China-Taiwan Tensions and the Guomindang’s Existential Crisis

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People’s Republic of China vs Republic of China (Taiwan). CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In November 2014 the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party) suffered a defeat in Taiwan’s local elections, winning 40.7% of the votes and only 6 out of 22 local seats. The main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), gained 47.5% of the votes. This setback led to the resignation en masse of the Guomindang executive cabinet.

It was widely believed that the Guomindang’s declining popularity was caused by its policy of rapprochement with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The controversial signing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) between Taiwan and mainland China was opposed by a majority of Taiwanese and resulted in the formation of the Sunflower Movement. Students occupied the parliament and eventually forced President Ma Ying-jeou to scale down his efforts to improve relations with the CCP.

The Guomindang did not draw the right conclusions from its electoral backlash. Instead of steering towards a more moderate policy, in June 2015 the Guomindang endorsed candidate Hong Xiuzhu (Wade-Giles: Hung Hsiu-chu), who stood out for her conservative pro-China views.

Hong’s poll ratings were so low that a few months later her own party ditched her, replacing her at an emergency meeting in October 2015 with Eric Chu, Guomindang chairman and mayor of New Taipei City. However, Eric Chu did not dissociate himself from Ma Ying-jeou’s pro-China stance. In May 2016, he travelled to mainland China to meet with President Xi Jinping. a move that further alienated Taiwanese voters. In the 2016 presidential elections, the DPP won 44.1% of the votes, while the Guomindang garnered a mere  26.9% of the votes.

Yet, once again, instead of aligning itself with moderate voters who viewed close Taipei-Beijing ties with suspicion, the Guomindang turned again to Hong Xiuzhu, electing her as its chairwoman – the party’s first female leader. Ahead of the chairmanship elections due in May 2017, the candidates are once again debating how to handle relations with the Communist Party, an issue that has been at the heart of the Guomindang’s internal struggles since the 1920s. Will the Guomindang be marginalized by the DPP and its Taiwan-centric stance? Or will it once again redefine itself so as to appeal to voters who reject closer ties with Beijing?

The Guomindang and the Communist Party

In December 1922, Adolph Joffe, Ambassador of the Soviet Union to China, arrived in Shanghai to negotiate with Sun Yat-sen on the terms of co-operation between the Guomindang and the Communists (see: Shao Chuan Leng / Norman D. Palmer: Sun Yat-Sen and Communism, 1960, p. 62). Sun Yat-sen, confronted with the failure of his Republican revolution, wanted to defeat the warlords who dominated China and prevented its modernization. At first he had hoped that Western liberal countries would support his cause. When he realized that foreign powers had no interest in strengthening China or defending it against Japanese aggression, Sun turned to Soviet Russia, which claimed to oppose imperialism and colonialism.

Read also: The Guomindang, The Communist Party And Leninism

However, Guomindang-Communist collaboration posed two fundamental questions: were the Soviets sincere in promoting the cause of the Nationalists, or did they view Sun’s revolution as a “bourgeois” uprising that was to pave the way for the ultimate triumph of Communism? Could the Guomindang work with the Communists without sowing the seeds of its own destruction?

Though he admired Soviet revolutionary tactics, Sun Yat-sen opposed Marxism. He did not believe in class struggle or in the doctrine that capitalism would implode due to its inherent contradictions. Sun thought that inequality and exploitation were problems that could be solved within a capitalist framework through reform and wealth redistribution. In his Three Principles of the People, he wrote:

What is the cause of social evolution? …  Judging by Marx’s theory, we would have to say that social change is caused by class struggle and class struggle is caused by the capitalist oppression of workers. Since the interests of capitalists and workers inevitably conflict and cannot be reconciled, struggle ensues and this struggle within society is what makes for progress. Look, however, at the actual facts of social progress in the West during the last few decades. Best of all has been the development of socialized distribution which destroys the monopoly of the tradesman …

When production is large and products are rich, the capitalists naturally make fortunes and the workers receive high wages. From this point of view, when the capitalists improve the living conditions of the workers and increase their productivity, the workers can produce more for the capitalists. On the capitalists’ side, this means greater production; on the workers’ side, higher wages. Here is a reconciliation of the interests of capitalists and workers, rather than a conflict between them. Society progresses, then, through the adjustment of major economic interests rather than through the clash of interests. If most of the economic interests of society can be harmonized, the majority of people will benefit and society will progress.

