Charting Course for 2014 Elections, Taiwanese Opposition Debates China Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 18

DPP Chairman Su Tseng-Chang at the head of the CAC table

The leaders of Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have spent the summer in discussion and negotiation over the Party’s China policy, trying to establish a consensus on one of the central issues of Taiwanese politics. These negotiations, taking place in the party’s newly-revived China Affairs Committee (CAC), represent a significant shift in strategy for the party, which is trying to establish and bolster its foreign and cross-straits policy credentials. Until its defeat in the 2012 presidential elections, the DPP preferred to compete on domestic issues while hosting a "big tent" on cross-straits relations, with leaders espousing a wide range of approaches to the mainland. Party leaders believe that this approach cost them the election, and that in order to regain power the the DPP will need to present itself as a unified party capable of handling relations with the mainland and the United States with a firm hand.

In order to achieve this goal, the DPP will have to bridge substantial differences between its main factional leaders and potential candidates for the 2016 presidential election. . In order to forge consensus within the party and present a convincing China strategy for the 2014 and 2016 elections, the DPP has charged the CAC with reformulating the party’s China policy. So far, the committee has held two plenary meetings, on May 9 and July 11, and four expanded “Huashan” meetings out of a series of nine, on July 7, July 25, August 15, and August 29. It provides a medium through which party members can exchange ideas and deliberate, with the ultimate goal of reaching an agreement on the DPP’s position on China. In his opening statement, DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang stressed that “what we must do is to protect Taiwan’s core values, to develop the best benefits for Taiwan, and we must find the largest consensus for our future in the cross strait relationship” (“DPP holds first China Affairs Committee Meeting, announces complete list of members,” DPP web site, May 9).  The final point, the need for a uniform approach on China, has been an issue of much deliberation both within the party itself and in its relationship with Taiwanese voters.

The implications, however, extend beyond the sphere of domestic politics and cross-Strait relations. Though it is too early to tell what the CAC meetings will produce, the DPP’s revised China policy will be a critical variable in Taiwan’s 2016 presidential elections and have far-reaching implications not only for the future of Taiwan, but also for the United States.  Washington has praised Ma’s rapprochement efforts with the Mainland, viewed as a welcome change from former DPP President Chen Shui-bian’s more provocative actions, which had run the risk of drawing the United States into a cross-Strait conflict. If the CAC results in a China policy that is viewed as counterproductive to the current positive trajectory of cross-Strait relations, officials in Washington will be faced with the dilemma of either sending warnings to the DPP, or bearing the burden of a tense Taiwan Strait and having the Taiwan question reemerge as contentious issue in Sino-U.S. relations.

The 2012 Presidential Elections and Tsai’s “Taiwan Consensus”

Some in the DPP, including prominent members of its Central Standing Committee, believe that the party’s failure to secure the presidency in 2012 was due, at least in part, to candidate and then-party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen’s China policy, which failed to persuade voters that a DPP government could maintain stable cross-Strait relations. Tsai had pushed for a “Taiwan Consensus,” that aimed to reflect the opinions of a majority of the electorate and was based on “democratic process” (“Tsai Ing-wen’s Remarks at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI),” DPP web site September 13, 2011). President Ma Ying-jeou and his ruling Kuomintang Party (KMT) were quick to criticize the “Taiwan Consensus” as unclear and lacking substance, while at the same time arguing that Tsai’s rejection of the 1992 Consensus would cause “uncertainty” and prove detrimental to the “fragile” peace in the Taiwan Strait (Taipei Times, August 24, 2011).

However, Tsai’s strategy was to be deliberately ambiguous on China. She wanted to provide herself space for flexibility in conducting relations with Beijing, and so aimed to shift the focus of the election away from cross-Strait issues and toward more local concerns. Tsai’s intentions were in line with her party’s, which had chosen to omit mention of the 1992 Consensus from its August 2011 ten-year policy platform. She equivocated on the topic in discussions and speeches and only reiterated her party’s stance on the 1992 Consensus when asked directly. The DPP has long denied the existence of the 1992 Consensus, holding that the “consensus” is invalid because the terms were drawn up eight years after the 1992 meeting by KMT Legislator Su Chi, that no consensus was reached on the implications of the “One China” formula, and that the cross-Strait talks from which the consensus was supposedly born were between two political parties and failed to incorporate the popular views of the Taiwanese people. Instead, the DPP has sought to present an alternate policy, one that demonstrates the party’s capacity to manage cross-Strait relations in its own right. Yet, despite the seemingly softer approach to Beijing, voters remained wary of further crises. A post-election review conducted by the DPP found that the electorate lacked faith in Tsai’s China policy and held doubts about whether the cross-Strait economic growth of Ma’s administration could be sustained under a DPP administration (Taipei Times, February 16, 2012).

