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.
Lev Nachman recently returned to the United States after living in Taipei for more than two years, where he was a Fulbright scholar and studied social movements and political parties in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Nachman who also previously lived in Taiwan, is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In a conversation with Brookings Senior Fellow and Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies Ryan Hass, Nachman provides insights on the relationship between Taiwanese identity and support for Taiwan independence, factors that motivate Taiwan voters, and prospects for Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election.
You have studied Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement. What do the results of these two social movements tell us about the political direction of developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan? And how — if at all — do you see developments in Hong Kong influencing political trends in Taiwan going forward?
In 2014, both the Sunflower and Umbrella movements mobilized over fears of systemic changes that would give the PRC [People’s Republic of China] dangerous amounts of agency over their political systems. Both had lasting impacts on each other’s political systems. Both were important antecedents to Hong Kong’s 2019 anti-extradition protests. The most obvious impact Hong Kong activism had on Taiwan recently was during Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election. [President] Tsai Ing-wen made the Hong Kong protests a central frame of reference for her reelection campaign, and every political party (even the KMT [Kuomintang]) at least offered rhetorical support for the Hong Kong protesters.
With the introduction of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, Hong Kongers look to Taiwan as their ideal choice for a new home, which has created a new domestic political issue in Taiwan about how to address the large number of Hong Kongers looking to permanently emigrate to Taiwan. Ultimately, Hong Kong is a “canary in the coal mine” for Taiwanese people. The worse Hong Kong’s system becomes, the more it will push Taiwanese from the PRC.
Taiwan will hold a series of referenda this year. Why have referenda become such a popular governance mechanism in Taiwan? What social forces do you anticipate will influence the outcome of these referenda?
Referendums and recalls have become a popular political tool in Taiwan, but not necessarily in the most productive way. It started in 2017 when Taiwan pushed changes to laws that were championed by “pan-green” parties, including both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and New Power Party. Their goal was to create a mechanism that would allow for civil society to push politicians to pass more progressively pro-Taiwan policy. The act significantly lowered the necessary signatures needed to put an issue to vote via a referendum.
But ironically, those who have taken advantage of such rule changes have been largely opposition “pan-blue” forces such as the Kuomintang (KMT) Party, who use referendums to attack or disrupt the DPP’s agenda. The specifics of the referendums this year are particularly complicated and are fraught with the DPP and KMT switching stances. For example, ractopamine meat imports and building an energy pipeline on an algal reef are both opposed by the KMT and supported by the DPP. But 10 years ago, the DPP was against the same policies and the KMT was for them. The ractopamine vote is particularly fraught because allowing the import of ractopamine-treated pork was considered necessary for Taiwan to begin bilateral trade talks with the United States, so if it passes, it will be a bad look for future trade talks.
What does public opinion survey data actually tell us about Taiwan’s preferences on managing cross-Strait relations and on evolving views of Taiwanese identity?
There is reliable polling data that demonstrate the number of Taiwanese identifying as exclusively Taiwanese, not Chinese, is rising, while the number of people identifying as exclusively Chinese, not Taiwanese, remains at a negligible number. But this does not translate into the number of Taiwanese voters supporting immediate independence increasing at the same rate.
One longitudinal study at National Chengchi University shows that the vast majority of Taiwanese support some version of the status quo, not immediate independence. “Status quo” like independence or unification is of course a spectrum — for example, one can be status quo and independence later, or status quo and unification later. This at the very least tells us that Taiwanese voters are far more pragmatic than we typically assume in light of an increasing number of “Taiwanese only” identifiers. Taiwanese live in a context in which any immediate independence path will likely lead to deadly conflict with the PRC, so it is unlikely that a push for formal independence will happen any time soon — precisely because Taiwanese voters value living in a conflict-free status quo.
Looking ahead to presidential elections in 2024, what issues do you predict will drive the political debate? Do you have any expectations of which politicians might be best positioned to speak to the moment?
We know from extensive political science research that the dominant political factor in every Taiwanese election is the China factor. All other issues are secondary or filtered through the China factor lens. It’s no secret the two front runners in the DPP are current Vice President William Lai and Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan. From the KMT, Hou You-yi is in a strong position as the New Taipei mayor, but given the KMT’s current internal strife over its next party chair, we are still a year off of knowing who their real frontrunner will be. We also have the unknown variables of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and businessman Terry Gou, who may run again in 2024.
Richard Bush and Maggie Lewis have each written and spoken of the need for Taiwan to nurture and strengthen its vitality, including by forging political consensus to address internal challenges like job creation, energy, etc. How optimistic are you that Taiwan’s leaders will be able to overcome partisan divisions to address these internal challenges?
This remains the biggest challenge for a contested state like Taiwan whose political spectrum is defined by its relationship with China — how to mobilize voters and politicians to take action on critical political issues that may not win them votes or matter during election times. It is difficult to convince the KMT and DPP to work together (as it is with most two-party dominant political systems) but increasingly so on contemporary social issues that have little to do with the PRC.
One recent example is the treatment of Southeast Asian migrant workers during the COVID-19 spike, who were banned from leaving their factory dorms. Some DPP politicians spoke out against such treatment, but ultimately little was done to fix any of the repressive rules governing Southeast Asian migrant workers. There is little incentive to do so — only politicians who recognize the moral obligation to improve the livelihoods of Taiwan’s growing workforce will push for policy changes.
Until China becomes less important for Taiwan’s domestic politics, which unfortunately will not happen any time soon, I struggle to see voters calling for major social reform on these kinds of issues.
This does not mean Taiwanese do not care about social reform. But, when it comes to national elections, voters vote on China, not domestic performance.
Acknowledgements and disclosures
Adrien Chorn provided editing assistance on this piece.