Taiwan votes: Can democracy work in a Chinese culture?

Trading with mainland China has not solved all of Taiwan’s economic problems.

Taiwan''s Democratic Progressive Party, DPP, presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen raises her hand as she declares victory in the presidential election, in Taipei, Taiwan [AP]
Tsai Ing-wen raises her hand as she declares victory in the presidential election, in Taipei, Taiwan [AP]

The results of the general and presidential election in Taiwan on January 16 had been predicted by pollsters for months, but the size of the landslide victory came as a surprise. After winning two successive elections in 2008 and 2012, the former ruling party Kuomintang lost to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and their frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen.

Outgoing president Ma Ying-jeou will be remembered for his rapprochement with mainland China, including the unprecedented meeting between him and President Xi Jinping in November 2015. His legacy will be to have guided relations between Taiwan and China to the economic advantage of Taiwan’s economy. Twenty-three agreements between the two sides during his rule have underpinned Taiwan’s growth and external trade, and its people-to-people exchanges – since 2008, Taiwan allows direct flights from mainland China – as well as its international standing.

Beijing plays down Taiwan election result

But trading with the People’s Republic of China has not solved all of Taiwan’s economic problems. Its unemployment rate is growing, while property prices increase and overall growth slows down. In addition, the trade with mainland China has not been received positively by the Taiwanese public.

In 2014, thousands went on to the streets in Taipei in what became known as the Sunflower Student Movement to protest against the Kuomintang’s appeasing approach to China.

Growing public concerns

The movement was triggered by legislative plans for an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, which the Kuomintang had negotiated with China. The protests also reflected growing public concerns over greater dependence on China and possibly steps towards unification with China.

Ma may have failed to educate the public about these agreements, but he certainly underestimated the increasingly widespread political and security concerns that contributed to his dramatic fall from grace.

China and Taiwan: Normal is the new normal

The voters clearly want someone to represent Taiwan’s interests towards Beijing more firmly. Consequently, “Lady Tsai” is most likely to pick up negotiations with China over the trade agreements more resolutely.

The voters clearly want someone to represent Taiwan's interests towards Beijing more firmly. Consequently, 'Lady Tsai' is most likely to pick up negotiations with China over the trade agreements more resolutely.


She has the necessary experience, having successfully led trade negotiations with China as chairwoman of the Taiwan’s principle mainland policy planning body – the Mainland Affairs Council – from 2000 to 2004, under then DPP president Chen Shui-bian.

This time, however, she will need to balance more carefully her China policy between Taiwan’s interests and Beijing’s opinions.

Her party traditionally stands for independence from mainland China. It is likely, therefore, that the DPP victory will change cross-strait relations for the worse. The voters wanted “a government that is steadfast in protecting this country’s sovereignty”, she said during her victory speech on Saturday. “Lady Tsai”, as I heard people call her in Taiwan, warned Beijing to accept Taiwan’s democracy as otherwise stability might be endangered.

This may be crucial. Xi Jinping’s foreign and security policy has become more assertive towards China’s neighbours, and thus has changed Taiwan’s regional environment.

Taiwan is probably the focal point where the United States and China’s interests in Asia clash the most.

Heart of controversy

The status of Taiwan – the “Taiwan issue” – has been at the heart of decades of controversy between Beijing and Washington. Some of Xi’s statements on Taiwan underline the high level of concern with which his government views a DDP victory. He warned in a speech on TV that Tsai must accept the 1992 agreement between the China and Taiwan which both constitute “one China”. “Or else the earth will shake and the mountains tremble,” he said, looking up from his manuscript.

Tsai Ing-wen shouts slogans during a campaign rally in Taichung, Taiwan [REUTERS]
Tsai Ing-wen shouts slogans during a campaign rally in Taichung, Taiwan [REUTERS]

It is in the interests of the US not to touch on this question, but most Taiwanese want their country to maintain the status quo with China, according to a survey from last year. Tsai, realising this, announced that she “will work towards maintaining the status quo”. This depends not only on her.

Xi Jinping prides himself on “understanding” Taiwan, having served in Fujian province, which lies opposite the island. Will that “understanding” lead him to tighten the screws of Taiwan’s dependence on the mainland’s goodwill?

Beijing could presumably easily persuade a number of the 22 countries that still have diplomatic relations with Taipei to switch to the People’s Republic of China. It might also undermine Taiwan’s position in international organisations, which it tolerated during Ma’s time in office.

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Tsai’s election victory also reflects the Taiwanese public’s growing dissatisfaction with the country’s domestic development. Thus Tsai has announced major reforms of government institutions and legislature. To boost Taiwan’s economic development, she might try to have Taiwan included in the negotiations with the US on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.


Taiwan’s international space

This might help to improve Taiwan’s regional economic integration in Asia, as well as its international standing. She might even make some efforts to widen Taiwan’s international space by deepening relations with the European Union, which is already Taiwan’s largest source of investment.

Aspirations in Taiwan go as far as to negotiate a trade and investment agreement with the EU, which puts Europeans on the spot to re-evaluate their position in the triangular relationship between the EU, China and Taiwan.

Failure in any of these areas would hurt not only Taiwan, but also Tsai’s government and her standing with the public. It therefore might have been premature for the Financial Times to predict that Tsai would “become the most powerful female politician in the Chinese world”, or for the German newspaper Bild to call her “Asia’s Angela Merkel”.

Her election victory has proved to sceptics – mainly in official circles in Beijing but also among Western observers – that democracy can work in a Chinese culture, and also that women can make it to the top there. To succeed long-term, however, she will need qualities as yet untested.

Angela Stanzel is a policy fellow in the Asia programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.