The China Policy Debate

Believing that the DPP’s ambiguous China policy led to its loss at the polls, newly-installed Party Chairman Su Tseng-Chang reinstated the party’s China Affairs Department in the summer of 2012 to guide the development of a clear China policy. The CAC’s meetings are likely to culminate with an announcement or statement of the party’s official position, as the DPP understands the need for a more definitive approach after Tsai’s ambiguous China policy failed to garner sufficient support from the electorate. Such a move would also help establish the party’s national security credentials for the 2014 elections (see also Michael Chase, “The Democratic Progressive Party’s Defense Policy Blue Papers and the Opposition’s Vision for Taiwan’s National Defense,” China Brief, August 23).

The CAC’s discussions are based on the DPP’s expressed core values—Taiwan as a sovereign state under the title the Republic of China (ROC), sovereignty as the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and the need for a democratic referendum before any change to the status quo is permitted—which were formulated at the party’s 1998 China Conference, outlined in the subsequent 1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future, and installed in the DPP’s platform in 2001. [1] However, the DPP seeks to build off these principles and develop a novel policy that is “adaptable and flexible,” yet compatible with Taiwan’s future interests, providing the public a viable alternative to the KMT’s China policy (Taipei Times, July 26, 2013). Members at all levels of the DPP, however, cannot agree about what this policy should be.

This became all the more apparent in November 2012 when the party began to organize for the CAC. Though disagreements occurred throughout the planning process, the most widely reported was one between two party founders and former Premiers, Yu Shyi-kun and Frank Hsieh. Yu articulates the view of the darker-green, more radical faction of the party, calling for the assertion of Taiwan as a sovereign country through a new Constitution. Hsieh, on the other hand, is focused on finessing the issue of the current ROC Constitution. He aims to utilize the Constitution as a foundation for cross-Strait dialogue, promulgating a “Two Sides, Two Constitutions” (xianfa gebiao) approach that calls for using the ROC Constitution as the basis for domestic consensus between the DPP and the KMT and for mutual recognition and regard for each side’s respective constitution as the foundation of Taiwan’s relationship with the PRC. [2] Hsieh talks about three requirements for a China policy, and describes his formulation as an effort to meet them.  The policy, he says, must appeal to the Taiwanese people, must be acceptable to the United States, and must be tolerable for Beijing. In regards to the mainland, he argues that the ROC Constitution was implemented in the Mainland for two years and thus cannot be separated from “One China.” By logical extension, officials in Beijing cannot accept “One China” and reject the ROC Constitution. Hsieh’s policy, though he is widely seen as the most open to working with the PRC within the party, is still rejected by officials in Beijing. In response, Hsieh has argued that if the mainland rejects the ROC Constitution, then Taiwan will need to draft a new constitution, for which Beijing will need to bear responsibility (Conversation of CSIS delegation to Taiwan with Frank Hsieh, August 2013).

Both Yu and Hsieh declined Su’s initial invitation for a seat on the CAC a month later. Hsieh said that he viewed the CAC as being a solely nominal establishment. However, this may have been sour grapes over losing the chance to serve as the committee’s head and guide the direction of the DPP’s China Policy: Su seems to have initially tapped Hsieh for the position but then took on the role for himself. Yu refused as a matter of principle, given his opposition to the committee and its purpose.

Though Yu eventually acquiesced, when the DPP formally announced the members of the CAC on May 1, Hsieh’s name was conspicuously missing. The eight members of the original committee were Yu Shyi-kun; Su Tseng-chang; Tsai Ing-wen; Ker Chien-ming, caucus whip in the Legislative Yuan; Chen Chu, mayor of Greater Kaohsiung; Lai Ching-teh, mayor of Greater Tainan; Chiou I-jen, former National Security Council Secretary General; and Wu Nai-jen, a former secretary-general of the DPP. Three days before the CAC official convened, Hsieh finally signed on, saying that “I have always advocated reconciliation and there is no one who I cannot work with” (Taipei Times, May 7, 2013).

Hsieh has established himself as one of his party’s most frequently influential cross-Strait policymakers. He has undertaken two groundbreaking trips to China, in October and in June, arguing that interactions with the Mainland should not be monopolized by the KMT. His visits arguably mark the highest level of exchanges between the DPP and the Chinese Communist Party.  Hsieh’s personal approach to the formulation of the DPP’s China Policy has been to “look from the grand perspective,” exploring all possible channels for dialogue and seeking suggestions and opinions from both sides of the Strait (South China Morning Post, July 3, 2013).   Hsieh appears to view dialogue, both within the party and between the party and Beijing, as more important than the specifics of his policy, using it as a tool to position himself as someone who can to talk to both his party’s ‘Deep Greens’ and to leaders on the mainland with the ultimate goal of forming a viable China policy. This is seen in his visits to the Mainland, which drew criticism from the pro-independence faction of the DPP, who viewed his trip and his “Two Sides, Two Constitutions” proposal as a blatant betrayal of party values.

