Photo: Eyepress

What is Taiwan’s strategy for sustainable development? Where is the Tsai government’s roadmap that will shape the future to which the country’s citizens aspire? Is there new hope in Taiwan?

Han Kuo-yu’s shock victory last November over a candidate from President Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the ruling bloc’s stronghold catapulted him to the top of the list of possible presidential hopefuls from the Kuomintang (KMT) and has raised hopes that genuine democratic change could be coming to the country.

The “Han Wave” is currently sweeping Taiwan, and Han is everywhere. Kaohsiung was supposed to be a DPP bastion. So why did residents vote for Han in last year’s election? In these local elections-cum-plebiscite elections, voters have clearly demonstrated the mainstream values of Taiwan – that is, a little less ideology, a little more pragmatic development, rejecting fierce political fighting, and the expectation that a president for all the people returns to the midway and rational mainstream values.

To his supporters, Han Kuo-yu is a movement politician; a harbinger of hope smashing a futile Taiwanese political order. Han went from looking like a longshot to causing a countrywide storm, to winning the election. Now, he’s about to enter Taiwan’s presidential race.

It has been five months since the DPP suffered a stunning defeat, but has the Tsai government ascension bowed their heads before the vox populi and democracy? By now, the public fully understands Tsai’s various tactics of coldness, evasion, and high-handedness; the “new vox populi” of the elections has been completely stamped down. The powers that be immediately forgot why they suffered a disastrous defeat and why they were jettisoned by the electorate, adopting the posture of haughty generals and arrogant troops.

In the last five months, the Tsai government was not only unwilling to meet the public’s expectations but also repeatedly trampled on them with looks of arrogance on their faces. Tsai’s first trampling on the vox populi was to ignore the results of the plebiscite elections, continuing to walk on the tightrope of her perilous policies. She also ignored the expectations of the vox populi, continuing to tighten the shackles on cross-Strait relations, and restricting the activities of local government chiefs seeking to engage in cross-Strait economic exchanges; she launched a vehement attack against Han Kuo-yu and planned to massively extend the ban on retired high-ranking officials and generals visiting China.

When the economy slows down and incomes stagnate, the phenomenon of “consumption downgrading” will appear in society; the middle class will lose the quality of life that it used to enjoy. Similarly, when governance is plagued by missteps, with the supply of talent is inadequate, politicians will begin to spin in place and engage in backpedaling, which constitutes “degrading governance.” Under such circumstances, most of the government’s energy is used to wind up endgames and cope with crises, with no surplus energy to move forward with ease. The current Tsai government is truly mired in the predicament of a disorderly government agenda.

How did we get here? Much of the current unrest in Taiwan can be attributed to the direct consequences of the economic collapse and the structural inability and unwillingness of the government to provide a palatable response to the challenge. The crux of the 2020 election lies not in letting the KMT return to power, but in unseating the DPP, which supports Taiwan independence. In next year’s election campaign, the DPP’s strategy is crystal clear; that is, hate China, China-phobia, and counter-China, using all opportunities to create cross-Strait confrontations, rupturing the social fabric, using ideologies to anesthetize the masses, and covering up the abuse of power and incompetence in the past three years; in other words, it is prolonging political power for itself, while caring nothing for the life and death of Taiwan.

Where lies the problem? Because the Tsai government has overlooked two currently vital pillars of international trade and investment. One is securing the principal production resources; as a result of the serious distinction between friend and foe that Taiwan harbors toward China, their many innovative industries with higher production efficiency, as long as Taiwan’s industries have competitive relations with China, the government will definitely hurl an accusation of “impacting national security,” excluding them from outside Taiwan’s borders. Thus, it is difficult to enter into a partnership with China enterprises utilizing the accessibility of their commercial relations to market on China.

Since Han Kuo-yu was elected mayor, his “pro-business” attitude has won the support of enterprises at home and abroad, and many investors are visiting Kaohsiung to explore opportunities

In contrast, since Han Kuo-yu was elected mayor, his “pro-business” attitude has won the support of enterprises at home and abroad, and many investors are visiting Kaohsiung to explore opportunities. Not only foreign-invested enterprises have indicated one after another their willingness to expand their investments; foreign conglomerates have also come to study. Residents of Kaohsiung and neighboring counties and cities expect good prospects for Kaohsiung; housing sales are booming with real estate prices rising. Thus the public feels that they are better off than before, naturally increasing their consumption, producing a benign circle as a result. In addition, tourism to Kaohsiung has risen, making operators in Kaohsiung feel that their businesses are on the upswing.

Although Han’s prospects of entering the presidential race  seem better and better, what has been known to all is that the legitimacy of his entry has hinged on the “contractual obligations” he has with Kaohsiung’s citizenry, and whether the KMT can find a formula that is satisfactory to all for him to enter the presidential race. Due to political wrangling and a lack of clarity, the KMT’s attitude toward Han entering the presidential race seems unclear, yet a consensus is looming; that is to say, it will adopt the approach of “drafting.”

We must, of course, attach great importance to Han’s “contractual obligations” with Kaohsiung’s citizenry; the KMT’s primary mechanism should also be respected. However, there should be a higher level of perception on the legitimacy of his entering the race and pondering against a greater picture. On the surface, Han’s message is that when Taiwan wins, Kaohsiung can truly win.

From the viewpoint of concrete changes, Han has debunked the myth of Taiwan being deeply mired in political confrontations, neglecting economic and bread and butter issues for several decades in the past. He will renew its pursuit of the goal of improving the welfare of the people.

Han has opened a window of opportunity for cross-Strait relations, which is now in the doldrums, using the strength of one man and one city to push for mutual trust. However, whether the new building block he has created can be the foundation for a new situation depends on whether the people are willing to work towards building goodwill across the Strait.

Only when the people actively take part in rebuilding can cross-Strait issues move from confrontation to peace.

Most critically, cross-Strait relations are necessary to tackle the economy in Taiwan, which has left the country vulnerable to fluctuations in commodity prices and has hindered sustainable economic growth. What is astonishing is that the DPP’s memory of the electoral defeat is so short, and Tsai’s excitement for power, on the other hand, is so formidable and long-lasting. Looking back at the drama played by the Presidential Palace and the Cabinet in the last five months – no one failed to trample on the vox populi. For this kind of ruling party, would the electorate still entertain fantasies?

Han said, “let merchandise ship out, people come in, Kaohsiung will become prosperous”; this is absolutely not only the need of farm and orchard produce, but that the holistic economic policy must be changed. If the Tsai government, for the sake of elections, continues to strive for cross-Strait confrontation, the problem of “merchandise can’t be shipped out, people can’t come in, foreign investment is going down the drain” will become even more serious. With even less investment and even lower wages, the brain drain will accelerate even more, and Taiwan’s economy will be locked in a pessimistic and vicious circle.

Is there new hope in Taiwan? The situation in Taiwan remains a test of wills. Can the Tsai government sustain an approach in which they merely manage popular frustrations in order to protect the status quo, or will the forces of democratic change prevail and deliver new hope in Taiwan? The “Han Wave,” while indeed welcome, is also a guarantee that the course will prevail.

Kent Wang is a research fellow at the Institute for Taiwan-America Studies (ITAS), a conservative Washington-based think-tank focusing on aspects of US-Taiwan relations, and is broadly interested in the United States-Taiwan-China trilateral equation, as well as in East Asian security architecture.

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