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A Clash of Competing Nationalisms in Taiwan

A change of power in Taipei in 2024 could mean a “conservative” party that seeks better ties with the PRC.

Protesters Decry Tsai Ing-wen and Nancy Pelosi
(Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

Imagine if a high-profile American politician, such as the speaker of the House, traveled to Taipei, met with the political leaders of the island, and … nothing happened. The People’s Republic of China did not visibly react, the Taiwanese leadership sought to downplay the emphasis on autonomy from the Chinese mainland, and visits on the official’s itinerary included monuments to the island’s past authoritarian leaders, highlighting hopes of eventual cross-strait reconciliation. 

While dramatically different from Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the Taiwan Strait this past summer, such a scenario is not unthinkable.

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The pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, under President Tsai Ing-wen, has led the territory since 2016. In 2024, Tsai, limited to two four-year terms, will stand aside, and it is not clear whether her party will replace her with a similarly astute politician. What’s more, in the recent local elections, the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) dominated, sweeping up 13 out of 21 city mayor and county chief offices. Tsai, having attempted to frame these races as part of a broader DPP to defend their democracy, acknowledged failure and stepped down as DPP party chair. 

The KMT, the party of the island’s long period of post-war martial law, now favor greater cooperation with the PRC and eventual unification and would likely seek a much less confrontational direction should they regain the presidency—to the extent of being less hawkish than many high-ranking political figures in the United States. However, success in local elections hardly assures their victory in the 2024 election, nor how they will frame the PRC question during the race. 

The first thing to understand about the KMT is that its founding ideology is not, at its heart, conservatism. Its members certainly have been prone to conservative positions in recent years, such as opposition to gay marriage and friendliness to business. A more useful heuristic is to think of the KMT as a Chinese nationalist organization. “Kuomintang” literally translates as “Nationalist Party,” which is why the civil war it fought with the Chinese Communist Party until 1949 is often framed as “the communists” versus “the nationalists.” The Democratic Progressive Party, despite its name, is best understood as a Taiwanese nationalist party, having sprung from localist and independence sentiment that, all things being equal, would prefer to abolish Taiwan’s official name (Republic of China) and declare a new Republic of Taiwan. 

The idea of the KMT as the pro-reconciliation party is a peculiar one, considering it fought and lost a civil war with the party now governing the Chinese mainland. To understand its journey, one should venture back to the KMT’s roots in the late 19th century, when the Manchu-dominated Qing Dynasty that ruled China from the 17th century teetered on the brink of collapse. Once the Asian hegemon, the Qing were by the 1890s subject to regular humiliations at the hands of Western powers and a rising Japan, who carved spheres of influence into its countryside where their visiting populations effectively ruled and were not subject to Chinese law. Public discontent with Qing corruption and ineffectuality—not to mention ethnic resentment among the majority Han population over Manchu rule—had already boiled over in the Taiping Rebellion, a civil war that lasted almost three times as long as America’s and claimed at least 20 times as many lives. In 1894, the intellectual Sun Yat-sen, in exile in Hawaii for criticizing the Qing, founded the Revive China Society to undo national humiliations by founding a republic and ending Manchu rule. By 1911 the Qing would finally fall, and the Society would be reformed as the KMT. 

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Sun, though highly regarded today by Chinese nationalists on both sides of the strait, never actually ruled China due to complicated internal divisions and politics. That eventually fell to one of his deputies, Chiang Kai-shek, who assumed leadership of the country by 1928, three years after Sun’s death. 

Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887 - 1975) reviews the troops, circa 1950. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Chiang would go on to be one of the longest-serving heads of state in the 20th century, but his leadership of the mainland was fraught from the beginning. Warlords still controlled much of the country, and though the KMT sought collectivist national rejuvenation and reform, relations with the emerging communist movement broke down and by the late 1920s the Chinese Communist Party had launched an insurgency against KMT rule. This continued even when both parties were supposedly working together to repel Imperial Japanese invasions. Japan, the great regional power in Asia starting from the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, when it defeated the Qing and annexed Taiwan, had assumed control of Manchuria by 1932 before launching the broader Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. This long and bloody conflict (at least 15 million Chinese died) would eventually be subsumed into World War II when Japan blundered into conflict with the United States in 1941.   

