China: National Identity and Referenda Issues in Taiwan


Dr He Baogang

Taiwanese national identity is a result of political imagination and construction. It is an instrument in the game of politics, and a strategy for winning votes. In elections on 20 March, the electoral strategy of incumbent President Chen Shuibian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) was to play up the national identity issue and raise the referenda question - to distinguish himself and his party from the Lien-Soong alliance. In the DDP’s anti-China and anti-Kuomintang (KMT) message, the KMT is seen as an equivalent to China, and ‘democracy’ as Taiwan’s nationalism. The DDP used the language of colonialism and imperialism to portray China’s claim to sovereignty over Taiwan. Taiwanese nationalism or ‘indigenisation’ is, indeed, a powerful weapon in mobilising the Taiwanese. It is also the best strategy to demoralise the KMT opposition, which did not make a full commitment in its campaign to a separate Taiwanese national identity. Without a comparative advantage over the DPP on this issue, it could only adopt reactive strategies to counter the DDP’s attack. (The DDP strategy is not new; it has been widely used by nationalists in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia.) Rallying under this Taiwanese nationalism banner, Chen is likely to survive the current political crisis, if the recount does not change the outcome of the election. Taiwanese nationalism seems likely to motivate Taiwanese towards the goal of independence in the longer term.

The national identity and referendum issues have drawn emotional and passionate responses from the electorate and divided the island. Southern Taiwan is a strong base of the pan-green team, a coalition of the DDP and Taiwan’s Solidarity Union, which is attempting to build up a ‘Republic of Taiwan’. Northern Taiwan is the pan-blue team’s stronghold; it is a coalition of the KMT and People First Party (PFP), which is attempting to defend the ‘Republic of China’. It is, thus, not an exaggeration to say that this presidential election, in essence, has represented a struggle between the ‘Republic of China’ and the ‘Republic of Taiwan’ conceptions of Taiwan.

The referendum issue has also weakened political unity. While the DDP and Taiwan’s Solidarity Union called for a referendum, the KMT and PFP boycotted it. Chen’s use of presidential power to introduce the referendum issue bypassed the endorsement of the legislature (Yuan) and undermines its power. Chen’s approach has damaged the existing power-check mechanism.

Two questions were posed in the referendum. The first was concerning the procurement of military hardware in the face of China’s missile threat; and the second addressed the issue of equal negotiation with Mainland China on the establishment of a peace and stability framework (for details see below). Chen Shuibian calculated that these two questions were likely to be easily approved by voters and would win the support of the US. This is because the approval of the first issue would mean the purchase of anti-missile weapons from the US. Despite Chen’s anti-China campaign, the referendum failed to garner sufficient votes. The low turnout of 45.17 per cent disqualified the referendum and is a blow to Chen Shuibian. The legitimacy index of the referendum vote was only 41.46 per cent for the anti-missile question, and 41.53 per cent for the question of peace dialogue, much lower than 68.48 per cent, the mean legitimacy index of fifty-two referenda for independence conducted between 1791 and 1998. The failure of the referendum was largely due to the call for a boycott by the Lien-Soong alliance and opposition from China, the US, Europe and Japan. The argument that the threshold is too high is not convincing because it should be high, perhaps even higher at 75 per cent.

The result of the presidential election, however, was a victory for Chen Shuibian, the DDP, and Taiwanese nationalism. The votes Chen has gained increased from 39.3 per cent of total votes in the 2000 election to 50 per cent in this election. Chen captured Taizhong city and county, widening the gap between the pan-green vote and the pan-blue vote in southern Taiwan, and narrowing the gap in Taipei. The political map of Taiwan has changed substantially. The result of the vote will strengthen Chen’s determination to change the status quo and challenge China’s bottom line on the grounds that China will refrain from taking drastic action in the lead up to 2008, the year of the Olympic Games. Chen may even want to use possible Chinese aggression as an excuse to declare formal independence. The DDP seems to see China as a ‘paper tiger’ since China has not taken any concrete action despite Chen’s challenges to China’s position in past years. The growing (mis)conception of China as a ‘paper tiger’ may encourage Chen to make more radical moves in the near future.

Chen has interpreted the result of the referendum as a victory - as majority support for his referendum proposals, without mentioning the disqualification of the referendum. Chen blamed the lower turnout on Lien-Soong’s boycott campaign. Chen’s introduction of the national referendum in this election is likely to lead to a series of other referenda aimed towards passing a new constitution in 2006. This would involve referenda on questions such as the introduction of three divisions of power, the recognition of the existing border, a change in the national anthem - all without changing Taiwan’s national title of the ‘Republic of China’.

It is obvious that Chen has a preconceived goal in mind though he has not revealed it. He seems to have put together a series of steps to achieve this goal over time. If Lee is the father of Taiwan’s independence, Chen is its implementer. His life mission is to prepare all the necessary groundwork for Taiwan’s independence without making a formal declaration. Chen is a pragmatic strategist who is willing to make compromises and to withdraw his moves if he faces strong opposition, in particular, from the US.

Some younger politicians and scholars in the KMT and PFP view China as a ‘burden’ for their electoral campaign. Their identification with China and their referendum boycott strategy not only did not help them win, but lost votes instead. The number of voters in favour of the anti-missile question was 6,511,216. Taking out 6,471,970 for Chen Shuibian, there are still 39,246 voters who either voted for Lien-Soong or cast invalid votes, but did not endorse Lien-Soong’s boycott proposal. Moreover, the sum of the boycott votes (5,799,379) and votes disapproving the missile weapon question (581,413) is 6,380792, far below the actual total number of Lien-Soong‘s votes (6,442,452). The gap of 61,660 means that 4.6 per cent of voters did not endorse Lien-Song’s boycott proposal. In short, the boycott strategy is seen as anti-democratic and pro-China, and as demonstrating that the Lien-Soong alliance does not have a strong determination to defend Taiwan. If this is the case, some KMT and PFP members might support referenda as a way to win votes in future elections.

This is likely to lead to the erosion of the KMT and PFP alliance, a further disintegration of the old KMT, the strengthening of popular support for independence, DPP domination in the forthcoming decade, and the rise of the ‘new Taiwanese’ identity as pushed by Lee Teng-hui and continuingly endorsed by Ma Ying-jeou (similar to the past transformation in Southeast Asia of the ‘Chinese’ identity into a ‘huaqiao’ identity). The possibility of a reorganisation of the KMT and even the remaking of the Chinese KMT into a Taiwanese KMT cannot be excluded.

China is the only reliable force that can defeat the push for Taiwanese independence. A confrontation of some kind between the two seems inevitable. The Taiwan issue is a classic example of uncompromising or zero-sum-game identity politics.

[The recent referendum was worded as follows: 1. The people of Taiwan demand that the Taiwan Strait issue be resolved through peaceful means. Should Mainland China refuse to withdraw the missiles it has targeted at Taiwan and to openly renounce the use of force against us, would you agree that the Government should acquire more advanced anti-missile weapons to strengthen Taiwan’s self-defence capacities? 2. Would you agree that our government should engage in negotiation with Mainland China on the establishment of a ‘peace and stability’ framework for cross-Strait interactions in order to build consensus and to look into the welfare of the people on both sides?]

WATCHPOINT: The question remains as to how and when Chen Shui-bian will introduce his new referenda on the remaking of Taiwan’s constitution, and in what manner and when China will react to the forces pushing for Taiwanese independence.


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