The Green/Blue line
The division of Taiwan’s partisan politics is poisonous, and it’s hurting COVID efforts now
As somebody who spent most of my formative years outside of Taiwan, I often describe myself as non-partisan or perhaps even apolitical. It’s not that I don’t care about politics or policy, in the United States I am a proud Democrat, an NPR bag-totin’, Pete Buttigieg admirin’, oatmilk latte-sippin’ coastal Democrat. But here in Taiwan, I look askance at the “Green” vs “Blue” axis.
For those who don’t keep up with Taiwanese politics, the “Greens,” like the ruling DPP, are pro-Taiwanese independence while the “Blues” like the opposition KMT are more down to deal with China. How you end up with those affiliations is mostly tribal, although as wild swings in electoral fortune shows, there are definitely “silent middle” voters to be swayed.
To me, it’s just not healthy for a country to orient your entire axis of politics around a single issue involving a single country. I thought I was above this bitter Green/Blue infighting and when Taiwan grows up as a democracy, it will too. Then I went on a podcast with one of my best journalist friend in Taiwan. My admiration for Kwangyin practically knows no bounds. We agree on so much. Above all, we both identify, deeply, as liberals. Then we started talking about China.
I can’t find the quote in the podcast precisely, but the host, Jeremiah, asked what the liberal position ought to be on China. Kwanyin said, well, China should be treated as just another country. We shouldn’t trade with it or deal with it differently. That should be the liberal position.
My heart started beating faster, I could feel the adrenalin rush into my veins. Trying to keep my voice as neutral as possible, I replied something like…how could you say that?
I thought I was above it. I thought intelligent, cosmopolitan, nuanced people like Kwangyin and I can be above it. But in that moment, my emotions got the better of me and I had fallen down on the Green side of the Green/Blue line.
Rational conversation becomes impossible
Once you fall down on one side of the Green/Blue line, rational conversation becomes difficult, if not impossible (I like to think Kwangyin and I did an OK job, although as Jeremiah commented “it got intense in there.”)
Actually, most of the times when I get in intense conversations about Taiwan, I’m on the blue side of the Green/Blue line. As a geopolitical realist, I got my share of flak for my Crisis on Schrodinger’s Island post and associated tweets where I argued that it’s really a bad idea for Taiwan to flirt with de jure independence, and that strategic ambiguity, for as long as we can hold onto it, is actually the best think for keeping the peace across the Taiwan strait. Plenty of people agreed with that post, but for some others…how could you say that? How can you say that Taiwan must swallow its dreams of independence just to appease China? Before you knew it, I had a Green Twitter mob against me accusing me of being a traitorous CCP infiltrator. Won’t bore you with too many screenshots, but here one of the more charming ones where somebody tried to get me fired.
I don’t want it to sound like it’s just the Green side that becomes deranged when triggered. OMG I belong to some pan-blue online spaces, especially the pro-nuclear facebook groups, where Tsai-derangement syndrome is real. If anything, as the pan-blues are currently the more beaten-down side right now, their derangement is even more embarrassing and inexplicable to the outside world, as evidenced by a quickly-deleted tweet by the official English KMT twitter inexplicably calling Singaporean journo working in Taiwan Roy Ngerng a white supremacist, of all things, for a pretty mild post praising the president for being good at diplomacy. Rapid apologies followed, but screenshots are forever, y’all.
The fact that this post came from the official KMT account increases the gravity of its offense, to the point where it was picked up by the Hong Kong Free Press, and rightfully so. I don’t want to both-sides this. The KMT tweet is definitely worse because it comes from an official source. But the larger point I’m trying to make is…there is very little productive conversation happening across the Blue/Green line. At this point, there aren’t even reasonable battle fields where the two sides can meet and spar. Instead, we have countless bubbles on twitter, facebook group, PTT (the Reddit of Taiwan), TV talk shows, even the social chat app Line that’s either slanted Green or Blue where people meme themselves into a frenzy of hatred against their fellow Taiwanese for being on the wrong side of the green/blue line.
