Taiwan: the 2020 Election and the way out of the “National Doom”

On 11 January 2020, the Taiwanese voters will decide who will be in charge of the Presidential Palace and the Legislative Yuan for the next four years. These are two key ruling class institutions under Taiwan’s “Republic of China (ROC)” bourgeois-democratic system. After witnessing the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s catastrophic defeat in the 2018 municipal elections and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-backed repression against the Hong Kong democratic movement, many Taiwanese workers and youth dread a future where the CCP begins to take away Taiwan’s hard-earned democratic rights by way of its local comprador, the KMT, returning to power.

This feeling of “national doom” drove many to renew their support for the DPP and President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) against the openly pro-China KMT and its presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu(韓國瑜). Yet, the fact remains that the system in Taiwan still only offers voters the choice between the Pan-Green (DPP-led) and Pan-Blue (KMT-led) camps. Such a political set up is not unlike what Lenin described as one that “decides once every few years which members of the ruling class is to repress and crush the people through parliament.” Whether we get another term of Tsai or an unexpected win of Han, how should the Taiwanese working class prepare for the upcoming storms and stresses?

Contradictions inherent in China’s threats towards Taiwan

As a small bourgeois democracy, Taiwan is situated between the manoeuvrings of US and Chinese imperialism. The lingering historical issue of unification/independence vis-a-vis China, as well as the CCP’s incessant Great Chinese chauvinist rhetoric towards Taiwan, has long inhibited class divisions from surfacing in Taiwanese bourgeois politics. This situation is overall a beneficial one for the Taiwanese bourgeoisie because they can always use discussions around unification/independence and identity politics to distract the Taiwanese masses from deeper social issues.

Of course, this does not mean that Marxists would superficially trivialise the question of unification/independence. The CCP’s desire to annex Taiwan on a capitalist basis is real and reactionary. “Uniting the country” is a key component of the CCP’s rhetoric of the “great revival of the Chinese nation.” As China’s own capitalist crisis escalates, Xi Jinping has once again drawn attention to the Taiwan question by putting forward “One Country, Two Systems for Taiwan(一國兩制台灣方案).”

Yet, in Hong Kong, the world has already witnessed the Hong Kong government’s and the CCP’s resolute opposition to expanding democratic rights, as well as the brutal repression against the protesters that followed. At the same time, in Taiwan, whether it be the KMT-led “Blue camp” parties or the newly established “White Force” Taiwan People’s Party in power, they have all openly sought to be the compradors of Chinese imperialism in Taiwan by promoting policies that would deepen the country’s dependence on Chinese capital. This is why many people, especially the youth, see a KMT victory in the January general election as bringing about the “National Doom” of Taiwan, i.e. annexation by China and the death of Taiwan’s bourgeois-democratic system.

Nonetheless, although Xi personally appears to be a strongman, the CCP regime’s weaknesses have been exposed by recent events. Trump’s trade war has exerted considerable economic pressure upon China. As they are dealing with US imperialism, developments in Hong Kong also piled onto the many problems the Party faces. Suddenly, the CCP, which has always claimed that Hong Kong’s return to China has brought prosperity and happiness to the Hong Kong people, now has to explain why millions of people have taken to the streets there, and why the extreme social inequality in the city that has pushed people into struggle existed in the first place. It has to be stressed that it was the Hong Kong movement’s own lack of class struggle methods and some of its leaders’ friendly gestures towards US imperialism that aided the CCP in depicting the entire movement as a foreign, anti-Beijing conspiracy, thus preventing similar movements from spreading inside mainland China. Even so, the CCP still isn’t able to inhibit the anti-Beijing sentiments that grow by the day inside Hong Kong.

Taiwan elections 2 Image Parson YoungThe Hong Kong Movement is held back by its own bourgeois-liberal leadership and demands, not because of the CCP’s might / Image: Parson Young

If China hastily annexes Taiwan, an advanced country with a large working class, then it will have to face a widespread, prolonged and even revolutionary struggle from the Taiwanese masses. This is not a situation that the CCP can handle at this time, and the leaders in Beijing understand this. Thus, despite all the bluster, their main strategy continues to be steadily increasing the influence of Chinese capital over Taiwan’s politics and economy, with the aid of the pan-Blue camp’s bourgeoisie. Of course, no matter what route the CCP takes, they are still unable to put an end to the Taiwanese masses’ opposition towards them, because the CCP itself will never voluntarily give up their totalitarian dictatorship over the Chinese masses.

