What the Media Thought of the 2016 Taiwan Election

On 16 January 2016 Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) swept to power following 8 years of Kuomintang (KMT) government. Having warned the world about the election’s potential for generating instability across Asia, what have the international media been saying since?

By Stuart Hill

The widely predicted victory for the DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen came to fruition on 16 January 2016. The less certain vote for parliamentary seats also swung in the direction of the DPP and a number of candidates in the newly created New Power Party. The result saw the KMT lose its majority in the parliament for the first time in over 100 years of governing the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official constitutional entity.

Taiwan election worries China

It’s this fundamental change in the makeup of the parliament that represents the biggest game changer for Taiwan’s domestic politics; the potential for re-setting the agenda on a range of issues long-buried by the dominance of the parliament by the KMT. While the headlines tend to focus on relations with China and concerns about future economic management, many issues cover a broad spectrum of unresolved legal, historical, and cultural threads, many of which the KMT has avoided confronting or simply prevented resolution.

The entire debate about Taiwan’s place in the world has been dominated by an over-arching narrative concerning who are the legitimate rulers of China, the KMT’s role in that, and the US government’s role in saving its ally from imminent annihilation at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party. After the CCP’s victory at the end of World War II, Taiwan was the KMT’s place of retreat. Ever since their arrival, the KMT have attempted to cement their legitimacy by defining Taiwan in Chinese colonial terms: “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China” being the most quoted by both sides of the Taiwan Strait, though the KMT also claims “with each side having its own interpretation of One China”.

How will China respond to the Taiwan election

As mentioned in the previous article about News Clichés that Inaccurately Describe Taiwan, much of the language used to describe and explain Taiwan’s predicament has been defined and spoken by these three players: CCP, KMT and the US government. Other voices such as those of non KMT groups – despite the rhetoric about Taiwan’s free-wheeling media – have been relatively drowned out on the world stage. As such, the media rarely reflects any discourse about Taiwan self-determination, post-World War II de-colonialism, and of course land and asset ownership issues tangled up by lengthy periods of Japanese and Chinese colonialism.

With this in mind, the election results as reported by the media still reflect the essence of this narrative, yet there are slight adjustments being made by individual media who appear to be looking for new angles to the old CCP-KMT-US-centric clichés.


Taiwan Elects its First Female President

Taiwan elects female president

Much has been made of the fact that the DPP’s chairman is a chairwoman.

Yet Tsai was not the only female candidate running for president. In fact, the KMT’s presidential candidate – the deputy speaker of the legislature – was also a woman. Tough talking Hung Hsiu-chu was seen as a refreshing and outspoken alternative to her male colleagues. However, realizing her vocal stand in favor of China-Taiwan unification – or at least the poorly communicated version of that position – was not working as an election platform, Hung was quickly replaced by the KMT chairman, Eric Chu.

The media has reported about Tsai’s education in the US and UK, her roles as chief trade negotiator for Taiwan’s entry to the WTO, and her past experiences of negotiating with China. She is credited with drafting former KMT president Lee Tung-hui’s “state-to-state relationship” in describing China and Taiwan. No less significant has been her ability to rescue the DPP from its national humiliation and political implosion following Chen Shui-bian’s 8 years in office. She is also a cat lover.

“The results today tell me the people want to see a government that is willing to listen to people, that is more transparent and accountable and a government that is more capable of leading us past our current challenges and taking care of those in need,” said Tsai Ing-wen as quoted by the New York Times.

See the story describing Tsai in the New York Times


The DPP Gains Majority in the Legislature for the First Time

DPP wins legislative majority

At a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace & Global Think Tank webcast held on February 8 2016, former head of the American Institute in Taiwan Douglas H. Paal remarked about the extraordinary rejection of local sitting candidates – the majority of which were KMT party representatives – and their replacement with DPP members or candidates from other parties. This is despite the intricate network of contacts and strong political influence of the KMT at the local level in elections past. “It was such an accomplishment to so turn off voters in the last year and a half,” Paal observed.

Paal also commented about the quality of the people who will be leading the new government. “If you look across the board at those people closest to this [year’s DPP] campaign, you’ll see people who have a real track record of accomplishment.”


