Taiwan Presidential Election 2008: Choosing the Path Less Traveled?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 6

Taiwan’s voters will be going to the polls on March 22 to cast perhaps one of the nation’s most important votes since the nation first directly elected its president in 1996. This coming election will decide whether or not the process of Taiwan’s democratic consolidation will be strengthened, and it will also determine if Taiwan’s newfound national identity can be validated by the proposed UN referendum.

Voters will decide between Frank Hsieh of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Ma Ying-jeou of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), who are engaged in a seesaw race that has generally tilted in Ma’s favor, however, by varying margins between 10 percent (DPP’s internal polls) to 13 percent (Apple Daily) to more than 25 percent (China Times; United Daily News). In light of the significant differences found in major popular polls, which make it difficult to ascertain the salient political fissures for determining both why and how votes are cast on election day, a more qualitative look at the issues and platform of the candidates may offer a better idea of what has shaped the Taiwan’s 2008 presidential election.

Following the crushing electoral defeat of the DPP in the Legislative Yuan (LY) elections in early January, the KMT now controls 81 to the DPP’s 27 seats in the 113-seat legislature. Hsieh, a former premier and mayor of Kaohsiung, and Ma, who is the former mayor of Taipei, have recently appeared on two high-profile televised debates to test the other’s claim of why he should be the leader for Taiwan’s future. In a two-way campaign that has focused more on mudslinging than presenting their respective national policies, these recent debates provided a refreshing look at the two candidates. The debates help spell out to voters and concerned international observers where each candidate stands on national, international and cross-Strait issues, and ultimately the direction in which Taiwan will move if he is elected president of Taiwan.

In these debates, three mutually dependent variables emerged as the defining parameters of this year’s election: national identity, national security and national economic recovery. The central issue of the three remains national identity, the sine qua non of how cross-Strait relations have evolved in the past two decades, and a reason why Taiwan’s economy, employment and trade cannot be completely separated from cross-Strait relations in Taiwan’s domestic political debates.

The two candidates, as expected, disagreed on their policies toward China and national security. Although some observers argue that the central issue of this campaign is about the domestic economy, the candidates’ platforms on economic development, industrial growth, employment and even higher education reveal that their respective remedial policies are all directly or indirectly related to their proposed resolution to the present cross-Strait imbroglio.

Taiwan’s Shifts in Cross-Strait Relations: 1996-2008

In the past decade under two different administrations—former presidents Lee Teng-hui (1996-2000) and Chen Shui-bian (2000-2008)—there were two major policy shifts in Taiwan’s relations with mainland China. After Lee Teng-hui became the first directly-elected president of Taiwan in 1996, he tactfully co-opted the strength of the opposition movement and used his democratically legitimated power to overcome conservative resistance within his own party to overhaul the long-standing and oft-stated KMT objective of “national reunification with mainland China” to “special state-to-state relations” (1998). Even Lien Chan, the former chairman of the KMT (2000-2006), had to openly declare that Taiwan is a sovereign nation and that it is up to the Taiwanese people to determine the future of Taiwan during his 2000 bid as the KMT candidate for president—an unprecedented acknowledgement made by the figure widely seen as the leader of the KMT’s old guard.

In 2003, the DPP government under Chen Shui-Bian declared that relations between Taiwan and the PRC should be defined as “separate nations on each side of the Strait,” taking Lee’s “special state-to-state relations” another step toward fully normalizing relations between Taiwan and the PRC. These policy shifts are not only the manifestation of Lee Teng-Hui and Chen Shui-Bian’s political conviction, but a direct reflection of an undercurrent in Taiwan’s society: the surging momentum of a Taiwanese national identity that began in the 1990s.

Since 2004, a visible rift emerged between the new ruling DPP administration and the new KMT opposition on their respective China policies. The KMT began criticizing the DPP for being too reckless to maintain peaceful cross-Strait relations; at the same time, Lee Teng-Hui’s pro-autonomy—if not pro-independence—position was drastically denounced by KMT’s newly-consolidated power center under Lien Chan. Nevertheless, KMT did not formulate or promote a radically different China strategy between 2000 and 2004, which is because Lien Chan hoped to vie for the presidency of Taiwan, and in planning, did not wish to be seen as being too pro-China. Doing so would have been too politically risky, especially when weighed against the rising wave of Taiwanese national identity. After being defeated again in 2004, however, Lien Chan and the KMT took a wholesale anti-DPP policy by openly advocating a pro-China and more reconciliatory position, starting off by initiating several landmark visits by KMT high officials to China. The most significant representation of this shift is Lien Chan’s official visit to China in late April 2005. The meeting in the Great Hall of the People between Lien Chan and Hu Jintao marked the emerging political alliance of the KMT and the CCP—two historical archenemies—to boycott the DPP’s agenda. Lien himself even confessed that his visit aimed to seek the third KMT-CCP cooperation to contain Taiwan independence [1]. Since 2005 to the present, Taiwan-China relations entered an unprecedented era where the DPP, KMT and CCP are contesting one another in a very open, politicized, complicated and sensitive manner for the vote of the Taiwanese people.

