Long Division

Taiwan’s electoral results signal an end to the idea of reunification 

By: Demond Molloy, SAR ’19

In one of history’s frequent ironic twists, the regime Mao Zedong expelled from mainland China lost power in Taiwan because it grew too close to his successors. Late last month, Taiwanese voters handed the conservative Kuomintang party (KMT) a resounding electoral defeat; new president Tsai Ing-wen won with a 26% margin of victory, and her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) became the largest in the Taiwanese parliament. The DPP’s gains were partially fuelled by fears that the KMT government was too cozy with the mainland. In March 2014, a few months before protests began to convulse Hong Kong, KMT officials were forced to withdraw their support for a trade deal with China (Leaf). The populist Sunflower Movement had successfully argued that the deal gave state-owned Chinese companies too much power over Taiwan’s service sector. Once police began to tear-gas protesters in Hong Kong, Taiwanese suspicion of the KMT’s willingness to work with Beijing only increased (Bush). The party suffered major setbacks in parliamentary elections that fall (Leaf). Their final loss this year has recharged cross-strait relations. Chinese officials reiterated the importance of the 1992 consensus, an informal agreement between KMT and Chinese leaders that Taiwan and the mainland belong to the same country. The consensus’s longevity is now in question. The DPP has denied the validity of the agreement, which was never formally approved by the parliament, and party leader Joseph Wu has stated that Taipei and Beijing need to find a “mutually acceptable mode of interaction,” implying that the 1992 consensus is not acceptable.

All of this may seem somewhat abstract, but it reflects a profound shift in the way the Taiwanese people view themselves. With the exception of indigenous Aboriginals, Taiwanese are ethnically Han Chinese, and historically saw themselves as part of a broader Sinosphere. This is now changing. Close to three quarters of young islanders now see themselves as exclusively Taiwanese, not both Taiwanese and Chinese as their parents did (TEDS). The Hong Kong protests and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s willingness to silence protest have only accelerated these trends, as a generation that has only known democracy finds the idea of authoritarian Beijing unacceptable. While the mainland remains a middle-income country, one dominated by state-backed industry, Taiwan is fully part of the developed world, with high standards of living and an open economy. Sixty seven years have made the straits into a wide gap indeed.

To be sure, Beijing has not given up on reclaiming Taiwan, issuing a strongly worded reminder that they viewed any attempt to declare the island independent as an affront to Chinese sovereignty (Glaser). But reunification seems an increasingly remote possibility. The United States Navy is fully capable of keeping China on its side of the strait, and American support for Taiwan has only increased as tensions in the South China Sea have risen in recent years. The idea that the Republic of China will reclaim its old territory can be safely dismissed; Douglas MacArthur’s suggestion that Chiang Kai-shek’s army land on the mainland to draw away the People’s Liberation Army during the Korean War is 53 years old, and no less farfetched now than when it was born. For the foreseeable future, Taipei will probably keep the Republic of China moniker, and both sides will pay lip service to the one-China policy. Both approaches will increasingly diverge from the reality of modern Taiwan.




Glaser, B. S., & Vitello, J. (2016, January 18). Tsai Ing-wen and DPP Win Big in Taiwan (Issue brief). Retrieved March 16, 2016, from Center for Strategic and International Studies website: http://csis.org/publication/tsai-ing-wen-and-dpp-win-big-taiwan

Hong Kong: Examining the Impact of the “Umbrella Movement” (2014) (testimony of Richard C. Bush III).  

Leaf, P. J. (2016, January 16). Taiwan Voted—the US Should Listen. The American Interest. Retrieved March 16, 2016, from http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/01/16/taiwan-voted-the-us-should-listen/

Taiwan Election and Democratization Study (TEDS) [Scholarly project]. (2016, February 1). Retrieved March 16, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/02/01/taiwan-kicked-out-its-ruling-party-for-getting-too-close-to-mainland-china-heres-what-comes-next/

Data translated to English by Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at University of Michigan, published in the Washington Post.

Photo Credit: Channel News Asia