Lev Nachman recently returned to the United States after living in Taipei for over two years, where he was a Fulbright Fellow and studied social movements and political parties in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Nachman, who also lived in Taiwan, is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. In a conversation with Brookings Principal Investigator and Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwanese Studies Ryan Hass, Nachman provides insight into the relationship between Taiwanese identity and support for Taiwanese independence, the factors that motivate Taiwanese voters and the outlook for the 2024 presidential election in Taiwan. .
You have studied the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan. 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, the Sunflower and Umbrella movements mobilized in the face of fears of systemic changes that would give the PRC [People’s Republic of China] dangerous amounts of agency on their political systems. Both have had lasting impacts on each other’s political systems. Both were important antecedents of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests in 2019. The most obvious impact Hong Kong activism has had on Taiwan recently came in the 2020 presidential election in Taiwan. [President] Tsai Ing-wen made the Hong Kong protests a central frame of reference for his re-election campaign, and every political party (even the KMT [Kuomintang]) at least offered rhetorical support to protesters in Hong Kong.
With the introduction of the Hong Kong National Security Law, Hong Kong people are looking to Taiwan as their perfect choice for a new home, which has created a new domestic policy problem in Taiwan on how to respond to the large numbers. of Hong Kong people seeking to emigrate permanently to Taiwan. . At the end of the day, Hong Kong is a “canary in the coal mine” for Taiwanese. The more the Hong Kong system deteriorates, the more it will push Taiwanese out of the PRC.
Taiwan will hold a series of referendums this year. Why have referendums become such a popular governance mechanism in Taiwan? What social forces do you think will influence the outcome of these referendums?
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 for changes to the laws that were championed by “pan-Green” parties, including the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the New Power Party. Their aim was to create a mechanism that would allow civil society to push politicians to adopt pro-Taiwan policies more gradually. The law drastically reduced the number of signatures required to submit a question to a referendum vote.
But ironically, those who profited from such rule changes have largely been opposition “pan-blue” forces such as the Kuomintang Party (KMT), which use referendums to attack or disrupt the DPP’s agenda. The specifics of this year’s referendums are particularly complicated and come up against the change in position of the DPP and the KMT. For example, imports of ractopamine meat and the construction of an energy pipeline on an algae 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 heavy because allowing the import of ractopamine-treated pork was seen as necessary for Taiwan to enter bilateral trade negotiations with the United States.
What does the opinion poll data really tell us about Taiwan’s preferences for managing cross-strait relations and about changing conceptions of Taiwanese identity?
There is reliable survey data that shows that the number of Taiwanese who identify as exclusively Taiwanese, and not Chinese, is increasing, while the number of people who identify as exclusively Chinese, and not Taiwanese, remains negligible. But this does not translate into an increase at the same pace in the number of Taiwanese voters in favor of immediate independence.
A longitudinal to study at National Chengchi University shows that the vast majority of Taiwanese support some version of the status quo, not immediate independence. The “status quo” like independence or unification is of course a specter – for example, one can be the status quo and independence later, or the status quo and unification later. At the very least, this tells us that Taiwanese voters are much more pragmatic than we generally assume in light of a growing number of “Taiwan-only” identifiers. Taiwanese live in a context in which any path to immediate independence is likely to lead to a deadly conflict with the PRC, so a push for formal independence is unlikely to happen anytime soon – precisely because Taiwanese voters enjoy living in a conflict-free status quo.
Looking ahead to the presidential elections of 2024, what, in your opinion, are the issues that will animate the political debate? Do you have any expectations as to which politicians are best placed to speak at the moment?
We know from extensive political science research that the dominant political factor in every Taiwanese election is the Chinese factor. All other issues are secondary or filtered through the lens of the Chinese factor. It’s no secret that the two DPP favorites are current Vice President William Lai and Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan. From the KMT, Hou You-yi is in a strong position as mayor of New Taipei, but given the KMT’s current internal disputes over its next party chairman, we are still a year away from knowing who their real will be. favorite. We also have the unknown variables of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and businessman Terry Gou, who could run again in 2024.
Richard Bush and Maggie Lewis each wrote and spoke on the need for Taiwan to nurture and strengthen its vitality, including forging political consensus to address internal challenges such as job creation, energy, etc. to overcome partisan divisions to meet 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 act on critical political issues that may not win their voice. or not be important during an election period. It is difficult to convince the KMT and the DPP to work together (as is the case with most dominant bipartisan political systems) but increasingly on contemporary social issues that have little to do with the PRC.
A recent example is the treatment of migrant workers from Southeast Asia during the COVID-19 peak, who were banned from leaving their factory dormitories. Some DPP politicians spoke out against such treatment, but ultimately little was done to correct the repressive rules governing migrant workers in Southeast Asia. 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 to Taiwan’s domestic politics, which unfortunately won’t happen anytime soon, I find it hard to see voters calling for major social reform on these kinds of issues.
That’s not to say that Taiwanese don’t care about social reforms. But, when it comes to national elections, voters vote for China, not for national performance.