The KMT’s Social Base and Strategy

It is within this context that we can, in turn, analyse the KMT. Other than the most loyal, stubborn elements, the KMT’s mass base was liquidated after the Sunflower Movement of 2014 with the rise of widespread anti-CCP sentiment. This is reflected in the KMT’s catastrophic defeats in the elections of 2014 and 2016, where many of its local clientele networks and enforcers jumped ship for their own political interests. The DPP government’s Transitional Justice program also prosecuted the KMT for its past authoritarian infringement on human rights, which ended in freezing some of the party’s assets. This, in turn, damaged the KMT’s political influence and capacity to pay its cronies. In the 2016 general election, the KMT’s candidate Eric Chu only gained 3.8 million (31 percent) of the vote. In the Legislative Yuan, it suffered a 29 seat drop and was reduced to having only 35 out of the 113 seats. At that point, the KMT appeared to be a setting sun.

Initially, this situation led to many of the factions within the KMT to go in all sorts of directions, as many party members began to think of their own political interests rather than those of the party. The party central leadership no longer holds control over the rank-and-file, resulting in KMT politicians being openly split on many issues.

This is the basis upon which Han Kuo-yu rose to prominence as the self-proclaimed “anti-establishment” figure. Han took advantage of the discontent against the DPP among the masses that has accumulated since Tsai took office, and made fantastic promises of a better future. In the absence of a working-class political alternative, the masses used their votes to “punish” the DPP in the 2018 municipal elections, but in doing so they also gave the decrepit KMT a second lease of life.

Taiwan elections 3 Image Han Kuo yu Official FacebookHan Kuo-yu’s rise displaced all KMT grandees within the party / Image: Han Kuo yu Official Facebook

At the same time, the KMT connected with socially conservative forces that are unhappy with some of Tsai’s socially liberal policies. In doing so, it consolidated a new base: upon the extremely reactionary temple/religious groups and local interest networks, such as the homophobic Alliance for the Happiness of Our Next Generation (下一代幸福聯盟). With this base, they initiated a massive conservative wave that defeated the 2018 referenda that called for progressive changes such as legalising gay marriage.

Although the factions within the KMT remain largely split, it is clear the party as a whole sought to replicate its success in 2018 in the upcoming general election to return to power. Thus, they hypocritically raise anti-establishment slogans of “feel the pain of the people”, while once again blaming the issues on individual politicians’ morals rather than the system as a whole, in order to create a messianic image for Han Kuo-yu.

In addition, the KMT is leaning harder on socially conservative positions and rhetoric. Its politicians boldly spewed out misogynistic and discriminatory attacks against minorities. They also added former lieutenant general Wu Sz-huai(吳斯懷), who has an openly close relation with the CCP, as their party list candidate.[1]

Of course, we do not need to fear or overestimate the KMT’s own abilities. The rise of Han Kuo-yu has been decisively cut across by the eruption of the Hong Kong struggles. The Taiwanese masses have once again been reminded of the brutality of the CCP and the threat that the pro-China political forces in Taiwan may bring. On the other hand, Han was forced to run for president only a year after he was elected mayor of Kaohsiung, which shows that the KMT has no other viable candidates other than this accidental right-wing populist figure. This again reveals Taiwanese society’s widespread distaste towards the KMT. Yet, it is precisely the crisis that the DPP government brought forward that provided people like Han with their opportunities.

DPP manipulates the sense of “National Doom”

Although the mass discontent led to the DPP’s heavy defeat in the municipal elections of 2018, the events in Hong Kong fundamentally altered the situation in Taiwan. The DPP government took advantage of the Taiwanese masses’ fear of Chinese capitalism and its authoritarianism, and suddenly started styling itself as the “defender of democracy.” It is also leaning on this demagogy to accuse any detractors of being “Chinese infiltrators” that don't care about the potential impending doom of Taiwan as a country.

By manipulating this sense of “National Doom” among the people, the DPP successfully limited any voice of dissent, and won back support from many voters, particularly the youth, who are repulsed by the KMT and the CCP’s violence against Hong Kongers. Most recent polls indicate that Tsai has a commanding lead over Han. Illusions in the DPP as the party that can resist Chinese capital and consolidate Taiwan’s democracy have thus grown, but such an illusion is bound to be shattered by the DPP itself, in the likely event that they win a second term.

Taiwan elections 4 Image Freddy Lim Official FacebookWith the recent events in Hong Kong, the DPP has succeeded in regaining votes from the youth / Image: Freddy Lim Official Facebook

A simple overview of the DPP’s policies would suffice to reveal its ruling class nature. Whether it is over the issue of land rights, workers’ rights, or the rights of sexual minorities, the DPP either compromised with the conservative forces within and outside of the party, or openly united with other ruling class figures to crack down on the oppressed. From forcing the closure of the Lo-Sheng Sanitorium, bulldozing the Daguan neighbourhood, to ignoring or even slandering workers’ strikes, the DPP has consistently enforced the will of the rich and the corporations. When the laid-off highway toll workers staged a protest in front of the DPP headquarters, the police were mobilised to violently remove them. This behaviour stood in stark contrast to the DPP’s slogan of “defending democracy.”