DPP’s Frank Hsieh vs. KMT’s Ma Ying-Jeou: Commonality amid Differences?

National Identity

Hsieh’s conceptualization of Taiwanese national identity is intimately linked with Taiwan statehood. To Hsieh and the DPP, Taiwan is a sovereign state with all qualifications fulfilled to be an independent nation, although it is officially recognized as the Republic of China. In this interpretation, the civil war between the ROC and the CCP has long ceased. To a large extent, the ROC has already been “Taiwanized”: Taiwan is the ROC and the ROC is Taiwan. Possessing a ROC nationality is equitable to what it means to have Taiwanese identity. In essence, to have Taiwanese identity means that you believe that Taiwan’s future can only be determined by the 23 million citizens of Taiwan, that Taiwan and China do not belong to each other nor do they represent each other. To Hsieh, he claims that he will be flexible in negotiating with the PRC on the future relations between Taiwan and China. Hsieh also publicly endorses both the DPP and KMT referendums of “Taiwan enters UN” and “ROC returns UN,” respectively, so long as the Taiwanese people can be properly represented in the UN [2].

To Ma, the issue of Taiwan’s “national” identity is more complicated and still burdened by the legacy of the Chinese civil war between the KMT and the CCP. In Ma’s mind, only the Republic of China is sovereign—not Taiwan. At the beginning of Ma’s campaign, he claimed that Taiwan is ROC, but when he was questioned by the conservative KMT old guard he quickly qualified his statement by saying that ROC is not (just) Taiwan. Ma not only separates Taiwan from ROC, but also distinguishes CCP’s PRC from China. He wants to negotiate with China on the basis of the so-called “1992 consensus” and on the condition of what he coined as “mutual non-denial” [3]. When facing DPP’s challenges that he is too pro-China and not pro-Taiwan enough, Ma then hastens to state that in his term as president, he will not engage in “unification talk” with the PRC [4].

National Security

The two candidates’ position on national security is also linked to how they define Taiwan’s national identity. Hsieh advocates defending Taiwan’s national sovereignty and independence without reservation, and he singles out China as the greatest national security threat with more than 1,300 missiles targeted at Taiwan (Taipei Times, January 25). Hsieh argues that given China’s military modernization, in order for Taiwan to maintain the balance of power along the Taiwan Strait, Taiwan needs to purchase and maintain an adequate defense budget at least 3 percent of the GDP. He also openly supports the “U.S.-Japan Security Pact” as the harbinger of peace and stability for the Asia-Pacific region.

Hsieh presents himself to be a cautious moderate who will keep the balance between national security and international support. He is eager to develop better relations with the United States and consolidate Taiwan’s cooperation with Japan, while making an effort to establish a framework for promoting stability with China [5]. He advocates what he calls a “symbiotic vision for Cross-Strait relations” for maintaining Taiwan’s security, which is hinged on two requisite consensuses between Taiwan and China: one, the consensus of “no immediate pressing need to solve the differences across the Strait,” and two, the consensus of “democratic procedure to reach a possible resolution” [6].

Ma’s treatise of national security and national identity has been criticized for lacking clarity and substance, which has a lot to do with Ma’s ambiguous definition of Taiwan’s national identity. He wishes to “please everyone” with the inclusion of conflicting definitions of Taiwan statehood from the KMT, DPP and even CCP, yet in the end he risks pleasing no one. Ma maintains that a “responsible” national security for Taiwan should do more than safeguard Taiwan’s national security: it should secure cross-Strait peace, regional stability and a prosperous domestic situation [7]. Ma outlined his euphonious SMART strategy for national security in a recent public speech on February 26 before the Association for Promotion of National Security. In this strategy, Ma identified four pillars for Taiwan’s national security: one, soft power of economic globalization; two, military deterrence with defensive capability; three, assuring the status quo by means of “Three No’s Policy,” i.e., no negotiation of unification with the Mainland, no pursuit of de jure independence, and no cross-Strait use of military force, along with acceptance of the “1992 Consensus,” i.e., One China, different interpretations; and four, restoring mutual trust and military cooperation with the United States, mending relations with ASEAN, Japan and Korea, and being a “peace-maker” member of the international community.