Class war is not the cause of social progress, it is a disease developed in the course of social progress. The cause of the disease is the inability to subsist, and the result of the disease is war. What Marx gained through his studies of social problems was a knowledge of diseases in the course of social progress (Sun Yat-Sen: San Min Chu I: The Three Principles of the People, ed. L. T. Chen, trans. Frank W. Price, 1927, pp. 382, 390-391).

As we can see, Sun was a moderate who rejected the most dogmatic and extreme tenets of Marxist thought. During his negotiations with the Russians, he succeeded in convincing the Bolshevik emissary that a Soviet-style revolution was not possible in China. This viewpoint was expressed in a joint statement released by Sun and Joffe on January 26, 1923:

Dr. Sun Yat-sen holds that the Communistic order or even the Soviet system cannot actually be introduced into China, because there do not exist here the conditions for the successful establishment of either Communism or Sovietism. This view is entirely shared by Mr. Joffe, who is further of opinion that China’s paramount and most pressing problem is to achieve national unification and attain full national independence, and regarding this great task he has assured Dr. Sun Yat-sen that China has the warmest sympathy of the Russian people and can count on the support of Russia (Leng / Palmer 1960, p. 63).

In September 1923, the Soviet government sent Michail Borodin as a political and military adviser to Guangzhou, then capital of the Guomindang military regime in southern China (ibid., p. 67). Borodin found the Guomindang in a precarious condition. He candidly pointed out the party’s faults and weaknesses:

In the first place, the Kuomintang organization is very incomplete, and there is no discipline worth speaking of. Second, there are many impure elements in the Kuomintang, corrupt bureaucrats and adventurers. Then the Kuomintang lacks a popular basis in the form of the organization of the masses (ibid., p. 68).

Borodin helped Sun Yat-sen and his followers restructure the Guomindang along Soviet, Leninist lines, thus transforming the loose organization into a disciplined, top-to-bottom, militarized party.

However, Moscow was playing a double game. Despite endorsing the Guomindang, the Soviets obviously pursued the long-term goal of promoting Communism. Therefore, their natural ally was the Chinese Communist Party, which had been founded in 1921 in Shanghai. But Russia understood that China wasn’t yet ready for a Soviet-style revolution, since Communism wasn’t popular among the Chinese intelligentsia, and there was no proletariat worth speaking of. Moscow deemed it wiser to help the Guomindang, disrupt the old system, and in the meantime promote the growth of Communism.

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In January 12, 1923, the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern) passed a resolution that acknowledged the preeminence of the Guomindang as the leader of the Chinese revolutionary movement. However, the wording of the resolution hinted at the fact that the Communist-Guomindang entente was only a temporary compromise on the road to the development of a Soviet-inspired uprising. The resolution stated:

Insofar as the independent working class movement in the country is still weak, insofar as the central task confronting China is to carry out the national revolution against the imperialists and their feudal agents … the E.C.C.I. considers that it is necessary to coordinate the activities of the Kuomintang and of the young Communist Party of China (Leng / Palmer 1960, pp. 69-70).

The Kremlin openly advised the Communist Party to form a strategic alliance with the Guomindang, but not to merge with it. The two parties should remain separate and work together to complete Sun’s national revolution by defeating the warlords, uniting China, and carrying out basic economic and social reforms.