It is true that many would view the DPP and Tsai Ing-wen as a means to temporarily halt the advancement of Chinese imperialism due to their “pro-Taiwan” and anti-China stances. Yet we must admit that another term of the DPP not only fundamentally solves nothing, but also could provide pro-China forces more opportunity to return in the future. The DPP is based on bourgeois elements that lean towards US imperialism or oppose the KMT/CCP for secondary reasons. As it became one leg of Taiwan’s two-party system since the 1990s, powerful conservative forces also consolidated their control over the party. The stunted wing of liberals and progressives in the DPP, which were a minority to begin with, are constantly forced to concede to the conservatives or even those within the party who are willing to reconcile with Chinese imperialism. The fact that Tsai Ing-wen’s running mate is William Lai, a main representative of the DPP’s mainstream conservative faction, reflects this reality. Under these circumstances, the DPP can only consistently push forward pro-capitalist policies that hurt the working class. Now, many business associations are calling on the DPP to initiate a third wave of labour counter-reforms, a demand that Tsai ultimately would have to comply with if she were to be re-elected. Even if she and the youthful “Ing faction” within the party attempt to put forward progressive measures, the conservatives within the party would be able to unite with other forces to put a check on Tsai, or even force her out of the presidency to be replaced by William Lai or others. This is why the DPP as a political party is fundamentally unable to bring any progress for Taiwanese society.

In these circumstances, if there isn’t a mass workers’ party in Taiwan, the discontent against the DPP could bring forward extremely reactionary forces. Aside from the KMT and Han Kuo-yu, there is also the recently established “Taiwan People’s Party” led by independent Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je. This party calls itself “neither Green (DPP) nor Blue (KMT),” but still has a pro-China and conservative programme. Its ranks are filled with politicians that defected from both the KMT and DPP in search of a new political vessel, or figures like Ann Kao, who is closely linked to Foxconn CEO Terry Guo. Although this so-called “anti-establishment” party is made up of transparently establishment figures, it is widely expected to replace the liberal New Power Party as the third biggest party in the Legislative Yuan in the upcoming election.

Taiwan elections 5 Image Taiwan Peoples Party Official FacebookKo Wen-je’s People’s Party is a repackaged group of bourgeois establishment politicians under the “anti-establishment” banner / Image: Taiwan People's Party Official Facebook

Whether the DPP and Tsai will win another term, or Han and the KMT score an unexpected victory, we can be certain that Taiwan will face turbulent times ahead, filled with crises and struggles. If Han manages to win, then struggles in the streets led by young people may arrive more immediately and furiously. Yet Taiwan’s present problems and the crisis of the system cannot be fundamentally solved through episodic protests and struggles. Therefore, the most urgent political task in Taiwan is to establish a mass workers’ party with a socialist programme, in order to combat Chinese and US imperialism, as well as the KMT and the DPP, and provide the Taiwanese workers a political alternative that belongs to them.

Lessons from the Third Force Parties

After 2014, expecting the KMT’s collapse to be imminent, small activist-based parties started to emerge, leading to a phenomenon known as the “Third Force.” These parties are primarily made up of petit-bourgeois social activists, with some who are individually famous, like Heavy Metal singer Freddy Lim. Within this current, those who slightly leaned towards left-wing liberalism would go on to form the New Power Party (NPP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP), while those leaning to the right formed the far-right Statebuilding Party.

As the world enters into crisis, the polarisation of society means that small liberal parties are either absorbed into a larger bourgeois party or face liquidation. The NPP’s imminent collapse reflects this reality. The NPP and the SDP both saw many of its most prominent members joining the DPP in recent times, while the Green Party also closely leans towards the bourgeois class, as represented by its leader Xavier Wang joining the slander against the Eva Air Strike and the Taoyuan Confederation of Trade Unions (TCTU) this year.

The above development shows that, unless it is a mass workers’ party, any “Third Force” party would either succumb to the pressures of the KMT and the DPP, or they would simply be a rallying point for political elites to advance their interests, such as the People’s Party. The “Third Force”, which aimed to be the third option outside of the Blue or Green camps, has decisively failed. As parties that neither have a mass base nor the means and perspectives to gain one, they are not able to gather resources from thousands of rank-and-file party members to fight against the boss’ parties that command vast resources and control the state apparatus.

