China and politics: Where is Taiwan heading under President Tsai?

Ten thousands of people protesting against the pension reforms at home, frostier relations with China on the international scene. One may say it is a rocky start for Tsai Ing-wen Presidency. How do you assess the domestic and international aspects of her politics after few months in the office, what went wrong and what right? Read few comments.

Chia-Shin Lin, Assistant Professor, Department of Communication, Fo Guang University

Tsai Ing-wen has a humble beginning for her first hundred days of presidency and it seems that the problem is from her supporters are not satisfied with her appointments for ministries rather than the pension reform or her opponents. Tsai’s supporters are mostly the people who are eager to see changes in the government, but Tsai government appointed so called “old, blue, and male” as secretaries of government ministries. The terms “old, blue, and male” indicate that these secretaries are aged, have pan blue (pro-KMT) background and only males. In addition, many policies are more likely a recurrence of previous policies which were questioned by Tsai’s supporters. Tsai has announced that before proposing any new policy, she needs to find a balance first and the procedure of seeking balance takes time so that her supporters’ patient is challenged.

Pension reform:

Tsai had announced that the Pension reform would be the first priority before she inaugurated as the President and indeed, Tsai government spent a significant amount of time on this issue. However, the issue is extremely complicated because the pension system contains too many types of pension holders and holders in each type receive their pension based on different standards. People who retired from the government departments, military and public schools enjoy government subsidies whereas retired labour workers receive little pension. For example, one of the most famous subsidies namely 18% subsidy which is these retired public servants, military officers and teachers allow to deposit their savings in designated banks and the interest rate is 18% while normal deposit rate is 1% in Taiwan. It is expected that these pension holders fight against any kind of reform since any proposal can greatly reduce their benefit. Actually, each Pension Reform Committee session is live broadcasted through the website  and not a single plan has been discussed due to the representative of public servants raised a point of order almost every time. In other words, retired public servants, military officers and teachers realise that their pension is going to be reduced but they have no idea to what extent.

The representatives have successfully gathered more than ten of thousands of people according to their claim and it seems a powerful exhibition. Yet, no plan has been discussed or even proposed, the justification of this protesting tends to be insufficient. From my perspective, the protesting is more likely a combination of pension holders to express their worries and KMT supporters to release their upset. It did not gain any promise from the Tsai government or any political advantage to support further actions. It is highly possible that these protesters will lose their advantages in negotiating with the government.

Cross-strait relationships:

As expected, the relationships between Tsai government and Xi government reach an impasse. The most salient indicator is that the number of Chinese tourists decreases significantly in July and August and the impact hits relevant industries in Taiwan. Chinese government use economic benefit as the stick to force Tsai government to accept the 92 consensus which implies the essence of One China policy and it seems to work to some extent. For example, Chang Ching-sen, the minister without portfolio, expressed that Chinese tourists are the friends that we need the most on his Facebook page yesterday and this can be interpreted as Tsai government attempts to seek the understanding of their supporters because they consider to change the current situation. The pressure from within is getting stronger for Tsai government.

Intriguingly, even though supporters are not satisfied with Tsai’s slowly reform, Tsai‘s prudent personality trait is appreciated by Americans. American scholar Shelley Rigger views that Tsai has released signals for reconciliation and she thinks Beijing ought to accept this. Also, Obama met Xi at G20 yesterday. After the meeting, Chinese government news agency XINHUA reported that Obama roots against Taiwan independence, but later Myles Caggins, National Security Council of the U.S., clarified that the U.S. government does not support Taiwan independence rather than against. The meaning behind this implies that the U.S. government does not leave Taiwan behind.

The U.S. plays a crucial role in determining the trio relationships (Taiwan, US and China), and Tsai has proven herself to the U.S. that she is self-possession and gains the trust of the U.S. In other words, external pressure from the U.S. would be less and this provides some advantages for Tsai government to interact with Chinese government. This is important because last time when DPP gained the presidential office between 2000 and 2008, President Chen suffered from his unexpected acceleration in international relations and the Bush government disliked him very much. The U.S. allowed Chinese government to do something in order to restrain Chen government. Tsai government would never allow this happen again.

In short, the cross-strait relationship remains the most important issue for the Tsai government and Tsai tries to play this game patiently. She successfully reduces the possible pressure from the U.S. which buys her sufficient time to play this game, nevertheless, the pressure from within Taiwan, especially tourist relevant industries, is getting stronger. Whether Tsai is able to find a balance between internal and external pressure, her prudent personality trait definitely plays a significant role in this game.

Nathan K. H. LiuAssociate Professor, Ming Chuan University

The problem with with Tsai administration is that she and her party DPP are still not ready for ruling the country regardless of the fact of being in power now.

Domestically, the pension committee she appointed stigmatized retired civil servants as spongers, or rice worm, implying that retired government employees contributed nothing to the country when they were still working and sponge off the country when they are retired. This is the reason for the huge scale demonstration two days ago. It was estimated that 250,000 people joined.

Internationally, she refused to accept “1992 Consensus,” which was the ground for the smooth exchange across the Straits in the past 8 years during Ma’s administration. Realistically, the relations across the Strait is more important than that between Taiwan and other countries in the world given the fact that majority of the international community recognize One China principle. As Tsai refuses to accept the consensus, China stopped all interactions between the two sides, even closed all official communication channel. It is predicted that large scale breaking-off diplomatic relations might happen between Taiwan and the only 22 countries that have diplomatic tie with Taiwan. Vatican might be the first to go.

In addition, because of the freezing relations, fewer Chinese tourists come to Taiwan, which has serious impact on tourism related businesses and is hurting Taiwan economy.

Tsai’s approval rating dropped from around 70% when she took office to below 50% after only 100 days in office. Taiwan people seem very unsatisfied about the performance in the past 3 months.

For now, the only solution would be for Tsai government to accept the “1992 Consensus” or figures out other ways to let China know that her government would honor One China principle. Given the comprehensive national power China have, there is now way for Taiwan to bypass China.

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