A conversation on the evolving attitudes and shifting politics in Taiwan

People walk past a Taiwanese flag amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Taipei, Taiwan, August 10, 2020. REUTERS/Ann Wang
Editor's note:

This piece is part of the Taiwan-U.S. Quarterly Analysis series, which features the original writings of experts from the United States and Taiwan, with the goal of providing a range of perspectives on developments relating to Taiwan.

On a recent trip to Taiwan, Brown Professor of Political Science at Davidson College Shelley Rigger got an on-the-ground view of the local political and social mood. In a conversation with Brookings Fellow and interim Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies Ryan Hass, transcribed with light edits below, the two discussed shifting public attitudes in Taiwan, the Kuomintang’s posture toward cross-Strait relations, and President Tsai Ing-wen’s current areas of policy focus.

One of the foremost experts in the United States on Taiwan’s politics, Rigger is the author of numerous books on Taiwan, including most recently “Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). Note: In this interview, the word “Taiwanese” refers to residents of Taiwan regardless of when members of their families, living or dead, first arrived. The word is not used in a manner that is synonymous with “native Taiwanese.”

Hass: You were recently in Taiwan for field research. You have spent considerable time in Taiwan before. How would you compare the overall mood in Taiwan during your most recent trip to previous visits?

Rigger: I spent seven months in Taiwan, from September 2019 through March 2020. The majority of that time was very much in pre-election mode, as Taiwan had general elections (president and legislature) in January. The mood was fun. People on both sides of politics were excited about the election, and while they took their respective candidates very seriously, the atmosphere was positive. I remember attending a big rally for the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate just before the election, and people were clearly having a great time. Then I went back to the same place at the same time a couple of nights later and did it all again with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate’s supporters, who also clearly were having a great time.

Hass: How have public attitudes in Taiwan toward China changed over the past year? What factors are influencing the shift in views? How enduring do you expect this shift to be?

Rigger: We don’t have a lot of survey data on this question — survey questions tend to focus on specific issues rather than the broad sentiment toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC) — but my perception from the public conversation, my private conversations, and focus groups is that attitudes are more negative than they’ve been in a long time. There are a few drivers, but three that have played an especially important role in the past year are the Hong Kong crisis, China’s increasing pressure on Taiwan, and changes in the global economy, including the trade war.

The protests in Hong Kong had a lot of support on Taiwan, where people tend to value freedom and the rule of law, and also to believe the worst about Beijing. Most people viewed the protests as Hong Kongers fighting to keep rights and liberties they already had, not some kind of unreasonable demand for something more. What has happened most recently, with the passage of the National Security Law, just confirms what Taiwanese suspected: Beijing has no qualms about eliminating freedom by force when it can, and the CCP’s promises are worthless. People believed that before, but watching the evidence accumulate in Hong Kong has reinforced and amplified those feelings.

The increasing pressure on Taiwan, including military threats as well as attacks on Taiwan’s diplomatic space, further reduces the PRC’s attractiveness to islanders. I think most Americans are surprised that Taiwanese are not more frightened by Beijing’s military activities, which really are accelerating, but Taiwanese have been living with this for 70 years. They can’t imagine that Beijing would ever actually use force, because doing so is so irrational and unnecessary. At least, that’s how Taiwanese see it. Nonetheless, just because people are used to it doesn’t mean they like it. The more the PRC presses, the more Taiwanese resist.

Finally, opportunities for Taiwanese companies in the PRC are not as rich as they used to be. Part of that is PRC policy, including things like the campaign for domestic content in the high-tech sector. Another part is just rising production costs in the PRC, which is a trend that’s been underway for a while now. China is no longer the cheapest place in the world to manufacture, and a lot of Taiwanese companies are very cost-conscious. And of course, the U.S.-China trade war has made a lot of Taiwanese firms look for ways to get the “Made in China” label off their products. All of these developments shrink the constituency for cross-Strait engagement even more.

Hass: Do you expect the KMT’s posture toward cross-Strait relations to evolve to reflect shifting sentiments in Taiwan toward China?

Rigger: The KMT is already changing its position, because the idea that it’s possible to leverage engagement to stabilize and secure Taiwan’s political autonomy is no longer persuasive. Just this week, the KMT legislative caucus proposed legislation calling on the Tsai government to ask the U.S. for closer relations. Part of their motivation was to embarrass Tsai, but the action shows just how far the KMT has deviated from the positions it took when Ma Ying-jeou was president, from 2008 to 2016.

The reason for this change is that Beijing has become so relentlessly hostile toward Taiwan that it’s no longer plausible to imagine that a more China-friendly leadership will reverse that trend.

What does the KMT have to gain from continuing to try to pacify Beijing? It feels kind of hopeless, so the KMT’s logical response is to look for new issues and angles it can use to contest for power, while joining the DPP at the center on cross-Strait relations. What we saw in the 2018 local elections is that there are issues and angles that open space for the KMT (2020 showed us some issues and angles that work for smaller parties as well). Taiwan needs a viable competitor to the DPP, and I expect the KMT will find a way to be that competitor. But it is unlikely that old-school KMT positions on cross-Strait relations (e.g., the 1992 Consensus) are going to be the focal point.

Hass: How much of a window does President Tsai have left before the race to succeed her swings into full gear and she gets pushed into lame duck status? Where do you expect President Tsai to focus her agenda during this period?

Rigger: Tsai Ing-wen is an extraordinary politician in many ways, but perhaps her most unusual trait is her willingness to invest political capital in initiatives that are unlikely to pay off while she’s in office.

In her first term she devoted an enormous amount of effort to the “New Southbound Policy,” a package of policies that diversify Taiwan’s economic and political connections in South Asia and Southeast Asia. There was no way Taiwan was going to see a lot of benefit from that in just four years’ time, but she invested in it anyway.

Her decision to bite the bullet and get pension reform done is another example. She knew it would cost her a lot politically, and she knew that failure to do it would produce a fiscal crisis that would almost certainly not blow up until she was out of office, but she did it anyway.

Most recently, Tsai broke the political capital bank when she abandoned the policy that prevented Taiwan from importing certain beef and pork products from the U.S. Her party has been against this for ages; changing her position was a huge boon to her opponents. But she recognized that pursuing an economic deal with the U.S. was more important to Taiwan’s long-term future than sticking to her guns for another four years, so she did it anyway.

In short, I don’t think Tsai has ever cared as much as other politicians about hoarding her political capital for some big initiative that’s always just around the corner. She does what she thinks needs to be done. I expect she’ll keep doing that until it’s time to turn over the keys to the next occupant of the presidential office.

Adrien Chorn provided editing assistance on this piece.