This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
On 11 January, the incumbent president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was re-elected with a landslide. She won 57.1% of the popular vote – the highest figure ever recorded by her party – in a sweeping victory for the ‘pan-greens’, as the pro-independence parties are known. The result marked a dramatic turn-around from the party’s losses in the 2018 local elections, amid discontent with corruption and her party’s record in government.
The major reasons for the change in Tsai’s fortunes were the eruption of the mass movement in Hong Kong and antagonism towards the sabre-rattling and threats from the Chinese head of government, Xi Jinping. Also, the Taiwanese economy has benefited recently from US President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, which has led, in the short-term at least, to Taiwanese businesses shifting production from mainland China back to the island, in an attempt to circumvent them.
Despite growing inequality and class antagonisms, and a potentially powerful working class and labour movement, the election was dominated by the question of Taiwan’s relationship with China. In January, last year, Xi addressed the people of Taiwan via a letter. The leader of the so-called Communist Party advocated moves towards reunification with China and made a proposal for Taiwan to adopt the “one country, two systems” approach, while adding that they do not exclude military force to achieve unification.
Xi probably did not have any illusions that his threats were going to win him much sympathy in Taiwan. His main concern was to stir up Chinese nationalism, but also to “discourage” any elements in Taiwan who may have been considering an independence declaration which would be a serious blow to his and the regime’s prestige. If he believed that threats would “encourage” Taiwan’s voters to back the opposition ‘pan-blue’ parties, he was mistaken.
Xi’s threats backfired and, almost immediately, Tsai’s support rate gained 10 points. Even the opposition ‘pan-blue’ parties, dominated by the Kuo Min Tang (KMT), which generally support closer ties to China and whose traditional support-base is amongst those who fled the mainland to Taiwan after Mao’s victory, cannot support the ‘one country two systems’ proposal. It is seen by most of the population as maintaining the present economic system but with unacceptable restrictions on the democratic rights that were won through popular struggle against one party rule. This mood has hardened as the movement against the extradition law in Hong Kong, which began in the spring of 2019, has continued.
Tsai Ing-wen was able to exploit the situation and pose as the defender of “Taiwanese independence” and the best candidate to oppose the influence of the Chinese regime. She was also able to exploit the defection last October from China to Australia of the “Chinese spy”, Wang Liquang. He claimed to have been involved in PRC interventions in Hong Kong and Taiwan and, in particular, in attempts to influence the Taiwanese election. Although Chinese intelligence services are certainly involved in activities to influence the politics of other countries, as are the CIA and the intelligence services of almost all countries, it is said that Wang was most likely not to have been a Chinese intelligence operative at all.
Nevertheless, Tsai was able to use this incident to increase fears of China’s power and raise a hue and cry over infiltration and get the repressive Anti-infiltration Act passed. This act, while targeting Chinese and other foreign government-backed activities, has the potential to be used against others whom the government of Taiwan sees as a threat to “social order”, including labour movement and other activists.
In answer to Tsai’s cry of, “Don’t let Taiwan be the next Hong Kong,” opposition presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu could only reply by playing on voters’ fears that Tsai’s policies would provoke the PRC, along with stories about the economic benefits that closer ties with China could bring. Unfortunately for Han, this proved less convincing than it might have done, due to Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, which have led to a so-called “re-shoring” of capital, as Taiwanese companies have moved production back from China to Taiwan in order to avoid the tariffs. This has given the Taiwanese authorities a temporary boost. The rise of Trump has also lent more credibility to the schemes of Tsai and the DPP to move Taiwanese industry away from dependence on the Chinese market, both by a free trade agreement with the USA and Tsai’s “Southbound” policy, which advocates greater emphasis on links with other countries in the Indo-Pacific area.
While Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP has the support of much of the youth as a result of the legacy of its role in the struggle against the KMT dictatorship of the past, and the more radical stance it takes on some social questions, such as environmental policy and gay rights, it is a capitalist party and its policies offer no way forward for Taiwanese workers and the youth. It supports privatisation, justified as necessary to end the power of the KMT which has dominated state-owned industries.
Socialists would argue that there should be democratic workers’ control and management of all state-owned enterprises and extension of public ownership to all major companies, banks and transport services. The DPP is also proposing to reduce the pensions of state employees – a measure that serves only to divide workers – state sector, against the private sector, and descendants of “mainlanders” against descendants of “native Taiwanese”.
Despite the temporary improvement in the economy, Tsai’s victory is unlikely to lead to a period of long-term stability and economic growth. Temporary flows of capital can easily be reversed, as can US policy. A major trade war on the other hand would almost certainly prove disastrous for the economy. With an export dependency of 56.6%, it is one of the countries most reliant on world trade. Inequality has increased dramatically in the past period. While the highest earning 20% of households earned four times the lowest in the 1980s, they have averaged six times the lowest in the last decade. The cost of increased defence spending, in response to threats from the PRC, will be borne overwhelmingly by the workers.
Economic instability will bring with it political instability to Taiwan. Struggles of workers are inevitable and this will again raise the demand in the unions and the working class, in general, for a break with the parties of the capitalists, whether pro-Chinese or pro-independence. The major counterweight to such a development has been the fear of Chinese invasion and loss of the limited democratic reforms and rights won in the past. In order to progress, the labour movement needs a correct approach to the national question. Failure on this score has been the main factor that has led to the ruin of previous attempts to build a workers’ party.
Socialists defend the right of the people of Taiwan to decide their own future. That means they oppose any attempt to forcefully incorporate Taiwan into the People’s Republic of China. However, they use their own methods and rely on the forces of the working class. Socialists would oppose any attempt by the bureaucratic state capitalist regime to launch a military adventure against Taiwan. In Taiwan, that means a political battle against the agents of Xi, but no support for repressive legislation that can be used against the labour movement.
Whilst taking a sympathetic attitude towards the national aspirations of the Taiwanese, socialists can give no support to what is known in Taiwan as the “independence” movement. Taiwan, despite its official name (the ‘Republic of China’), is today an independent capitalist state and the representatives of private capital are divided. However, given the huge disparity of military and economic strength between the PRC and Taiwan, on a capitalist basis, this independence can only be maintained in alliance with the US and Japanese imperialism.
The future of a capitalist Taiwan is likely to be an increasingly repressive and militarised state, dependent on imperialism and with the ever-present threat of war hanging over the whole region. While it is unlikely in the short-term, a crisis in the Chinese ruling layer or a military adventure on the part of Xi or a future Chinese ruler cannot be excluded. The fight for an independent Taiwan is linked with the urgent need for a struggle of workers and young people to defeat capitalism – in Taiwan and in the “People’s Republic of China”.
Marxists support the right of all nations and ethnic groups to self-determination, up to and including separation, if the majority so desire it. In relation to China, the vicious mass repression of the Uighurs of Tsin Xiang obviously fuels a burning desire for independence. Similarly, the brutal suppression of the fight for basic democratic rights in Hong Kong fuels hostility to domination from Beijing.
The struggle for socialism in Taiwan cannot be isolated from the struggle against capitalism and for genuine workers’ democracy in the vast expanse of China, with state ownership of all the key sectors of the economy, run on the basis of democratic workers’ control and management. But neither can it wait.
A party of workers and young people with socialist ideas and a clear programme for fighting Taiwanese and international capitalism is vital. Such a party would fight for the democratic and national rights of all the peoples of the region including language rights. It would inscribe on its banner the aim of a confederation of socialist states, eliminating economic rivalry and war, once and for all.