Publication: China Brief Volume: 1 Issue: 3

By John Tkacik

Earlier this year, it was suggested that Taiwan’s political leaders could never declare “independence” because their supporters are too dependent on their US$50 billion (some say US$100 billion) investments in manufacturing operations in China. On the other hand, Taiwan’s ever-sharpening ethnic politics makes it equally unlikely that Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian can move toward Beijing’s “one country, two systems” demand. This is because those favoring “unification” are Taiwan’s “Mainlander” minority while those favoring “independence” are the native Hok-lo Taiwanese majority, and the Taiwanese simply will not stand for it. Complicating the equation, however, is a new alignment of the native-Taiwanese Hakka community and Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples with the mainlanders, yielding about a 65-percent majority against unification to about 35 percent who could probably support some sort of connection with China.

Taiwanese politics are ethnic. And the core issue is Taiwan’s relationship with China. The latest poll (July 7) shows that less than a fifth of Taiwan’s people are interested even in eventual, down-the-road reunification with China, and that another fifth demand full independence. The rest want to “maintain permanently the status quo” of de facto separation from China–or at least put off the decision “until later”… much, much, much, much later. These numbers have been roughly consistent, with ups and downs, for the past decade.


During his twelve-year (1988-2000) tenure as Kuomintang (KMT) chairman and Taiwan’s president, Mr. Lee Teng-hui pushed a strategy of “localization” (or “Taiwan First”) aimed at reorganizing the KMT into a renascent and distinctly Taiwanese political party that would shake off all identification with China.

As early as 1994, for example, Mr. Lee talked publicly of the KMT as an “alien regime” founded in China and seen in Taiwan as a mainlander invention. By 1999, Mr. Lee redefined Taiwan-China relations as “two nations,” or, as he put it, a “special state-to-state relationship.” And while this vision was embraced by the vast majority of Taiwanese, Lee’s handpicked candidate, the charisma-challenged Lien Chan, was trounced in the March 2000 presidential elections. Lien, himself half-Mainlander and half-Taiwanese, was so inept that he managed to turn his pedigree into a double-liability. The Taiwanese didn’t like him because he was too much the Mainlander, and vice versa.

Rather than attack Lien for the defeat, the KMT’s Mainlander faction (which had, of course, completely abandoned Lien in the campaign) blamed President Lee. Amid rioting, overturned cars and smashed windows, Mr. Lee was forced to resign the KMT chair within days of the vote. Mr. Lien replaced him, and promptly fell under the sway of the Mainlander faction. Immediately, Mr. Lien dismantled his predecessor’s “localization” policies, and explored new rubrics, like “confederation,” for an eventual political union with China.


So it was unsurprising when, on July 31, one of Mr. Lee’s top lieutenants formally registered the “Taiwan Solidarity Union” as island’s newest political party, with Mr. Lee agreed as its “spiritual leader.” The new party embraces the “state-to-state” model for dealing with China, and demands that Taiwan’s future be decided solely by the people of Taiwan. To show his support, Mr. Lee will attend the TSU’s inaugural congress on August 12, and reportedly pledged to find money for candidates, to train TSU nominees in campaign techniques and even to go out on the stump for them himself as the December 1 election day draws nearer.

Needless to say, this sparked an uproar in the KMT. On Tuesday, July 31, one ancient former diplomat made a show of cutting his wrists and bleeding all over the floor at the KMT’s 16th Party Congress session to protest Mr. Lee’s treachery. Others demanded the Party expel him. And despite the 79-year-old Mr. Lee’s ironic protest that he is so loyal that he will “die with the Kuomintang,” among mainlanders Mr. Lee remains the most reviled man in the Party.

Conversely, among the country’s native Hok-lo Taiwanese who count for about 65 percent of the population, Mr. Lee, is the country’s most revered politician.


As the year-end legislative election campaign heats up, ethnic sniping in Taiwan’s politics is out in the open–again. On July 13, KMT Chairman Lien fumed about “evilly disposed” politicians attempting to “divide the country along ethnic lines.”

On July 31, when the young, attractive, capable (and Mainlander) mayor of Taipei in northern Taiwan, was bruited about as a likely KMT presidential candidate, a top DPP legislator declared–right out in the open–that the mayor’s “background as a second-generation Mainlander” was a major stumbling block to his winning the Presidency. The legislator declared his countrymen in Central and Southern Taiwan “are different from the North, they would find it very hard to accept Mayor Ma as their leader.”

The ethnic dynamic–the Mainlanders call it “Shengji Jingjie” or the “Provincial Complex”–is not just a simple Taiwanese-Mainlander rivalry. There are two other key ethnic voting blocs: Hakka Taiwanese and the Malayo-Polynesian aboriginal peoples of the Island.

The Hok-lo Taiwanese make up about 65 percent of Taiwan’s population. Some 18,000 of their forebears were liquidated by Chiang Kai-shek’s mainlander soldiers in the aftermath of the infamous “February 28, 1947” rebellion. The “February 28” uprising became the rallying cry for an underground “Taiwan Independence Movement” organized and bankrolled for over forty years by the Taiwanese diaspora–mainly in the United States. By 1992, as President Lee Teng-hui abolished the “black lists,” thousands of Taiwanese returned from overseas, some are now Taiwan’s most influential political leaders.

The Hakka, Taiwan’s largest minority, claim 15-20 percent of the population. They are clannish and fiercely independent “Guest People” who, with their plain-black clothes and unintelligible dialect, have been the traditional objects of Hok-lo derision. Taiwan’s aborigines, now numbering not quite a million (3-5 percent of the population), are the Malayo-Polynesian peoples whom the vast migration of incoming Hok-lo pushed into the mountains from the 17th through the 20th Centuries.

And, finally, there are the Mainlanders. They and their children are the remnants of the legendary 2 million boat people who fled China with Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated army in 1949-50 after the Communists swept the mainland. And they are generally assumed to count for 10-15 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million population, though hundreds of thousands are said to have emigrated back to Mainland China to manage Taiwan factories or otherwise partake of China’s economic boom.

All this indicates that Taiwan’s year-end legislative elections could become a referendum on unification–especially if the economy, caught in the current global economic slump, turns around. If the Democratic Progressive Party-TSU coalition gains over 50 percent of the vote, it is likely to make Taiwan’s government less inclined than now to humor China’s insistence on a “one China” principle.

The other side of the coin is that Hok-lo Taiwanese moves toward independence are restrained by the uneasiness of the Hakka, mainlanders and Aborigines. The DPP already acknowledges it must have the Hakka vote if it is to construct a working legislative majority. To do so, the Hakka must be comfortable with a Hok-lo Taiwanese government. Already, the DPP government has a cabinet-level Hakka Affairs Council, opened a Hakka museum, and is popularizing the Hakka language.

But, for the time being, the Hakka electorate believes their interests will more likely be preserved by a Mainlander-Hakka alliance, and the result will be a continuation of the status quo–what Beijing sourly calls “no unification, no independence.” With the electorate gridlocked between 65 percent anti-China and 35 percent neutral-to-pro-China, there is no prospect of reaching a consensus on future China ties. Which means that Taipei’s leaders will opt to “maintain the status quo permanently.”

John Tkacik is a research fellow with the Heritage Foundation.