A few activists from the labour movement, such as the ex-secretary general of both the TCTU and the Taoyuan Flight Attendant’s Union Lin Chia-wei, believe that they can speak for the workers by running for legislator as NPP members. It is true that the labour movement and the working class must have political representation, but the aim of running for elections should be first and foremost to promote the idea that the Taiwanese working class needs a party that belongs to them, thereby increasing the consciousness of class independence, as well as exposing the limits of the ROC state. Running as an NPP legislator would submit worker activists to the whims of the liberal petit-bourgeois party leaders, who have already been described as “lacklustre” when it comes to fighting for better workers’ conditions. Besides, the NPP’s own future as a party being bleak at best, we might as well use the precious time to work towards building a workers’ party with a mass base.

How to build a real political alternative?

As to how such a party would be built, we can look at Taiwan’s own history. As an example, the Taiwanese People’s Party led by Dr Chiang Wei-Shui in the late 1920s was openly a party based on workers and peasants, with close and deep class connections with the Taiwan Workers’ Alliance and the Peasant Tenants Unions (much unlike today’s People’s Party that hijacks the same name for demagogic purposes). In recent years, we also saw the efforts of China Airline Employee Union Secretary General Zhu Meixue and his team running for mayor of Taoyuan based on the slogan “Workers don’t support KMT/DPP.” This was a tactic to gather attention from the public to kickstart a union-led project that could develop an alternative grassroots network against the local clientele system controlled by the KMT and the DPP, which they hope could in turn aggregate to a nationwide workers’ party.

These are all very good starts, but will surely be met with frantic slander and pressure from the bourgeoisie. This is precisely why a workers’ party needs to actively recruit all rank-and-file workers, youth and the oppressed to democratically operate the party from the bottom up, in order to build up their own grassroots publications and amass resources to combat the capitalist class. Any socialists and labour activists and those who sincerely want Taiwan to have a more democratic society are duty-bound to help the building of this party.

Those who would be willing to support such a workers’ party must also recognise that the Taiwanese capitalist class’s exploitation and oppression against the working class, the capitalist crisis, and the working class’ general lack of voice in Taiwanese politics, have little to do with the “conscience” of this or that party or politicians. It all has to do with the ROC state and the deeply conservative capitalist system that it maintains in Taiwan. This system has oppressed the base of society for decades. Aside from the working class; women, indigenous people, children in poverty, migrant workers and sexual minorities are all deeply oppressed. Therefore, a working-class party not only has to fight on labour issues but needs to mobilise its powerful mass base to fight for the interests of all oppressed people, which can only be achieved by rooting out capitalism.

A decade of crisis ahead

Since the DPP took power in 2016, Taiwan has witnessed several key episodes of labour struggles. From the 2016 China Airline Strike and this year’s Eva Air Strike, to the migrant workers’ movements and organising drive (such as the Taoyuan Home-based Workers’ Union made up of primarily Filipino and Indonesian workers.) So far, however, these progressive industrial actions have yet to be the mainstream in Taiwan’s labour movement, while Taiwan’s labour organisation rate remains at a low level of 7 percent.

Taiwan elections 6 Image Taoyuan Flight Attendants Union Official FacebookThe EVA Air strike of 2019 was a historic episode of labour struggle that shows signs of things to come / Image: Taoyuan Flight Attendants Union Official Facebook

Nonetheless, as the 2020s are destined to be a decade of crisis, the Taiwanese working class and youth may start to fight against the entire ROC capitalist system with surprising speed and new methods. In that event, those labour leaders who are playing a radical role in the movement now may have considerable influence over mass movements in the future. The future line of struggle may take the form of moving away from the parliamentary political front and into the industrial front, or mass movements in the streets sparked by a single issue that ends up encompassing all aspirations of the working class, or the emergence of new mass political phenomenon from below.

Marxists will actively observe and participate in any struggles that are waged by the Taiwanese working class, and promote the programme and ideas of socialism within the movements, which can give them the necessary organisation, militancy, and longevity. This is the only way to build a mass workers’ party, democratically controlled by the workers, one that can unite with Chinese and all East Asian workers to fight against Chinese and US imperialism, and end capitalism in the region. This is the only way to create conditions where the Taiwanese people can meaningfully decide on their national future without capitalist and imperialist interference, instead of being trapped by the Blue Green parties and the shadows of the CCP's capitalist power.


[1] In Taiwan’s Legislature Elections, aside from seats tied to constituencies and seats reserved for indigenous representatives, there are also 34 seats allotted for at-large “Party List” candidates that are elected based on votes towards parties instead of individual candidates.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the RCI, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.