Taiwan Needs Unity

Winning the elections was the easy part. Now president-elect Tsai Ing-wen needs to reach across the political spectrum to build a truly unified administration
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
J. Michael Cole

The bluster and inevitable scorched-earthness of the Jan. 16 elections are at long last behind us. As expected, Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has been elected president, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has gained a majority in the Legislative Yuan, a first in Taiwan’s history. For all its impressiveness, the DPP’s decisive electoral successes last month were the easy part; the real work will begin on May 20, when the new administration starts governing. If it is to accomplish anything worthy of the mandate that it has been given, the Tsai administration will need to do everything it can to encourage unity — not only in its ranks but, far more importantly, across Taiwan. And that needs to start now, while Tsai puts together her future administration.

For far too long Taiwan has been a house divided, locked in a seemingly interminable conflict pitting “greens” against “blues.” Although civil society managed in recent years to transcend that political-ethnic divide by aiming for the common denominator of civic values, if Taiwan is to move forward as a nation a similar maturing will have to occur at the institutional level. In other words, political parties and government institutions must start reflecting the desires of the society in whose name they govern and leave behind the zero-sum approach to politics that, while conferring tactical benefits, will never yield dividends strategically.

That, of course, is easier said than done, as some of the unfortunate reactions to the Feb. 6 earthquake and its aftermath, on both sides of the political spectrum, made amply clear — some in the “blue” camp used the disaster to attack Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德), who went to extraordinary lengths to provide support for the grieving families, while others on the green side launched attacks on the nation’s armed forces, which displayed great courage and determination throughout the crisis. However tempting, that divisiveness serves nobody and only weakens the nation at a time when unity is key to resolving the many challenges facing Taiwan today.

Unquestionably there is plenty for Taiwanese to be divided over, from their country’s relationship with China to the very designation of its institutions (e.g., Taiwan versus Republic of China). And that is what many people here choose to emphasize whenever they talk politics.

What I have discovered over the years, however, is that differences in opinion notwithstanding, people in Taiwan also have a lot of things in common, chief among them the liberal-democratic values that make Taiwan — or the ROC, as some choose to call it — unique. Although my ideology tends to sit with the Taiwan-centric camp, I have been struck on many occasions by the things that I had in common with interlocutors who supposedly stood on the other side of the divide, the latest example of this occurring during my one-hour interview on CNN’s “On China” following the elections, with former KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) campaign spokesman Yu Tzu-hsiang (游梓翔) sitting across the table. This commonality, sadly, often gets overlooked; far too often, differences over symbolic matters have negated the overlap that, should it ever be harnessed, would serve as a source of great strength for this nation. Oftentimes, the blockage occurs due to an inability to think in strategic terms and a focus on the immediate. That needs to change, especially given Taiwan’s peculiar situation.

President-elect Tsai has already demonstrated her willingness to address that divide, starting with her reaching out to the Third Force (e.g., New Power Party and independent candidates) in the Jan. 16 elections. The unusualness of such a move (political parties usually seek to maximize their power, not share with with others) has, in my opinion, not been fully appreciated.

But more needs to be done. President-elect Tsai’s real test will be to enable unity by reaching out across the political spectrum and convincing “blue” public servants and advisers to serve under a DPP administration and empowering them by appointing them to key positions in her government (former Minster of National Defense Andrew Yang [楊念祖], who is currently at the National Security Council, Andrew Hsia [夏立言], at the Mainland Affairs Council, former National Security Bureau director Tsai Der-sheng [蔡得勝] and Alexander Huang [黃介正], a former MAC official, come to mind).

At the same time, Tsai will have to be as successful warding off outdated voices within her party as she was prior to her being elected. In other words, however tempting it might be to reward longstanding allies in the green camp, and however strong the internal pressure might be to do so, Tsai will have to be strong enough to stand her ground and build an administration that is based on talent and the principle of unity, not on what people in her camp believe is “owed” them.

The people of Taiwan will never see eye to eye on everything. But no nation does. Still, other countries (Israel comes to mind) with deep divisions nevertheless find ways to achieve unity on fundamental matters. And in that regard, Taiwan could do a lot better. A leader with vision might yet be able to achieve this objective, and in my opinion president-elect Tsai is such a leader. But she will not be able to achieve this on her own; people on both sides of the “divide” will need to take that one extra step and learn to work together. This is not a naïve goal; all the elements for such cooperation exist in Taiwan.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. His latest book, 《島嶼無戰事:不願面對的和平假象》, was published on Feb. 3.

3 Responses to “Taiwan Needs Unity”

February 16, 2016 at 8:38 pm, blackcrusader said:

Really enjoy your articles Mr Cole.


February 17, 2016 at 11:42 am, Michael Stainton said:

Well, if it is an administration built on talent there won’t be many ex KMT cadres in the cabinet for sure. And why would you give any work to the people who for years have knowingly run down Taiwan’s military, have no idea how to address the strategic challenges of Taiwan’s asymmetric defense needs, sold its and the US’s secrets to China, and will think of nothing except how to sabotage anything that their KMT friends aren’t gong to make a pile of cash out of. You might as well ask Obama to bring the Tea Party into his administration.


February 17, 2016 at 1:09 pm, Mike Fagan said:

Michael Stainton – please count for us the ways in which Andrew Yang, Andrew Hsia, Tsai Der-sheng and Alexander Huang have “knowingly run down Taiwan’s military”, and have “sold its and the US’s secrets to China”. I’m sure it won’t trouble you too much.


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