Taiwan Should Abolish the DPP and the KMT

May 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Committee meetings in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan are usually held in small conference rooms at the parliamentary courtyard, a cluster of old buildings that used to house a girl’s high school when the Japanese ran the show. On a hot afternoon in 2006, approving a big purchase of weapons from the United States was on the agenda.

Out of the blue, the right honorable member of parliament Li Ao walked to the lectern and began spraying tear gas into the air, disrupting the proceedings. Pandemonium broke out as the room filled with noxious fumes, and the highest representatives of the people scrambled for fresh air. This incident stands along the many other fistfights, shouting matches, and other such closing acts of Taiwan’s biggest circus, its legislature.

People who are not from Taiwan often marvel at its so-called “democratic miracle”—that is, how can such a friendly, hospitable people elect the goofiest and most immature political leaders? Similarly, the people of Taiwan ask themselves, where did things go wrong?

To correctly diagnose the problem, one must understand that Taiwan’s democratization story is part of a much larger one. It can only be completely understood along with Taiwan’s story of “independence versus unification,” or more precisely, the question of Taiwan’s national identity. As a result of Taiwan’s turbulent history, two competing national identities coexist in Taiwan. Democratization was a strategy that allowed both sides of the national identity conflict to wage war in a more civilized, air-conditioned setting, inside the halls of politicians and off the streets of protestors. Therefore, to induce Taiwan’s democratic governance to be more efficient (both in representing the myriad of societal wishes and in delivering on administrative promises), we must look at the problems brought on by the national identity conflict side of the equation.

A quick overview of the conflicting national identities in Taiwan can never give enough justice to the centuries of history they represent, but it is roughly as follows. On the one hand, some identify with a Taiwanese ethnic nation. It can be traced back as early as Taiwanese elites’ calls for higher degrees of self-rule within the Japanese colonial empire in the 1920s, which stemmed from their identifying themselves as a different entity from both the people on the Chinese and Japanese homelands. Later, a bloody and tragic clash of Taiwanese locals and the new rulers from China in 1947, and the social pressure of having to absorb an entire refugee society after 1949, added to the urgency of a strong Taiwanese state. The transplanted Chiang Kai-shek military one-party government did themselves no favors by crushing any bud of dissent. All these experiences produced a defensive identity for a nation that, at its purest form, is a people deserving of its own state under the 20th century classic notion of self-determination.

On the other hand is a national identity, identifying with a republican, unified China encompassing all that could possibly said to be Chinese, realizing the dream of 19th century reformers and revolutionaries led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen. The dream went into full force as democratic revolution became the solution to imperial China’s corruption, backwardness and powerlessness against modern Western colonialists. After a long series of crushing blows to the project by ambitious strongmen, warlords, carpetbaggers and incompetent officials, the republic endured almost a decade of desecration by the Japanese but finally surrendered power to the Communist Party. The years of war scorched much of the land, and those who fled the mainland to Taiwan were separated from their families and roots, in many cases permanently. The democratic China project lies at the bottom of this well of history, tarnished and unfinished.

In Taiwan, the responsibilities of achieving these two conflicting national identities have fallen on the two major political parties, the Chinese Nationalist Party (the KMT) for “Republican Greater China” and the Democratic Progressive Party (the DPP) for “Self-Determined Ethnic Taiwan.” Of course, the two nation-building projects have long predated the formation of either political party. But as the nation-builders organized, they realized that for them, nation-building necessarily meant state-building as well—taking over the power of sanctioned authority. This was the case for the KMT in the 1920s when the first Chinese republican experiment failed at the hands of Yuan Shikai; it was also the case for the DPP in the 1980s when they were formed to oust the authoritarian KMT government. In other words, both the KMT and the DPP are less governing political parties and more revolutionary nation-building organizations at heart.

And herein lies the problem with Taiwan’s democracy: two nation-building projects are vying for control over the same state apparatus. Between 1945 to 1987, the Republic of China government in Taiwan was a one-party martial law state controlled by the KMT. It continued its nation-building project in Taiwan, forcing on the populace an identity that did not match that of the majority of its citizens. This further consolidated the nativist Taiwanese self-determination cause, which contributed greatly to the anti-government and pro-democracy sentiment. In the 1980s and 90s, mass anti-government protests led the KMT to allow the opposition to enter national elections—the two sides chose democratic competition and compromise as the dueling ground, rather than violent revolution. The result for the previously seditious independent Taiwan project is that while now legitimatized, it had conceded the opportunity to eradicate and outlaw the republican Greater China project. The two camps therefore agreed to continue the fight in the parliament and through election campaigns.

This arrangement certainly produced an immense benefit for Taiwan’s society; that is, the costs of all-out military revolution had been avoided. But throughout the next few decades, this arrangement created structural strains, both on the actual need for Taiwan’s society to consolidate a workable identity inclusive for all its members, and for the daily functioning of Taiwan’s governing institutions. On the front of consolidating a workable identity, the current situation allows top-down nation-building along outdated and contradictory models to persist and encumbers transitional justice for the victims of martial law under Chiang Kai-shek. As for improved functioning of Taiwan’s governing institutions, the current situation burdens pragmatic considerations in Taiwan-China relations and immobilizes the political process’s ability to deal with pressing domestic issues such as development, distributive justice, and social welfare.

So here is a modest proposal to Taiwan’s civil society: abolish the KMT and the DPP, and rebuild a spread of political parties along ideological and issue boundaries. Let there be labor parties, environmental parties, parties representing free market capitalism and parties representing social democracy. Let the people who agree on how governance and the governed should interact from the KMT and the DPP get together and work towards their goal. Let the spectrum of political parties reflect the spectrum of issues and wishes of the voters.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. The KMT and the DPP are probably here to stay. It would be hard to imagine a social force great enough to pressure both parties into committing political suicide and giving up its infrastructure and core supporters. The national identity question will still remain and seep back into politics. Fortunately, both the KMT and the DPP understand that the political tectonic plates are indeed shifting. Student movements of recent years have sprung up in response to the mistreatment of old factory workers, violent removal of residents for urban renewal projects, monopolization of news media, and nuclear energy policy. Beijing has been pushing for more complex, intertwined regulatory, trade and legal modes of interaction beneficial to its side. All of these issues demand both parties commit to a clear stance, and more importantly, to a clear ideology so people will know what to expect in the future. The two parties will not have to merely adjust their policies, but think hard about their legacies and organizational power structure as well.

There is a lot of soul searching in the horizon for Taiwan’s two major parties. A lot of work still needs to be done if the people of Taiwan want to replace politicians weaned on nationalistic fervor with those that are pragmatic in their approach and empathetic in their service to the people. Perhaps then we will see Taiwan’s parliament as less of a circus and more of a proper, respected arena where a small committee meeting might just produce a small glimmer of optimism. 

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