K-Pop “One-China Policy” Helps Swing the Vote to the DPP

Like many countries, political advertising is prohibited on the last day before the polls in Taiwan. Yet despite this official media blackout, previous elections have been dominated by news that’s said to have influenced the results. The most famous is the attempted assassination attempt on the incumbent president and vice-president in 2004.

The 2016 elections also saw one such political event transpire. While the CCP government tried to maintain its lowest profile in years, Chinese media generated their own Taiwan election news. Previous CCP tactics have included firing missiles into waters around Taiwan. This year’s proverbial missile saw 16-year old Taiwanese K-pop entertainer Chou Tzu-yu become a symbol of Taiwan’s international humiliation.

Taiwanese K-pop star forced to support One China

Having appeared in an online broadcast carrying Taiwan’s national flag, and been denounced by a popular Chinese TV show host as unpatriotic (toward China), she was pressured into publicly denouncing her Taiwanese roots. In a recording social media observed was reminiscent of a terrorist hostage video Chou announced her support for the One China policy. Taiwanese netizens went ballistic.

“A citizen of the Republic of China” — Taiwan’s official name — “who shows her recognition for the country should not be suppressed and should not be forced to say the opposite of what she originally meant,” said Tsai Ing-wen.

The other two candidates for president agreed.

See the story in the Japan Times  

Political commentators have suggested that the incident had a significant impact on Taiwanese swing voters.


Is there a Future for the KMT?

At a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace & Global Think Tank webcast, guest speaker Alan Romberg of the Stimson Center stated that the KMT defeat had a lot to do with the historically low turnout of their supporters, mainly due to dissatisfaction with the party’s recent performance. He adds, that the KMT need to recruit younger members and appeal to young Taiwanese if they are going to survive.

While he agreed with the general direction and intention of President Ma Ying-jeou’s policies, poor execution and communication with voters were some of the key causes of the KMT’s drop in popularity, according to Romberg.

Romberg also believes that Tsai Ing-wen, while not endorsing the 1992 Consensus (that there is only One China with Taiwan as an integral part), will not push for official Taiwan independence due to various political realities.

Watch the video of the webcast here:


Madonna Creates Her Own Taiwan Strait Crisis

Soon after the election, the two biggest local news stories where the Lunar New Year earthquake and the historical first visit of pop diva Madonna.

Hardly known for her personal diplomacy, Madonna started her tour on the wrong foot by borrowing the imagery of the KMT to appeal to local audiences via social media. A cut out of her face was placed within the circular design of the KMT flag.

Madonna Insults Taiwan and China

For many Taiwanese, this is a symbol of oppression and imported “Chinese mainland” politics and culture. Making matters worse, Madonna’s social media marketing team innocently announced the dedication of a song for the Taiwanese people. The rarely performed “Take a Bow” paired with the flag imagery and expressed at a time of anger with the KMT and China was taken by some on social media to mean “Taiwan, kowtow to the KMT and China”. Oops.

Stumbling further around the stage of Taiwan’s tricky politics, Madonna and her DJ revved up the audience during their first Taipei concert screaming “I love Taiwan” (audience response: YEAH!!) and “I love China” (audience response: Ugh…). The second night played out a bit better with “Where are you?” (audience response: Taiwan!).

Literally wrapping herself in Taiwan’s national symbols in the form of the flag and by exciting the local crowds, Madonna followed up by annoying China’s online patriots; as any oxygen for the flames of  Taiwan independence inevitably generates among China’s online trolls.

“Disgraceful act, what kind of message are you sending to China?” and “What a cheap way to get attention from the mainland. Your music isn’t very welcome or known in our country anyway,” the BBC quoted a Weibo site user as saying.

See the BBC’s article: Madonna Causes a Commotion in Taiwan for their take on the historic visit.

Having worked out all the diplomatic niceties of Chinese and Taiwanese identity politics, Madonna’s team flew off to Hong Kong, only to address the audience with the friendly northern Chinese greeting of “Ni Hao!” — proving just how hard the Greater China market is to crack.


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