By 1945, Japan had finally been defeated and Taiwan returned to mainland control. Chiang celebrated alongside his Western allies and even communist leader Mao Zedong. The respite was temporary, however, and the hostilities of the Chinese Civil War resumed by 1946. With the CCP now aided by the Soviet Union and KMT forces depleted by the conflict with Japan, as well as undermined by its own reputation for corruption, the KMT fell to the CCP and fled to Taiwan in 1949, where it declared martial law and launched a wave of repression known today as the White Terror to quell potential dissent.

The KMT and Republic of China might well have been lost to history had North Korea not invaded South Korea the following year. Mao desired to reclaim Taiwan, and the U.S.-led free world blamed Chiang for the KMT’s loss of the mainland and were not inclined to come to his aid. The Korean War, and U.S. intervention in it, changed that, as Mao switched gears, prioritizing prevention of the neighboring Korean Peninsula from falling under complete U.S. control, and U.S. priorities changed to containing communism’s spread in Asia. 

In the decades that followed, the KMT became a recipient of U.S. aid and also recognized its mistakes from its time governing the mainland, organizing that aid into industrialization and general welfare projects. Taiwan soon became one of Asia’s first postwar “miracle” economies, starting its massive growth and industrialization process just after Japan and several years before South Korea (and a couple of decades before the PRC, which learned from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea’s development). Despite martial law and one-party rule, Taiwan and the ROC were known as “Free China,” stalwart allies against communism in the subsequent decades. Chiang continued to entertain dreams of retaking the mainland. 

In the 1970s, attitudes changed. Mao began to reach out to the outside world, driven partly by his need for support following the Sino-Soviet split. Japan came first, followed by the U.S. and other Western powers. The PRC began its own economic reform process in exchange for those countries’ access to its enormous domestic market. The PRC did not drive a soft bargain; it demanded these countries drop official recognition of the ROC and oust Taiwan from the United Nations. This was granted, and by 1979 the U.S. formally recognized the PRC, leaving the ROC cut off from many of its traditional partners. For its own economic survival, Taiwan became reliant on the mainland as a market.   

By 1986, Taiwan, then led by Chiang Kai-shek’s son Chiang Ching-kuo following the former’s death in 1975, saw the emergence of the DPP as a manifestation of local Taiwanese identity. Martial law was relaxed, and in 1987 local elections took place. The first KMT president elected freely, Lee Teng-hui, further promoted local Taiwanese identity, as well as igniting an international incident between the PRC and U.S. when he visited the U.S. mainland in 1995. 

However, since then, the KMT and DPP have more or less fallen into a pattern: the DPP seeks autonomy and de facto if not de jure independence, while the KMT continues to pursue integration and eventual reunification. Having turned toward economic cooperation with the mainland in the 1980s, diplomatic interactions between the KMT and CCP in the early 1990s led to what is now called the 1992 Consensus, acknowledging that there is one China and Taiwan is part of it. Though the KMT and CCP disagree over who the consensus recognizes as legitimate ruler of China, it has functioned as a basis for diplomatic interaction between them ever since (the DPP does not recognize the 1992 Consensus).  

In truth, both the KMT and DPP regard the island’s fate as a long-term question. They, along with the general public, prefer the status quo and neither party (nor the general public) wants a rash decision that would potentially subject the island to CCP rule or an invasion. A 2004 incident, under the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian (2000–08), is instructive: Chen’s administration launched a referendum on cross-strait relations that was widely interpreted as putting the island on course for a declaration of independence. As the PRC was considered a partner in good standing with the post-9/11 West, the move earned rebukes from international observers, including President George W. Bush. The referendum did take place that March, but its results were invalidated due to low turnout. 

