Taiwan's Civil Society and the Blue-Green Deadlock, 1986-2007
A talk by Wu Jieh-min, in the series New Directions in Taiwan Studies
On January 24 Wu Jieh-min (Institute of Sociology, National Tsing Hua University; and a Fulbright Visiting Scholar in the Department of Sociology, UCLA) spoke of Taiwan’s enduring blue-green deadlock: that is, the deadlock between the "blue" political parties (which tend toward a Chinese national identity) and the "green" political parties (which tend toward a Taiwanese national identity and independence).
Why the Blue-Green Deadlock?
Professor Wu attributes the deadlock to three main factors:
Split government. Since 2008, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), led by President Chen Shui-bian, has controlled the presidency and executive power, while the Legislature (Lifa yuan) has been under the control of the pan-blue faction, that is the KMT (Kuomintang) and its allies. Much of the reason for this split, Professor Wu explained, is to be found in a flaw in institutional design: Taiwan’s semi-presidential system. Under this system the legislative branch has few tools to influence the policy and budgetary initiatives of the executive, and the executive has few tools to counter legislative inaction or assertiveness.
Social basis of partisanship. Since the presidential election of 2000, in which the green Democratic Progressive Party emerged victorious, the pan-blue faction "has kept mobilizing its civil society (ethnic Mainlanders plus anti-Independence or anti-Taiwanization supporters). Correspondingly, pan-green has engaged in counter-mobilization. Hence, a serious social cleavage along ethnic lines and 'Taiwan’s future status choice' has emerged." Moreover, Professor Wu added, the "pan-green camp is keen on using ‘anti-authoritarian’ sentiment in mobilizing voters’ support."
External factors. Globalization, cross-strait economic relations, and the "China factor," have, Wu argued, exacerbated the political deadlock and societal strife.
Declining KMT Political Hegemony & a Sea change in Identity
Since 1986 (which Professor Wu identified as the start of political opening, liberalization, and the rebirth of civil society in Taiwan), there has been a steady erosion of the KMT’s social support and a steady growth of support for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Related to this has been a sea change in national identity. Since the mid-1990s, surveys have found that identity as "Taiwanese" has prevailed over identity as "Chinese." The percentage of respondents who identify themselves as "purely Chinese" has declined to less than twenty percent.
Taiwan’s International Status: Survey Results
Various surveys have revealed three general trends in Taiwanese public opinion on Taiwan’s international status.
First, there has been a withering away of support for unity (or reunification) with China.
Second, there has been a slow but steady growth of support of independence. This, Professor Wu pointed out, constitutes "the social base of what some Washington strategists have cautioned against: ‘creeping independence.’"
Third, there has consistently been a majority in favor of the status quo. But, just what is the status quo? Professor Wu asked. While it is questionable, he continued, that the status quo can be a feasible alternative for future generations, it is clear that the status quo is not static. Rather it is, in Wu’s terms, a "drifting status quo" characterized by an increasing sense of national autonomy and independence among the people of Taiwan and, and at the same time, an increasing economic integration with (and dependence on) China.
Exogenous Sources of Anxiety
Relations across the Taiwan Strait are paradoxical, Wu remarked, which has been a source of continuing anxiety for the people of Taiwan. On the one hand, there has been continuing political hostility (primarily generated by China), while on the other, under the pressure of globalization, Taiwan’s economy has increased become integrated with China’s.
China has become Taiwan’s biggest trading partner by far, and the destination of billions of dollars in Taiwanese investment. But this has not eased the sense of anxiety in Taiwan.
Why Civil Society?
In his talk, Professor Wu strongly emphasized the issue of civil society. Since the year 2000, when the DPP captured the presidency, the pan-blue faction has concentrated on mobilizing its civil society (ethnic Mainlanders plus anti-independence and anti-Taiwanese-identity supporters), and the pan-green faction has "engaged in counter-mobilization." "Hence, " Wu declared, "a serious social cleavage along ethnic lines and over the question of ‘Taiwan’s future status’ has emerged. Moreover, the pan-green camp has also been keen on using ‘anti-authoritarian’ sentiment in mobilizing voters’ support."
This, combined with the external factors mentioned above, has "exacerbated political deadlock and societal strife." In such a situation, Wu warned, it is likely Taiwanese society will be increasingly "swung by ‘fear’ and ‘anti-politics.’"
Already there is evidence of growing apathy, with both former democracy activists and "participant citizens" becoming increasing disengaged. At the same time there has been what Wu called "the theatricalization of the political arena." Wu lays much of the blame for this at the doorstep of the news media and TV talk shows, which have pandered to a populist politics that exaggerates political and social divisions and distorts serious issues into melodramatic theater. The result, insofar as politics is concerned, is "self-fulfilling prophesies."
At the same time, Wu argued, Taiwan’s economy, although it appears to have slowed down, is still functioning well, and retains a "strong economic infrastructure and spontaneous vigor." Furthermore, "Taiwan . . . is a quite sanguine society. Life goes on despite political quarrels."
The Future of Blue-Green Strife
Will Taiwan’s new legislative election system -- "single-member district, two vote": each district selects only one legislator directly, as opposed to the multiple-member districts of the past, while a separate vote distributes seats proportionally to political party lists on a nationwide basis -- end the blue-green deadlock? Wu’s answer is "not likely" if the legislature and the presidency continue to be controlled by different factions.
In any case, Professor Wu identified three "deep causes" that will determine Taiwan’s future "political scene."
Structural forces. Much will depend on global and geopolitical relations with China and the United States. "Both China and the United States share a form of veto power over Taiwan’s position internationally, and even over its internal political order."
History. "Societal strife caused by Taiwan’s authoritarian legacy and unresolved transitional justice continue to bother voters." Ethnic politics also is likely to continue.
Institutional determinants. The semi-presidential system, in Professor Wu’s view is "flawed." A parliamentary system "may be an alternative, but it is extremely difficult to amend the constitution." No amendment is possible "unless a political coalition controls three-fourths of the votes in the Legislature and [an amendment] is publicly ratified by one-half of eligible voters."
Is there a third way, that is, an alternative to the blue-green strife? In this respect, Professor Wu pointed, the results of the legislative election in January (a landslide victory for the KMT) are not encouraging. "Independent parties and candidates secured only 3.7 percent of the votes in the local district elections and 4.7 percent in the proportional district elections."
Instead, it is upcoming presidential election that will determine whether the blue-green deadlock continues (which would be the result of the victory of the DDP’s presidential candidate, Hsieh Ch'ang T'ing [Frank Hsieh]) or whether (if the KMT’s candidate, Ma Ying-jeou, wins) the KMT will once again "rule the country without any significant and effective opposition within the political system."
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Wu Jieh-min (Ph.D. in Political Science, Columbia University) was an An Wang Post-doctoral Fellow at the Fairbank Center for East Asian Research during 1998-99. He is now an associate professor in the Institute of Sociology, National Tsing Hua University, Taiwan. He co-founded the Center for Contemporary China at NTHU and served as director during 2005-7. He is currently a Fulbright Visiting Scholar in the Department of Sociology, UCLA. He has published articles in the Journal of Contemporary China, Issues and Studies, and Taiwanese Sociology (in Chinese), among others. His research interests include Chinese migrants and citizenship and Taiwan’s social movements and civil society.
Published: Friday, February 01, 2008