The Third National Congress of the CCP held in January 1923 passed a resolution that allowed members of the CCP to join the Guomindang. The party described the Guomindang as “the central force of the national revolution” and urged “all revolutionary elements” in Chinese society to give their support to the Guomindang. Nevertheless, the document stressed that “the Chinese Communist Party never forgets for one moment to support the interests of the workers and peasants…. Our mission is to liberate the oppressed Chinese nation by a national revolution, and to advance to the world revolution, liberating the oppressed peoples and oppressed classes of the whole world” (ibid., p. 70).

Liu Renjing, a Chinese Communist leader, explained at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in Moscow what the CCP wanted to achieve through its alliance with the Guomindang:

There are two reasons for this [joining the Kuomintang ]. In the first place, we want to propagandize the many organized workers in the national-revolutionary Party and win them over for us. In the second place, we can only fight imperialism if we can combine our forces, the forces of the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat…. If we do not join this Party, we shall remain isolated and we shall preach a Communism which consists of a great and noble ideal, but one which the masses do not follow.

The masses certainly would follow the bourgeois Party, and this Party would use the masses for its purpose. If we join the Party, we shall be able to show the masses that we too are for a revolutionary democracy, but that for us revolutionary democracy is only a means to an end. Furthermore, we shall be able to point out that although we are for this distant goal, we nevertheless do not forget the daily needs of the masses. We shall be able to gather the masses around us and split the Kuomintang Party (ibid., pp. 71-72).

It seems clear that, in spite of all reassurances on the part of the Soviets, the real aim of the Communists was to advance their own revolutionary cause at the expense of the Guomindang’s “bourgeois” movement.

Sun Yat-sen’s association with the Communists caused the Guomindang’s first existential crisis. Many Guomindang members viewed the CCP and the Soviets with suspicion, and believed that an alliance between the two movements would be harmful to the cause of the national revolution. The Guomindang split into a left wing, which endorsed the alliance with the Communists, and a right wing, which opposed it.

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Sun Yat-sen (seated) with his son Sun Fo (1911, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The right wing was represented by prominent leaders such as Dai Jitao (who later committed suicide when the Communists seized power in 1949), Zou Lu (who became a prominent Guomindang historian),  Lin Sen, Xie Chi, and the future Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. They did not openly challenge Sun Yat-sen, whose prestige and position were unquestioned among his followers, but they did frankly express their dissatisfaction (Leng  / Palmer 1960, p. 72; see also: Sun Yat-Sen: Nanyang and the 1911 Revolution, ed. by Lee Lai To, Lee Hock Guan, 2011, p. 78).

Chiang Kai-shek knew the Soviet Union better than many of his Guomindang comrades, because in 1923 he had  been sent by Sun Yat-sen on a special mission to Moscow to study the Soviet political system and military organization. However, his stay in the Soviet Union made such an unfavourable impression on him that he became a staunch opponent of Communism. In his memoirs, he wrote:

During the three months in Russia we studied its party, the military and political organizations, inspected various installations and listened to briefings by responsible officials …

I could tell that the Communist International did not fully understand the real nature of China’s National Revolution and arbitrarily divided Chinese society into classes and advocated struggles between them. In fact, they paid more attention to the task of devising ways against their friends than their foes. I was profoundly disappointed.

From my observation of the ways whereby discussions were held and resolutions were passed in the Soviets at various levels and from my conversations with important party and political leaders, I easily perceived that fierce struggles, both open and secret, were going on among various sections of the Russian society and among the Russian Communists themselves.

I became more convinced then ever that Soviet political institutions were instruments of tyranny and terror and basically incompatible with Kuomintang’s political system which is based on the Three People’s Principles. This was something that I had to go to Russia to find out; I could never have imagined it if I had remained in China (Chiang Kai-Shek: Soviet Russia in China: A Summing-Up at Seventy, 1957, pp. 19-21).

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Chiang Kai-shek in 1923 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After returning to China, Chiang Kai-shek shared his observations with Sun Yat-sen personally, and in March 1924, he wrote a letter to the party leadership, explaining:

The Russian Communist Party, in its dealings with China, has only one aim, namely, to make the Chinese Communist Party its chosen instrument. It does not believe that our Party can really cooperate with it for long for the sake of ensuring success for both parties (ibid., p. 23). 