By 2008, the KMT retook the presidency and the administration of Ma Ying-jeou prioritized closer relations, including through the sweeping 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement. In 2014, the perception of increased PRC influence over the island’s democratic system led to mass protests known as the Sunflower Student Movement, heralding a collapse in KMT support. The DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, a career technocrat, easily won the 2016 election with 56 percent of the vote over a fractured right-of-center bloc. 

Tsai’s first term was characterized by efforts to establish closer ties with the outside world. She famously (or notoriously, depending on the observer) had a phone conversation with President-elect Donald Trump in fall 2016, the first such contact since the late 1970s. In fall 2018, Taiwan became the first territory in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage. She has also led initiatives on recognition of the indigenous population of the island and expanded social welfare.

Tsai sought to expand the island’s defense budget and diplomatic outreach, but under her leadership Taiwan’s official diplomatic stature has diminished. Under Ma, the PRC had slowed efforts to flip Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic partners. Under Tsai, this resumed: Only 13 UN member states now recognize Taipei, with the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switching to recognition of Beijing in 2019 and Nicaragua following in 2021. Eight countries have ceased to recognize the ROC since Tsai’s tenure began. 

Furthermore, while the PRC was generally passive toward diplomatic visits to Taiwan under Ma, it erupted with anger at Pelosi’s summer 2022 visit to Taipei, much as it did at Lee’s visit to the U.S. in 1995. 

Ahead of the 2020 presidential elections, it appeared for a time that the Kuomintang had found its key back into the presidential residence with Han Kuo-yu, a populist frequently compared to Trump due to his aggressive campaigning style, promises of economic windfall, and extremely devoted following. However, his candidacy fell victim to the most unfortunate of timings: Gloating over local electoral setbacks for the DPP in late 2018, PRC leader Xi Jinping opened 2019 by declaring that Taiwan’s government should abandon dreams of separatism and accept a “one country, two systems” model à la Hong Kong. Just months later, popular protests erupted in Hong Kong, at first over an unpopular extradition bill but eventually expressing broader discontent and a desire for democratization. Han flailed for an appropriate reaction to such developments, declaring opposition to one-country, two-systems even as he touted closer cross-strait cooperation and its potential to create jobs. Ultimately, Tsai won a greater share of the vote in 2020 (57 percent) than in 2016. 

Other than her quiet but determined opposition to CCP authoritarianism, Tsai has led a broadly progressive administration. This has led to some rather surreal scenes, such as conservative Sen. Ted Cruz lauding Tsai in the pages of Time even as he regularly condemns American politicians with views similar to hers. Equally oddly, defense officials in Japan, which has restricted its military to self-defense purposes since World War II, have declared that Tokyo must intervene should Taiwan come under attack. 

This is a matter of realpolitik, of course. Both the U.S. and Japan have begun to realize that the PRC reclaiming Taiwan is not just an internal matter. Taiwan, particularly the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, is the home of most of the world’s semiconductor manufacturing. Even if such facilities were taken peacefully, the post-Covid reliance on telework has made many wary of PRC control over the industry that makes such tech possible. Furthermore, access to Taiwan as a base would signal that a Chinese military has fully arrived as a global power capable of projecting power abroad. 

Under such circumstances, it may be strange to see a candidate with broadly “conservative” views seeking closer PRC cooperation, especially from a party historically opposed to the CCP. Yet this may be the island’s future: KMT figures have opposed much of the DPP agenda, including gay marriage, and its support for cross-strait trade is informed by its pro-business posture, in addition to Chinese nationalism. 

The Tsai years, and what they have revealed about local views of the PRC, have left the KMT with an identity crisis. David Keegan, a longtime foreign service officer who teaches at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, summarizes the KMT’s recent attempts to triangulate as “we have the same platform as the DPP but Xi Jinping will talk to us.” Nathan Batto, associate research fellow at Academic Sinica in Taipei, says that affirming the 1992 Consensus will be a deal-breaker for the Taiwanese public, and that the KMT has not yet come up with an approach to cross-straits relations that will be palatable for the general public. Kharis Templeman, research fellow at the Hoover Institution, says that the DPP polls twice as well as the KMT on generic party ballots. 

