Picking the right type of status quo

Taiwan News

For the first time, more than half of Taiwanese think that there should be a perpetual status quo in the development of relations between Taiwan and China.

The figure of 55 percent comes from the United Daily News, a newspaper generally seen as staying firmly on the “blue” side of the political divide, with an editorial line generally supportive of the Kuomintang and its policies of rapprochement and eventual unification with China.

Therefore, the term “status quo” can be susceptible to various interpretations. The supporters of one line will claim the survey results prove they were right, while other side will do the same even though their ideas do not match.

The two Latin words used to be the prerogative of the “blue” side of the political spectrum, with KMT politicians saying the country could not abandon support for the idea of an eventual One China under the leadership of the Republic of China. Any move toward more independence for Taiwan and more distance from China would amount to a betrayal of the status quo, according to that line.

In the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, which Democratic Progressive Party candidate Chen Shui-bian would eventually win, the government sounded dire warnings about what his victory would do to relations with China, which were already none too bright.

The KMT camp said it would guarantee the status quo, while Chen would take the country on a dangerous course to independence, thus likely risking to provoke military aggression from China.

As such, the status quo meant adhering to the KMT mantra of eventual unification, while any other action amounting to endangering that same status quo in favor of independence and dangerous adventure.

Taiwan lived through the Chen years amid deteriorating relations with China, though they never went as far as the KMT had warned against. Taiwan did not declare independence, and Beijing did not launch a military invasion. In effect, the status quo survived, as did the Republic of China, with part of the population sticking by its ideal of Taiwan Independence and another part still swearing by unification.

The end of the Chen era in 2008 brought a total change of direction. Already in 2005, then-KMT Chairman Lien Chan paid a historic “ice-breaking” trip to China, the first such visit by a senior Taiwanese politician.

As soon as the KMT returned to power under President Ma Ying-jeou’s leadership, his government sought to improve relations with Beijing. A twice-a-year round of negotiations started, resulting in many agreements related to the economy, tourism and justice. However, when the connection with Beijing veered into wider issues, public opinion reacted.

Ma approved an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement which was seen as giving China too much influence over Taiwan’s economic development. As a result, massive protests tried to stop the project from going through, but they failed.

In the run-up to the 2012 presidential election, Ma spoke of signing a peace agreement with China. Since this was sure to affect issues of sovereignty and equality, public opinion reacted negatively, and Ma dropped the issue.

Public fears about the government’s moves again came to a head in the spring of 2014, when KMT lawmakers tried to force through the trade-in-services act with China against the widely held perception it would open the Taiwanese economy further and undermine its competitiveness and its security. Students and other protests invaded the Legislative Yuan and stayed there for several weeks, in an internationally noted expression of disapproval for the Ma Administration’s China policies.

The protests and occupations can be interpreted as a boomerang effect directed against President Ma’s departure from the status quo. The opposition reasoning is that the KMT governments of the past few years ditched their original interpretation of the status quo by moving Taiwan too close into China’s orbit. In other words, instead of Chen’s DPP, it was now Ma’s KMT which was perceived as posing the biggest threat to Taiwan’s status quo, and of having betrayed its own mantra by moving the country in the other direction, away from independence but toward unification.

So it remains to be seen what the targets of the United Daily News survey meant by giving a positive response to a plan for a “perpetual status quo.”

As we have seen, a status quo can be interpreted in two ways, stopping the KMT from moving closer to China, or preventing the DPP from declaring Taiwan Independence. Indeed, both sides of the political divide have now claimed the two Latin words as their own.

When DPP chairwoman and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen first said she favored the status quo, she caused consternation among some of her more enthusiastic supporters. Some could not believe their ears, and feared she was ditching the party’s tendency toward Taiwan Independence in favor of a KMT policy.

She soon succeeded in convincing them of her own interpretation of the status quo, i.e. preventing the KMT and Ma’s eventual successor from moving Taiwan way from its present sovereign and de facto independence status to a path where unification with China becomes irreversible.

The tactic was also designed to convince centrist voters suspicious of the DPP’s intentions that it was not a radical party bent on declaring de jure independence whatever the cost.

“Change” has often been used by politicians as a phrase to win votes, especially when an opposition candidate is up against a powerful government representative.

All polls in Taiwan suggest that Tsai will have no problem in her effort to end eight years of KMT rule.

“Change” can be for the better or for the worse, but what Tsai promises is a change which pushes the pendulum back to the center. The DPP leader looks eager to prevent a return to the days of stalemate during the Chen era, when the threats of missiles, anti-secession laws and defensive referendums were all the rage, but she also wants to put a stop to the mindless drift toward more Chinese influence.

The public has realized that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction, but it is also still uneasy about the other direction.

Opinion polls change too, so there is no guarantee about where the figure in favor of a perpetual status quo will be one year from now after a new president is inaugurated, or two or certainly five years from now.

What is certain, is that people want Taiwan to step back from the precipice, and if the status quo promises them continued sovereignty and independence, this is what they will choose.