Chiang Kai-shek’s concerns echoed the views of other Guomindang right-wingers. Sun Yat-sen, however, dismissed Chiang’s objections, arguing that the Guomindang needed Soviet help, and that after the Guomindang had united China and implemented the Three Principles of the People, it would be too late for the Chinese Communists to sabotage the national revolution (ibid., p. 25).

At the First National Congress of the Guomindang, held in January 1924, Sun Yat-sen defended his decision to collaborate with the Communists:

The Communists are joining our Party in order to work for the national revolution. We are, therefore, bound to admit them. If our own members are only active in their propaganda of the principles of the Party, and build up a strong organization and submit unquestioningly to Party discipline, we need have nothing to fear from Communist machinations. In any case, if the Communists betray the Kuomintang, I will be the first to propose their expulsion (Leng / Palmer 1960, pp. 70- 71).

Sun’s words show that he was aware of the conflict of interests between the two parties and understood the uneasiness of Guomindang members. Despite the reluctance of the right-wingers, the party stood behind Sun and endorsed the alliance with the Communists. Henceforth members of the Communist Party could join the Guomindang as long as they accepted the goal of realizing the national revolution.

Li Dazhao, one of the founders of the CCP, tried to reassure skeptical Guomindang members: “We join this Party as individuals, not as a body,” he said at the Congress. “[W]e shall carry out its political program and abide by its constitution and bylaws. We shall obey the disciplinary measures or punishment imposed by this Party in case we fail to do so” (ibid.).

The alliance between the two parties, which became known as the First United Front, was made possible by the charisma and leadership of Sun Yat-sen. But when he died in 1925, the tensions between the left and right-wing factions of the Guomindang escalated. After bitter internal struggles, Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the new leader of the party.

Initially, he didn’t break with his predecessor’s policy of collaboration with the Communists. He needed their support to carry out the Northern Expedition, a military campaign aimed at defeating the warlords, unifying China and establishing a Guomindang central government in Nanjing.

Yet as soon as victory had been won, Chiang turned against his former allies. Shortly after Shanghai had been brought under Nationalist control,  Communists and trade unions organized a strike in the city. Chiang decided to crack down on the labour movement and in the process destroy the CCP. He used his connections with the Green Gang, a powerful criminal syndicate. The mobsters mobilized hundreds of people on behalf of Chiang, and on April 12, 1927, they launched an attack on the Communists (Bertil Lintner: Blood Brothers: Crime, Business and Politics in Asia, 2002, p. 38).

The persecution of Communists as well as real or alleged Communist sympathizers lasted until August of that year. Thousands of people were shot, arrested and tortured, the Guomindang was ‘purged’ of Communists and of leftist Guomindang members. Chiang’s ‘white terror’ resulted in the death of an estimated 5000 people (ibid., p. 39). The ensuing rivalry between the Guomindang and the Communist Party defined China’s political landscape during the Nationalist era (1927-1949) and culminated in the bloody Chinese Civil War (1946-1949).

At the end of the Second World War, Chiang Kai-shek launched an offensive against the Communists, in an attempt to wipe them out once and for all. Yet his troops suffered one crushing defeat after another, and when he realized that his regime was doomed, he began to plan a strategic retreat to Taiwan. The island was slowly built up as a future base for the reconquest of the Chinese mainland.

By early 1949, 300,000 loyal troops as well as art collections from Beijing’s Imperial Palace and the city’s archives were transferred to Taiwan. Even in defeat, the Guomindang was using propaganda to shape its image as the sole custodian of Chinese cultural heritage (Jonathan D. Spence: The Search for Modern China, 1999, p. 485).

Read: The 228 Incident – The Uprising that Changed Taiwan’s History

While Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing, Chiang Kai-shek resettled the Republic of China (ROC) government and the Guomindang apparatus to Taiwan, bringing about the Beijing-Taipei split which lasts to this day . Communists and Nationalists both claimed to be the sole legitimate government of the all of China. From his Taiwanese exile, Chiang Kai-shek continued to oppose Communism, to prophesy the collapse of Mao’s regime, and to proclaim that one day Guomindang troops would retake the mainland.