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - OCTOBER 10: Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen gives a speech on the Taiwan's National Day on October 10, 2022 in Taipei, Taiwan.
Photo by Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

Furthermore, all three analysts reject the idea that the local elections signal that the KMT are the 2024 favorites. Unlike in the U.S., where differences in national party philosophy on, for instance, size of government can play out at the local level, Batto said that in Taiwan “the local elections are local and they run on a very different logic. There isn’t really a Taiwanese nationalist way to pave the roads, or a Chinese nationalist way to pave the roads.” He said that the DPP’s failure in the recent elections was largely due to turnout. Tsai is broadly popular but did not generate enthusiasm, and her party could not come up with a compelling reason for the public to support its candidates. 

The result could even conceivably hurt the KMT, in that it strengthens the hand of Chu Li-luan (known internationally as Eric Chu), the party chair who already attempted one disastrous presidential run in 2016, in which he earned just 31 percent of the vote. Keegan and Templeman say that a much better candidate can be found in Hou You-ih, the popular mayor of New Taipei. Batto said that Chu’s unpopularity with the general public is such that he is unlikely to be nominated and pointed to Hou or Terry Gou (Gou Taiming), the former chairman of electronics manufacturer Foxconn, as more likely nominees.

None of the three analysts is sure of what position the KMT’s eventual presidential nominee will ultimately assume regarding the PRC, given how deep anti-PRC sentiment now runs. “After Ma Ying-jeou stepped down, they’ve kind of been all over the map,” said Templeman. “Chu has tried to move toward a pro-U.S. stance, away from pro-China. The problem is that much of the KMT is not with him on that.” Many of these U.S.-skeptical KMT pols, Templeman added, want to position the party “between the U.S. and China.” Beyond the issues that cross-straits relations present, Keegan said the KMT has a deeper problem with demographics: “The party is perceived as old and getting older.” 

What of the DPP? The defeat and Tsai’s departure as chair marginalizes her ahead of 2024, which makes her vice president, William Lai (Lai Ching-te), the clear frontrunner. Lai and Tsai are not close, and his selection as VP was widely seen as a concession to the more stridently pro-independence wing of her party, those who would prefer to abolish the “Republic of China” name in favor of a Republic of Taiwan. This worries many observers, who are concerned about Lai’s previous self-description as a “Taiwan independence worker” and general lack of subtlety compared to Tsai. All of the experts consulted for this article, however, said that Lai has sought to moderate his image ahead of the election, and Batto said that the consensus in the country has moved toward acceptance of the ROC name and its constitution, at least for the time being. 

There are other questions about how either party would govern. While Chiang Kai-shek arouses considerable anger from much of the population for his martial law and harsh crackdowns, his son Chiang Ching-kuo has a less controversial legacy, and Tsai has signaled greater appreciation for his work, including the relaxed controls on dissent ahead of free elections. Would Lai or another DPP leader continue this trend? Templeman suggested that a KMT leader might believe affirming the 1992 Consensus is all that is necessary to lower tensions with the PRC, but this might be mistaken. “Beijing may demand more specificity [and] require the KMT to say that they both have a responsibility to work toward unification,” Templeman said. “The majority of Taiwanese would not support that position.” 

U.S. policymakers need to be prepared for a couple of possibilities: a Taiwanese president who pushes the PRC’s buttons like Tsai but may not be as savvy as she has been, or a Taiwanese president who does not encourage PRC-bashing and, in fact, might actually push back against U.S. politicians who engage in it. Whomever the two parties nominate, both nominees will probably declare support for the status quo. Yet with anti-CCP skepticism now a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. and the PRC becoming much more adamant about plans to retake the island—and U.S. agencies declaring such a scenario only years away—the status quo might not be so easy to maintain. 

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