All this is very bad for politics
In my ideal world, the KMT would be a pragmatic center-right party building on its legacy of being strong on Bread and Butter issues and fostering economic growth. The DPP, on the other hand, would be a socially-liberal center-left party holding strong to its activist roots and being a voice for labor, social justice and the environment. The two parties should stick to their values, and try and make their case in front of the Taiwanese people for their policies, which should, ideally, be fairly consistent. C’mon. Isn’t that the least you can expect of political parties? The bare minimum?
But because of the single-issue nature of Taiwan’s politics, politicians get to flip flop just about for free on every single other issue. There are a certain set of issues that the party in charge always tries to get done while the party out of power always try to sabotage. The most classic of which has to be ractopamine.
You see, the US uses this dubious additive called ractopamine in animal feed to make farm animals gain muscle quickly. Is it bad for people’s health and should Taiwan ban it? Or let it through so that the US and Taiwan can sign a trade deal? It always depends if you’re the party in power!
About 9 years ago, President Ma was trying to hustle getting ractopamine-laced US meats legalized for import. Opposition leader Tsai made the above post on FB: “Food safety is the most important line of defense in our national security. From ractopamine to bird flu, the government’s grave shortcomings in food safety has been exposed (etc etc).”
Hey, guess who ended the ban on ractopamine-laced pork as president last year? President Tsai! And guess who devolved to literally chucking entrails on the floor of the country’s legislature to protest Tsai ending the ban? The KMT.
All of a sudden. Very concerned about Taiwanese food safety. Interesting!
OK I should stop. But just one more:
Opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen inspecting the precious algal reef of Datan circa 2013. She vowed on her facebook page that this precious biological heritage, which the KMT baddies are planning to destroy with an Liquid Natural Gas receiving terminal, must be protected!
Do I even have to say it? Now the 3rd LNG receiving terminal is a keystone project for President Tsai’s energy transition plant and the KMT has joined up with environmental groups in the strangest bedfellows in politics ever and petitioned for a referendum to torpedo the LNG plant that they planned themselves with a way bigger footprint than the current plans.
The Center Cannot Hold
Since Tsai’s landslide re-election in 2020 the KMT have been so beaten-down and driven into the political wilderness that I really thought they would go the way of the whigs. But it wasn’t very long ago, in 2018, when the DPP were completely routed in the local and mayoral elections and it seems Tsai hasn’t the slightest hope of holding onto power.
What shifted Tsai’s political fortunes? Looks like Hong Kong to most commentators. It’s tough to be the “hey let’s do business with China and all make lots of money” party when everyone can see what the Chinese were up to in Hong Kong. In fact, KMT presidential candidate went from being a likely contender for the top job to being ousted from his job as Kaohsiung’s mayor for being too pro-China.
But the thing to remember is even when it looks like everything is going one party’s way in Taiwan, whether it’s in 2021 with the DPP on top or 2018 with the KMT on top, there’s always at least 40% of the population on the other side of that Green/Blue line, seething in silence or in their own private safe spaces online, plotting their revenge. And the most direct way to do that is almost always to find the most brutal way to kick the ruling party in the ribs.
This is where COVID comes in…
This post is already too long (a common theme in Taipology) so I’ll wrap it up quick. The Pan-blues (KMT plus Taiwan People’s Party) are now politicizing Taiwan’s current COVID outbreak in a way I consider deeply unhelpful. For instance, throwing doubt on the efficacy of the indigenous vaccine that has not yet gone through phase three trials but passed phased 2 with flying colors.
Taipei’s Mayor Ko Wen-je (of the TPP), meanwhile, has taken to daily news-conferences that seem more interested in criticizing the central government’s response than Taipei City’s own business.