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Chiang Kai-shek attending a military parade in Taipei in 1966 (photo by Les Duffin via Wikimedia Commons)

Under his leadership, which lasted for 48 years until his death in 1975, the Guomindang was an uncompromisingly anti-Communist party that saw itself as the sole representative of the Chinese people. Chiang Kai-shek’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo, succeeded his father and maintained the policy of unyielding opposition to the Communist regime on the mainland.

However, the end of the Cold War, the democratization of Taiwan under Chiang’s successor, Lee Teng-hui, as well as Beijing’s reform and opening up policy, fundamentally changed relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The Lee Teng-hui Era, the ‘1992 Consensus’ and the ‘Two-States Solution’

As chairman of the Guomindang and president of the ROC, Lee Teng-hui is credited for having ended one-party rule and promoted reforms that transformed Taiwan into a democracy. As far as relations with Beijing are concerned, in the first years of his tenure Lee was careful not to challenge the ideology of the old Guomindang elite.

In February 22, 1988, Lee held his first press conference as president, declaring that national unification was “the goal toward which we must continue to struggle”. But he clarified that China would be unified only under Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People, and not on Communist terms (Richard Bush: Lee Teng-Hui and “Separatism”. In: Dangerous Strait: The U.S.–Taiwan–China Crisis, ed. Nancy Bernkopf Tucker, 2005, p.72).

However, Lee Teng-hui departed from his predecessors’ rhetoric in that he for the first time emphasized democratization as a precondition for unification and as a goal for China as a whole. He categorically rejected Beijing’s  “Four Cardinal Principles” (the socialist road, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the leadership of the Communist Party, and Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought).

He also rebuffed the “one country, two systems” formula that the Communist Party had proposed for Hong Kong and Macau. He condemned the CCP’s attempt at “localizing the ROC government through united front maneuvers”, through pressure and the threat of the use of force (ibid., p.73). On the other hand, Lee Teng-hui also condemned Taiwanese independence movements, reaffirming the ROC’s commitment to a “one China” policy (ibid.).

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Lee Teng-hui (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After having been reelected as President in May 1990 and having consolidated his power base, Lee Teng-hui’s tone gradually began to shift, revealing a “Taiwan-centric” attitude that in many ways contradicted, though it did not entirely reject, conservative Guomindang discourse. In his 1990 inauguration speech, he said:

If the Chinese communist authorities can recognize the overall world trend and the common hope of all Chinese, implement democracy and a free economic system; renounce the use of military force in the Taiwan Strait and do not interfere with our development of foreign relations on the basis of a one-China policy, we would be willing, on a basis of equality, to establish channels of communication, and completely open up academic, cultural, economic, trade, scientific, and technological ex-change, to lay a foundation of mutual respect, peace, and prosperity. We hope then, when objective conditions are right, we will be able to discuss our national reunification, based on the common will of the Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait (ibid., p. 75).

The reference to the ROC’s “foreign relations” was crucial, because it implied that the ROC could play a role on the international arena alongside the PRC. Since Beijing viewed the ROC as defunct and Taiwan as a local government within the PRC ‘s jurisdiction, the Communists could not accept the possibility of Taipei normalizing its relations with foreign countries.

In 1991, the ROC’s National Unification Council (NUC) and later the Executive Yuan Council approved the Guidelines for National Unification. The guidelines stated that both “the mainland and Taiwan areas are parts of Chinese territory” and that “China’s unification should aim at promoting Chinese culture, safeguarding human dignity, guaranteeing fundamental human rights, and practicing democracy and the rule of law”.

Beijing was not angered by the reference to democracy, but by those passages of the Guidelines that urged the two sides of the Strait to “respect … each other in the international community” and to “establish official communication channels on equal footing.” This seemed to suggest that the ROC saw itself as a state independent from the PRC, a position that the Communists would not accept.

