Taiwan: Tsai administration attempts to maintain status quo under crisis

On 20 May, Tsai Ing-wen officially began her second term as Taiwan’s president. Against the backdrop of the world capitalist system rapidly descending into a historic crisis, Tsai’s inauguration speech betrays her and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government’s intention to maintain the status quo for Taiwan as per usual. Yet, in the context of the unabating pandemic, the collapsing global economy, and the class struggles that inevitably will follow, the Tsai government, with its “progressive” image, could only pursue the course of attacking the workers to protect the status quo for the capitalists. The workers and youth of Taiwan must be prepared for these attacks ahead.

The loose foundation underneath Tsai’s high approval rating

In Taiwan’s general election that took place earlier this year, Tsai won a second term by obtaining more votes than any presidential candidates ever since direct presidential elections were instituted in Taiwan. The DPP was also able to maintain the absolute majority in the Legislative Yuan it won in 2016. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the Tsai government has been able to control the cumulative cases of infection at around 450 to date via Taiwan’s healthcare system and an early response to the outbreak. This was achieved despite a massive number of people going between Taiwan and China. For example, in 2018 over 6.1 million Taiwanese visited China, while over 2 million Chinese people travelled to Taiwan in the same year. Under these objective conditions, the Tsai government and Health Minister Chen Shih-Chung’s success in controlling the pandemic gained international acclaim. In turn, Tsai’s domestic approval reached an all-time high of 74.5 percent ahead of her inauguration.

Tsai’s gravitas at the moment is entirely down to the recent changes in the objective situation, and could vanish just as quickly as it arrived. Only two years ago, the DPP government suffered a catastrophic defeat in the nationwide municipal elections, having pushed through several labour rights counterreforms, hesitated on making good on socially liberal campaign promises like legalizing gay marriage, and generally allowed Taiwan’s capitalist economy to slide into crisis. Tsai’s approval rating at the time was as low as 19 percent. Only after the eruption of Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Movement, which reminded the Taiwanese masses of the brutality of the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship, did the masses turn back to Tsai, who is relatively more firm against Xi Jinping, in order to defeat the KMT’s extremely reactionary and pro-Chinese candidate Han Kuo-yu.

In the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic, Taiwan’s state-run universal health insurance system allowed the government to rapidly coordinate logistics to prepare for the disease outbreak. As early as 20 January, the government had amassed 44 million surgical masks, 1.9 million N95 masks, and 1100 negative-pressure isolation rooms to combat the pandemic. These are not feats of the Tsai government alone, but were made possible by Taiwan’s existing public health system, and the preparatory work against a pandemic that was already in preparation since the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s. If Taiwan today had a highly marketized and privatized healthcare system like that of the US, then no administration could pull together a sufficiently timely response.

Taiwan COVIDThe successes of Taiwan’s containment efforts are not feats of the Tsai government alone, but were made possible by Taiwan’s existing public health system, and the preparatory work against a pandemic that was already in preparation since the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s

The above objective situation temporarily strengthened support for Tsai Ing-wen’s government. In actuality, this kind of mood for “national unity” propagated by bourgeois governments can be seen internationally. Before a pandemic and economic collapse, the panicking masses may for a time accept these slogans, but later on the bourgeoisie inevitably would have to attack the working class, which in turn could rapidly dissipate such a mood. From Tsai’s inaugural address, we can also see how various policies of the DPP government similarly implies this bourgeois party’s unavoidable attack on the Taiwanese workers.

The DPP Government Maintains the Status Quo

Historically, the most consequential segment of Taiwanese presidents’ inauguration speeches tend to be each of their positions regarding relations with China. Tsai’s speech not only reflects the fact that her government intends to maintain the status quo across the Taiwan Strait, it also intends to maintain the deteriorating status quo of capitalist society.

Although the Beijing regime continued to accuse the DPP to be a pro-Taiwanese Independence party, the DPP has repeatedly proven itself to be incapable of pushing for de jure independence of Taiwan. They only bring up Taiwanese Independence during election campaigns to manipulate nationalist sentiments for more votes, as well as papering over other important social issues. As for Tsai, the slogan for her most-recent election campaign turned out to be “defend the Republic of China-Taiwan,” i.e. maintaining the bourgeois state apparatus of the ROC that the KMT imposed on the Taiwanese people after World War II.

Despite her sharp tones, Tsai’s inauguration address shows not an iota of willingness to change the status quo around the Taiwan Strait. The status quo of Taiwan is an independent bourgeois state that exists in East Asia under the title “Republic of China.” It remains a buffer state between the clashing US and Chinese imperialism within the region. A buffer state is a transitional stage towards becoming a dependent nation of one power or another. As the contradictions between US and Chinese imperialism exacerbate globally without a possibility for an all-out war to break out as a resolution, the two sides can only enhance their compradores within smaller countries as a means to expand their own spheres of influence.

For Chinese imperialism, Taiwan holds exceptional economic and strategic value, whether or not the CCP is able to annex Taiwan is a pillar of their own dictatorship’s legitimacy. Yet Xi Jinping has been rendered a one-trick-pony by the objective situation when it comes to Taiwan. Other than doubling down on all kinds of threats, he is completely powerless in stopping the vast majority of the Taiwanese people from refusing to unify with today’s China. The CCP could only stand idly by while its traditional comprador the KMT continues to reel in internal chaos. Although the CCP regime kept on spewing Chinese nationalist chauvinist propaganda towards the Taiwan question, lately it has been forced to rein in a product of such chauvinism. Namely, the Chinese netizens who are are calling upon the CCP to immediately “unify” with Taiwan militarily while the US is handling its own pandemic. One of the Chinese Regime’s official outlets (www.taiwan.cn) was recently forced to publish an article reminding the masses that the “need for militarily unify with Taiwan is not yet imminent.”