I myself have criticized the government’s response to the current COVID outbreak as being too mild. But daily counter-news-conferences between the mayor of Taiwan’s biggest city scheduled right after the daily CECC briefings is too much (thankfully they will no longer be daily going forward.) I mean, this was the kind of thing that was said (translation from the pan-blue United Daily News):
Mayor Ko would criticize the CECC for being wrong in their heads. Facing Deputy Minister Shih’s claims that New Taipei City/Taipei City still had 1,500 beds, Ko immediately fired back that if Shih and Ko were both still colleagues at Taiwan University Hospital “You dare talk trash to me like that, I’d be already chucking case files in your general direction.”
Maybe it’s too much to ask. After all, it’s not as if the Republicans and the Democrats declared a truce for COVID in the states. But having done so well as a country, would it not be possible for the DPP and the Pan-blues to work together until we’ve seen through the current crisis?
Oh who am I kidding, of course it’s too much to ask. Between the COVID outbreak, the rolling blackouts in May and the upcoming August 28th referendums, the KMT is primed for a comeback. The moment when we most need our central and local government to work together as a team is also the moment when they are calculating their respective 2024 chances.
So, how do we break this cycle?
Everybody hates this.
Everybody in Taiwan knows about the eternal cycles of bad-faith blue-green demagoguery and they hate it. And yet somehow we cannot break free from it.
Maybe it all starts with letting the people in the middle have a voice. We know they exist. Taiwan wouldn’t swing back and forth if they did not. But they don’t dare say a word because if they did they’d get sniped from both sides.
I don’t have any answers for how, but we need to get from how could you say that? to Let me hear what you have to say.
My boring answer revolves around two. First, our institutions (many are legacies from the authoritarian era) are designed around a unitary executive. Note how our Legislators lack both the oversight power in Madisonian systems (the Control Yuan after a few years can have zero opposition party members, as currently) nor the power to take down erratic government as in Westminster systems (yes, the Premier can lose a no-confidence vote but this is meaningless as evidenced by there have been zero such attempts even when the parliament is held by the opposition). In our system the President holds all the power but is unaccountable to the other branches while the Premier is held accountable but doesn't have real power to set policy (I joke that this is inspired by Chinese Imperial system where the Emperor often kills the Grand Chancellor as a scapegoat when things go wrong). Additionally compare and contrast with how there are no serious discussion to close down OAN or Newsmax in the US, despite them engaging in much crazier version of fake news, not because Americans all hold deep liberal principles (many illiberal Leftists wish to control speech nowadays) but that on a practical level, such an action is logistically impossible with how FCC is constituted (and even if they could manage for a few months, people expect the closure would be stuck down by any judge even in today's partisan climate). The opposite is true with our institutions.
The second is generally weak-minded politicians in both parties. Part of this is historical--both parties are Leninist are thus the leader's power is absolute, but you wonder when seeing 高嘉瑜 or 王世堅 speaking out for popular opinions instead of toeing the party line, why there aren't more politicians who aren't cowards clinging to their leader. Not coincidentally both Kao and Wang are not members of any faction within the DPP, thus when they are attacked other party members often pile on; but OTOH they don't need to return the favor with unquestioning support for in-groups either. I dare say our politicians act more like those in the US's Gilded Ages, where the primary motivation is currying favors and monetary gains, and the rhetoric are for only electoral purposes instead of reflection of any firm principle (thus as you point out, can be readily abandoned when inconvenient); you see this also in the way our party factions are organized around personality rather than policies. I'm pessimistic it will become any better--now that the US is no longer the world's only superpower there are going to be people saying, well, the autocratic models work as well. As we are starting to discover with America's retrenchment, from Hungary to Israel to India to Turkey, small-d democrats where liberal democracy is non-negotiable is in the minority.
Good points expressed with your typical flair. It is sad that Taiwan politcs has been exclusively defined by identity politics in one form or another since the complete democratic transition in the later 90s. So many important social and economic issues have fallen by the wayside, or have simply been edged out.