In 1992 representatives from Beijing and Taipei held unofficial talks in Hong Kong, but they were unable to reach a common definition of the meaning of “one China”. They settled on a tacit agreement, which later became known as the “1992 consensus”.

Read: The 1992 Consensus and China-Taiwan Relations

Lee Teng-hui later disputed the existence of the “1992 consensus”. Whether such agreement was reached or not, it is clear that in the early 1990s Lee’s government did not officially renounce unification, neither did it promote the dissolution of the ROC and the proclamation of a Republic of Taiwan.

It is impossible to know whether Lee Teng-hui changed his point of view regarding China-Taiwan relations later in his life, or whether he simply did not dare to express his opinions until Taiwan’s democratization had been completed. What is certain is that, in the mid-1990s, Lee’s public statements began to gradually move away from the one-China principle, until by the end of the decade he publicly repudiated it. In a famous 1999 interview with Deutsche Welle, Lee expressed to the world what was to become known as the “two-states-solution”:

The historical fact is that since the establishment of the Chinese communist regime in 1949, it has never ruled Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu — the territories under our jurisdiction. In the 1991 constitutional amendment, Article 10 of the Additional Articles (now Article 11) limits the area covered by the Constitution to that of the Taiwan area, and recognizes the legitimacy of the rule of the People’s Republic of China on the Chinese mainland … 

The 1991 constitutional amendments have designated cross-strait relations as a state-to-state relationship or at least a special state-to-state relationship, rather than an internal relationship between a legitimate government and a renegade group, or between a central government and a local government. Thus, the Beijing authorities’ characterization of Taiwan as a “renegade province” is historically and legally untrue …

[T]he Republic of China has been a sovereign state since it was founded in 1912. Moreover, in 1991, amendments to the Constitution designated cross-strait relations as a special state-to-state relationship. Consequently, there is no need to declare independence.

Lee Teng-hui underpinned his argument by referring to the ROC government’s political legitimacy. Since Taiwan had become a democratic society, in which the citizens elected their representatives as well as their president, and given that the amendments to the Constitution stipulated that elections were limited to the “area” under ROC’s control, Lee concluded that “the reconfigured national agencies represent only the people of the Taiwan area … [t]he legitimacy of the rule of the country comes from the mandate of the Taiwan people and has nothing to do with the people on the mainland.”

Lee’s rationale was that the ROC’s democratization had merged the government and the people. The ROC and the Taiwanese people had de facto become one and the same thing. Under such circumstances, the separation of the ROC and the PRC had been completed.

Opinion polls at the time seemed to suggest that a majority of the people in Taiwan approved of Lee Teng-hui’s state-to-state doctrine and believed that his statements simply reflected reality.

Beijing was infuriated by Lee’s assertions, characterizing them as “separatist remarks”, and warning him “not to underestimate the firm resolve of the Chinese Government to safeguard state sovereignty, dignity and territorial integrity or the courage and strength of the Chinese people to fight against separation and Taiwan’s independence.”

If the Communist Party believed that such threats would further their cause, they were mistaken. Taiwanese public opinion supported the status quo of independence, either de facto or de jure. The prospect of unification enjoyed little public support. Lee Teng-hui was simply stating what the majority of the people already thought but hadn’t been able to discuss openly while the Guomindang’s pro-unification elite ruled the island dictatorially. As a Taiwanese businessman interviewed in 1999 by The New York Times said:  “Lee Teng-hui was right. We’ve been separate for 50 years, we want to stay that way, and it is time we finally say so openly.”

Anti-Beijing and anti-unification sentiment paved the way for the electoral defeat of the Guomindang in 2000 and the victory of pro-independence DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian. The Guomindang faced an ideological challenge: should it reject unification, officially remove it from the party platform, and become a Taiwan-centric party that rejected its historical ties with mainland China? It appeared as if the DPP triumph signified the end of Chinese nationalist rhetoric in Taiwan. Yet the Guomindang found its way back to power not by rejecting Chinese nationalism, but by once again embracing it.