As China loses its influence within Taiwan, but still refuses to compromise with the Tsai government, the DPP fully embraced US and European imperialist powers, especially the most rightwing and anti-Chinese elements within these camps. Tsai’s inauguration ceremony featured video messages from politicians around the world, including some extremely reactionary figures from right-wing and far-right parties. These enemies of the workers in their own countries happily congratulate Tsai not out of a genuine concern for the Taiwanese masses, but to hit out at China for their own purposes.

Pompeo Image US State DepartmentExtremely reactionary politicians from Europe and the US, such as Mike Pompeo, have congratulated Tsai / Image: US State Department

In today’s conditions, maintaining the state of the Republic of China instead of giving the Taiwanese people the democratic right of self-determination, remains the most-favorable status quo for the Western imperialists. On the other hand, the Taiwanese bourgeois that relied on the Chinese market in the past are losing their determining influence there, as they can no longer compete with the big bourgeoisie emerging inside China. This is why large corporations like Foxconn are gradually moving out of China and entering into other markets, including Taiwan. These capitalists that used to be staunch backers of the KMT can now only enforce their will upon society via the DPP. Given such international and domestic pressures, the Tsai DPP government can only maintain the status quo, not only in terms of cross-strait relations, but also in terms of Taiwan’s social realities.

The suffocating social status quo

Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has already significantly shocked the Taiwanese economy. According to Economy Daily, in March over 9,000 people have received unemployment benefits, a 24 percent year-over-year growth. The overall recipient of unemployment benefits is now more than 37,000 people, a 13.3 percent year-over-year increase. Around 15,000 workers have been furloughed despite Taiwan’s effective containment of the virus. Recently, the government was compelled to drastically increase government spending as well as issuing “stimulus bills” that would cost them $1.5 billion USD to stimulate economic activities.

It remains to be seen how the government will implement their stimulus policies, but from the Tsai administration’s past records of reneging on social policies and attacking Taiwanese workers, we can make a surefire bet which class’ interests the DPP will prioritise under the capitalist system.

Though the DPP habitually claims that workers are “the softest spot in their hearts,” the DPP and the Tsai administration drastically pushed the “one holiday one rest day, cut seven holidays” counter reform that lengthened the working hours of the Taiwanese workers. Tsai’s government also planned on attacking pensions, and a third wave of counter-reform on the Labor Standard Laws, although the pandemic has halted their plans for now. Yet even under the pandemic, the DPP government is still unable to provide necessary raises for key workers. For example, the medical workers that were mobilized by the government to help with the containment effort are paid with subsidies less than what was paid to them during the SARS epidemic, causing some medics to see their effective income sinking below the minimum wage, while fighting the pandemic. The Ministry of Labor, in the face of a pandemic and an economic crisis, still budgeted over $700,000 NTD (around $23,000) of legal expenses in their lawsuit with highway toll workers who were laid off by the state.

Towards the ongoing housing crisis in Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen promised a three-prong strategy to resolve during her 2016 election campaign. This included building 200,000 units of social housing, establishing a publicly transparent real estate market information board run by the state, and improvement in the housing rental process in Taiwan. Not only would the specific proposals she made not help the youth, which is the layer of society most critically in need of housing relief; but to this day, her policies are insufficiently implemented, while the housing cost of Taiwan continues to rise.

As for the long-term care services for the elderly and those in medical need that Tsai promised to strengthen, she has done so by raising taxes on tobacco and an alcohol sales tax, thereby placing the burden of financing these social services upon consumers. However, the government spending for the long-term care services remains only 0.2 percent of Taiwan’s GDP. Aside from the quality of these services being lackluster, in many cases people still would have to pay for elder homes or caregivers out of their pockets. As Taiwan’s elderly population is projected to grow above 20 percent of the overall population by 2026, the current long-term care services are completely unable to handle future needs.

The DPP inherited all these conditions from the KMT, but they’ve done nothing to meaningfully change them. Their inability to turn these situations around is not just the failure of individual politician’s characters or will, but because they are a party that is completely controlled by the capitalist class and imperialist forces. As world history is entering into a new phase of crisis, the DPP not only would not improve the status quo, but would make the workers pay for the crises that the bosses created. In the early phase of handling the COVID-19 pandemic, the government may first choose to go into massive debt in order to stimulate some economic growth, but these measures will not fundamentally solve the systemic problem that is inherent in capitalism. At some point, the DPP government would have to place the cheque in front of the working class.

The Taiwanese working class needs political representation

The DPP that governs with an absolute majority is also absolutely showing that they defend the painful status quo in Taiwan, while Taiwanese politics today only offer poor alternatives, from the KMT steeped in crisis, to the waning NPP, to the TPP that has no other principle than serving the bourgeoisie. These political forces ultimately work to keep Taiwan under the yoke of Chinese and US imperialism. Only through a workers’ party built by trade unions and grassroots community organizations that puts forward a program that can represent the interest of the majority of society (i.e. a revolutionary program of socialism, anti-imperialism, workers’ democracy, democratic planned economy, and internationalism), can the Taiwanese toiling masses be liberated from the hellish reign of imperialism, the state of ROC, and capitalism itself. The task of the Taiwanese Marxists is to promote these ideas among the Taiwaense workers and youth, whose class consciousness is already on the rise, and through this organize these militant elements into a revolutionary organization.