Economic Link with China

Both Hsieh and Ma share the view that Taiwan’s future economic development depends on further economic globalization of Taiwan’s industry. Their approach, however, differs. Ma argues that an open wholesale China connection is the single most important remedy and to develop a Cross-Strait Common Market is Taiwan’s lifeline to remain competitive globally. Hsieh is more concerned with the increasing pressure on Taiwan’s economy resulting from China’s rise; therefore, he maintains that a gradual relaxation and opening of economic links with China is better suited to protect Taiwan’s interests and hedge against job loss, soaring real estate prices, and the depletion of competitiveness of agricultural and manufacturing products once capital, labor and goods from China are completely free to enter Taiwan’s market.

Ma advocates immediate direct air links between Taiwan and China starting with weekend-chartered flights, and then expanding the “little three links” through which all Taiwanese can travel to China, and then followed by regular cross-Strait direct flights within a year. He states that he will open Taiwan’s market for Chinese capital to freely invest in the real estate market, open Taiwan’s borders to cheap labor, professional medical caretakers and agricultural commodities, allow Chinese tourists into Taiwan and even accept Chinese universities’ diploma as adequate qualifications of higher education in Taiwan. All the above campaign promises, however, were not accompanied by any regulatory solutions, which make Ma an easy target of criticism from Hsieh’s camp. Hsieh points out that the possible negative consequences of Ma’s “One China Market model” could include: Taiwanese working class job loss, a decrease in Taiwan’s medical service quality, a detrimental impact on Taiwan’s higher education market with increasing teacher unemployment, complicating civil servant examination with China’s diploma, a threat to future governmental officials’ political loyalty, and a danger to Taiwanese consumers’ health and safety by all dangerous goods “made in China.” After having been challenged, Ma corrects his wholesale One China Market model by proposing another “Three No’s” to his China economic connection remedy: no Chinese agricultural products, no Chinese labor, and no “black-hearted” consumer goods into Taiwan [8].

Hsieh, on the other hand, opts for relaxing the cap on Taiwan’s business investment into China; expanding selected cross-Strait charter flights; gradually opening Taiwan to Chinese tourists; and permitting Chinese investment in Taiwan’s office building market, but prohibiting such investments in Taiwan’s residential housing market. After Hsieh camp’s challenged Ma’s Common Market model, concerns were quickly raised among the different classes whose interests may suffer from the unregulated import of Chinese professionals, workers and agricultural products. There were criticisms and protests from middle class professional associations and worries voiced from workers and farmers after the second presidential debates and the first vice presidential debate (Liberty Times, March 8; March 12).

Choosing Different Future Relations with China?

One can see that the coming presidential election for Taiwan is more than just a choice between two candidates’ policies toward Taiwan’s future relations with China, but also for a better administration to govern Taiwan’s democratic consolidation. DPP’s Frank Hsieh and KMT’s Ma Ying-Jeou clearly have proposed two different choices for Taiwan’s future. Will Frank Hsieh’s gradated approach to dealing with China—a function of a firmly defined national identity—be more palatable with Taiwan’s voters? Or will Ma’s embrace of China’s economic rise—while attempting to separate the politics with ambiguity over Taiwan’s national identity—be a better option for Taiwan’s voters? The evening of March 22 will disclose the people’s choice.


1. Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao and Jiann-Fa Yan, “Taiwan’s New National Identity, Domestic Politics, and Cross-Strait Relations,” in Reflections on the Triangular Relations of Beijing-Taipei-Washington since 1995: Status Quo at the Taiwan Strait? Edited by Shiping Hua, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006:145-148.

2. Frank Hsieh, Viva Taiwan: Frank Hsieh’s Commitment to Taiwan’s Renewal, 2008, pp.144-147.

3. The KMT has been ambivalent and ambiguous toward the “one China” principle, under its policy of “one China, different interpretations.” The policy is often referred to as the “92 consensus,” which was coined by the KMT after it lost power in 2000, by which the KMT still claims that “one China” is KMT’s Republic of China rather than CCP’s People’s Republic of China. In other words, the KMT has implicitly accepted “one China,” but in its own interpretation and without officially agreeing to China’s definition. Explicitly, the KMT has intended to avoid the issue of the sovereignty of Taiwan.

4. Ma Ying-jeou’s presidential campaign website, https://www.ma19.net/issue/4823; https://www.ma19.net/issue/1980.

5. Frank Hsieh, Viva Taiwan: Frank Hsieh’s Commitment to Taiwan’s Renewal, 2008, pp.138-140.

6. Ibid., pp. 160-162.

7. Ma Ying-jeou, “A SMART Strategy for National Security,” speech delivered before the Association for the Promotion of National Security, February 26, 2008.

8. Ma Ying-jeou. Second campaign debate, March 7, 2008.