Ma Ying-jeou and Nationalist Revival

The man who was elected president of the ROC in 2008 was, in many respects, a politician whose ideology was out of touch both with reality and with popular sentiment. Ma Ying-jeou argued that, according to the ROC Constitution, “mainland China is also part of the territory of the Republic of China” (中國大陸亦為我中華民國領土). Therefore, he rejected the idea that mainland-Taiwan relations were state-to-state relations. He supported the so-called 1992 consensus as the pillar of cross-strait relations. Ma stuck to this position throughout his presidency.

The Ma administration officially maintained not only that Nanjing is still the capital of the Republic of China, and Taipei only the current seat of the central government, but also that Mongolia remains part of the ROC territory. During his two terms, Ma Ying-jeou clearly promoted traditional conservative Guomindang ideology, to the point that in 2013 mainland Chinese netizens even expressed hopes that the Guomindang might “return” to the mainland.

But how was it possible for a conservative politician who promoted such unrealistic views of the status quo to be elected twice?

Under Ma’s predecessor, Chen Shui-Bian, relations between Taiwan and China had deteriorated and economic performance had been disappointing. In 2005, Beijing passed an Anti-Secession law that legalized the use of force in case of an official independence declaration by Taiwan. In 2006, Chen shut down the National Unification Council, a clear sign that he rejected the one-China policy, a move that further infuriated Beijing. People in Taiwan became afraid that their president might go too far and compromise peace.

It appears that Taiwanese voters were exasperated by economic stagnation and cross-strait crises. As a Taiwanese scholar explained after the 2008 election:

Ma’s victory is a sign that the people of Taiwan want to see change in the economy and in government administration. Voters hope that Ma will help cross-strait relations return to normal and that both sides can see a win-win solution.

Ma managed to convince the electorate that the Guomindang ideology would guarantee better relations with Beijing and prevent a war, the two preconditions for the maintenance of the status quo.

As a matter of fact, the Ma administration achieved its goal of deepening cross-strait economic cooperation and dialogue. The Communist Party was pleased with Ma’s adherence to the one China policy.

However, there was a fundamental contradiction between the desire of the Taiwanese people to preserve the status quo and Ma Ying-jeou’s cosying up to the Communist Party. In Ma’s second term, this contradiction came to light for everyone to see.

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Ma Ying-jeou in 2012 (photo by 張永泰 via Wikimedia Commons)

Most people in Taiwan welcomed economic cooperation and peace. But nobody wanted a new “united front” between the Communists and the Guomindang in order to achieve unification. Ma Ying-jeou crossed the red line between status quo and unification when he began promoting cross-strait free trade agreements and high-level talks between representatives from the two parties.

The Taiwanese public feared Beijing’s united front policies, political infiltration and economic overdependence on the mainland market. While the Guomindang touted the deepening of cross-strait ties as a victory, the Taiwanese saw this development as a betrayal. As Ma Ying-jeou celebrated himself and his achievements, the anger and distrust of Taiwan’s voters grew.

In 2014, Taiwan’s Wang Yuqi and China’s Zhang Zhijun held a meeting in Nanjing. Zhang Zhijun reciprocated the visit a few months later and travelled to Taiwan. Thousands of protesters disrupted Zhang’s tour, making clear that he wasn’t welcome on the island. On March 18, 2014, Guomindang legislator Zhang Qingzhong announced that the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which would liberalize trade between Taiwan and China, had passed deliberations.

That night, students and social activists occupied Taiwan’s parliament to protest lack of transparency and popular oversight in CCP-Guomindang deal-making . The “Sunflower Movement”, as Taiwanese media called the protest, mobilized 500,000 people and lasted for over 20 days. Ma Ying-jeou’s administration ultimately had to yield to popular demands and scrap the ratification of the CSSTA.