The Chairman’s Role, the 2014 Elections, and Beyond

Caught in the middle of these debates is DPP Chairman Su Tseng-Chang, who has taken on a mediating role within his party in an effort to broker a single platform among the various factions.  The stakes are much higher for Su than they are for Hsieh or Yu, as Su needs to demonstrate his ability to serve as a capable chairman. He must also promote an image of party unity and consistency before the elections in 2014. These elections are critical for the party. For the first time in Taiwan’s history, the elections of seven local levels of government will be held concurrently in a “seven-in-one election” as a result of a 2008 amendment to the Local Government Law. The 2014 elections will also set the stage for the 2016 presidential race by allowing successful DPP candidates the opportunity to establish a record in office and restore public confidence in the party. Su has commenced a plan to “besiege the central government with local forces,” after a study revealed that the DPP lacked the support of key voting blocs in urban centers (The China Post, February 28, 2012).

In order to demonstrate commitment to Taiwanese business interests in the mainland, Su appointed Honigmann Hong, who has a strong economics background, to serve as head of the DPP’s Department of China Affairs, breaking from the norm of selecting a political figure. However, Su is also pushing to diversify Taiwan’s economic strategy, saying that “Taiwan’s economy needs globalization, not Sinicization” (Taipei Times, July 12, 2013). He expands this approach into the realm of politics and security, placing cross-Strait relations within the larger matrix of regional and international dynamics. This includes reassuring the United States that the DPP is a responsible actor, telling Washington that he is interested in “not what the U.S. can do for Taiwan, but…what Taiwan can do to earn U.S. support” (“A New Partnership for a New Age: Strengthening U.S.-Taiwan Relations” (speech, Washington, DC, June 13), transcript available on Brookings Institute web site). Su also supports an amended version of the “Taiwan Consensus,” one that remains entrenched in the views of the electorate and the 1999 Resolution, but allows for normalization with China through the formulation of a domestic consensus. He disagrees with Hsieh’s method of engaging China, viewing it as unnecessary competition with the KMT, but has been careful about criticizing his colleague—he defended Hsieh after the latter fell under criticism from party members for his trip to China. Su must strike a balance between divergent groups and opinions within his party in order to sustain an image of harmony.

The DPP is about halfway through its scheduled timeline for the CAC, with plans to hold two more plenary meetings and five additional expanded meetings. It is too early to tell what the final China policy will be, though it is likely that Chairman Su will push for a policy that is founded on an existing “Taiwan consensus.” The party maintains that there is already a consensus among the Taiwanese people that is grounded in their shared democratic values, respect for human rights, and largely free market economic system. The DPP may fine-tune the definition of “Taiwan consensus” even further and formulate a policy that remains entrenched in the party’s core values. The difference will be in the details and it remains to be seen whether the party will be able to balance between adhering to party principles and adopting a China policy that will be tolerated by Beijing. Though the latter is unlikely, given the wide gap between the interests of the DPP and Beijing, the final China policy should theoretically allow the party to speak on the issue in a unified voice, as it will be determined by consensus among party members.

Yet, the importance of a new China policy to DPP performance in upcoming elections has perhaps been exaggerated. Though the DPP’s China policy is still a major concern among the electorate, other factors come into play that may take precedence to the party’s relationship with Beijing.  So long as the DPP does not adopt a policy reminiscent of Chen Shui-bian’s aggressive pro-independence stance, issues perceived as more immediate and closer-to-home will weigh in the DPP’s advantage. With cross-Strait tensions at an all time low, domestic concerns, such as the construction and safety of Taiwan’s fourth nuclear power plant, debate over the pension system, and the outcry for military reform stemming from the recent hazing death of a young conscript, will have more sway in the elections, particularly in 2014. The DPP, however, should proceed with reserved optimism. Beijing’s low likelihood of accepting the party’s revised China policy points to two probable issues of concern. First, the KMT is likely to utilize China’s criticism of the policy as leverage in elections, drawing attention away from its domestic shortcomings to its cross-Strait achievements. Second, if the DPP does secure the presidency in 2016, the reemergence of cross-Strait tensions remain a possibility.


[1] The DPP has endorsed several contradictory China policies in the past, leaving considerable room for clarification.  During his time as party chairman, Hseih claimed that the more conciliatory 1999 Resolution superseded the Independence Clause of the party Charter,. This statement was never formalized in an official document and the more hardline pro-independence factions of the DPP do not accept this interpretation,  but it has been tacitly accepted as the standard. There remains considerable uncertainty and confusion on the party’s stance. Hsieh himself has noted disconnects in the DPP’s apparent acceptance of “One China” in its “1999 Resolution on Taiwan’s Future” and its call for a new constitution in its 2007 “Normal Country Resolution” and has asked for these contradictions to be addressed at the CAC. See “DPP makes minor revisions to stance on independence,” Taipei Times, October 21, 2001 and “Taiwan politicians quarrel over China affairs,” AsiaOne News, November 18, 2012.

[2] A more literal translation of Frank Hsieh’s proposal, xianfa gebiao, is “Two Constitutions, Different Interpretations,” but Frank Hsieh’s office maintains that his preferred translation is “Two Sides, Two Constitutions.”