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Taiwanese students occupy the parliament in Taipei. Note Sun Yat-sen’s portrait, which hangs in most government offices and institutions of the ROC (photo by Artemas Liu via Wikimedia Commons)

The Guomindang approval ratings tumbled, and the party, as previously mentioned, suffered electoral debacles in the 2014 local and the 2016 presidential elections. It became clear that Guomindang’s ideology was out of touch with public sentiment.

Furthermore, cooperation with the Communist Party was a dangerous game for the Guomindang itself. Just like in the 1920s, it is evident that the long-term objective of the CCP is to overthrow the ROC and diminish the role of the Guomindang, turning it, at the most, into a junior partner that has to accept the overall leadership of the Communist Party. By pursuing an alliance with Beijing, Ma Ying-jeou reenacted the ideological existential crisis faced by Guomindang founder Sun Yat-sen.

The End of the Guomindang?

Under Lee Teng-hui’s leadership the Guomindang implemented democratic reforms and garnered widespread popular support. Lee opposed the Communist Party and defended the ROC sovereignty, giving voice to the general sentiment of the Taiwanese people. A 2016 poll showed that 90% of Taiwanese support the status quo,  i.e., de facto independence and cross-strait peace. DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen won the 2016 presidential contest by promising to uphold the status quo. She neither endorsed the 1992 consensus, nor did she propose to change the name, flag or constitution of the state.

The Guomindang, on the other hand, remains trapped in its pro-China platform. 2016 Guomindang presidential candidate Eric Chu visited China and met Xi Jinping, reaping Communist praise but discrediting himself among Taiwanese voters. Guomindang chairwoman Hong Xiuzhu, too, pilgrimaged to Beijing to shake hands with Xi, reaffirming publicly her adherence to the 1992 consensus and the one China principle as the foundation of cross-strait talks.

Hong Xiuzhu’s pledge to uphold the 1992 principle is a step back from a previous, even more radical proposal she had made in 2015, defined as “one China, same interpretation” (一中同表). According to this theory, the PRC and the ROC are not two states, but two “constitutional governments” within an “entire China“. The status quo between Beijing and Taipei, she argued, consists in “overlapping sovereignty claims by two constitutional governments in two separate jurisdictions.”

Hong has repeatedly asserted that Taiwan’s future lies in China, and that Taiwan should move forward by promoting unification. “The reality is [Beijing] believes its sovereignty claim covers Taiwan, and Taiwan vice versa, so the sovereignty claims of the two sides actually overlap,” she said in 2016, adding that the future of cross-strait ties would be “either unification or unification by force.”

Hong’s views are so radical that even Ma Ying-jeou and current Guomindang chairperson candidate Wu Dunyi, have criticized her overzealous unification rhetoric.  On March 18, 2017, Ma Ying-jeou praised in a speech the “one China, different interpretations” theory, the cornerstone of the 1992 consensus. He warned the party that that doctrine should not be “arbitrarily overlooked, revised or abolished” and “should not be changed to [Hong’s] ‘one China, same interpretation,’ which has left many of our supporters disconcerted.”

Both Ma and Hong appear not to understand that the majority of Taiwanese people want peaceful coexistence with Beijing, but reject closer political ties, economic integration and any political platform that promotes eventual unification. Most importantly, they are suspicious of the CCP’s united front tactics and party-to-party agreements between the CCP and the Guomindang.

The Guomindang finds itself squeezed on both sides of the political spectrum by the pro-unification ideology of the CCP and by the pro-Taiwan programme of the DPP. Both the CCP and the DPP ultimately oppose the Guomindang and only half-heartedly tolerate the ROC’s existence, this relic of the 1911 revolution to which only the Guomindang feels absolute allegiance.

The Guomindang leadership don’t seem to understand that the Communist Party wants to destroy them. They don’t seem to understand that their future lies exclusively in the hands of the Taiwanese voters. If the Guomindang is not committed to opposing Communism, promoting democracy and good administration, as Lee Teng-hui did, it will play only a marginal role in Taiwan’s politics and will eventually become irrelevant.

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