by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Brian Hioe
TAIPEI MIGHT as well be an entirely different country than the rest of Taiwan, sometimes people will say. The common joke among Taiwanese young people is that Taipei is “Celestial Dragon Country” (天龍國). Originating from popular Japanese anime One Piece, the term “Celestial Dragons” (天龍) in One Piece refers to a class of nobility who see themselves as so above the rest of humanity that they live in spacesuits, so as to not breathe the same air as the common rabble. Taipei, as apparently existing in a elite bubble from apart from the rest of Taiwan, would be something like a “Celestial Dragon Country”—at a removed but also above the rest of Taiwan. In jest, it is said that residents of “Celestial Dragon Country” more often travel to other countries than to other parts of Taiwan outside Taipei.
Of Taiwan’s cities, Taipei is unique as historically the dominion of waishengren elite. Even if it is true that Taipei’s population hardly consists of just waishengren at this point and even if Taipei also offers stark examples of urban poverty in some areas, Taipei remains largely a city of the economic elite. Kaohsiung would be the other large city in Taiwan, but Kaohsiung lacks Taipei’s political centrality and status as an international financial center.
Apart from the obvious fact that capitals are the seats of government for their respective countries, the domination of small countries by their capitals—with disproportionate political power weighted in the capital against the rest of the country—is hardly a phenomenon unique to Taiwan. Another instance would be Thailand, for example with regard to the relation of Bangkok and the rest of the country. Yet it is in this light that we can point to the significance of that much of the past year’s political developments have been very Taipei-centric.
In particular, the rise of new parties originating in youth activism—the so-called Third Force—has been a Taipei centered phenomenon. Though there are non-Taipei based candidates, Third Force political candidates are quite often running in Taipei, despite the fact that Taipei is historically pan-Blue. Taipei has been for the most a pan-Blue stronghold, although this depends on district. Rather indicative of the direct relation of one’s socioeconomic status and one’s political views, districts populated by the wealthy such as Daan and Xinyi are overwhelmingly pan-Blue.
Ko Wen-Je celebrating his election victory during nine-in-one elections last year. Photo credit: Ashley Pon/Getty Images
Of course, the Sunflower Movement which gave rise to these new parties of course took place in Taipei. But it was the victory of Ko Wen-Je in nine-in-one elections which led the way to the entrance of the Third Force into electoral politics, because Ko’s victory as backed by large tracts of post-Sunflower civil society proved that political victory was possible for individuals who ran as independents who were not KMT or DPP.
The last two Taiwanese presidents Ma Ying-Jeou and Chen Shui-Bian, were both first mayor of Taipei before becoming president. But if Chen Shui-Bian has been to date the only non-KMT president in Taiwanese history, he was also first the only non-KMT mayor of Taipei in close to fifty years—and this to the present day until Ko’s victory of winning Taipei’s mayor race. Ko’s victory, then, was a watershed in Taipei local politics that came after the aberration of Chen’s mayorship of Taipei was followed by a return to consecutive KMT mayorship of the city.
The Taiwanese youth activism scene which made its dramatic appearance on the scene in the Sunflower Movement, though extending into the rest of the country, is largely centered in Taipei. This is, again, unsurprisingly, because of Taipei’s status as a center of political power for Taiwan overall. It would be that the culture of youth activism which developed in the last two years occurred because young people from the rest of Taiwan go to Taipei for college or for graduate school and so youth from the rest of the country end up gathering in Taipei. This is in part what has led to the transformation of the fabric of “Celestial Dragon Country”. But it is such that the “Third Force” would arise in Taipei. The “Third Force”, having limited financial resources and no preexistent support networks, often backs on young volunteers drawn from Taipei-centered civil society for its organization.
However, having universally adopted the strategy of not directly challenging the DPP, the Third Force is running in traditionally pan-Blue districts even when facing sharp margins of victory. In this way, the Third Force is banking on that, seeing as Taipei voters put Ko Wen-Je into power, they would be open to the other, non-KMT possibilities. In this sense, the Third Force is gambling on that traditional blue/green divides can be overcome—in Taipei of all places. This is also reflective of the fact that the Third Force never sought to challenge the DPP head on.
Whether or not they will be successful in this remains uncertain, but that this was the strategy bet on by the Third Force indicates something of the era of change which is occurring in Taiwan. Post-Sunflower Movement civil society sees itself as beyond past identity politics of waishengren or benshengren, or the paradigm in which pan-Green and pan-Blue are the only political possibilities. It remains a question as to whether we are truly beyond older forms of identity politics or the division of blue/green politics, but this is what the Third Force is gambling on. To win in Taipei, then, would be to win for Taiwan as a whole and to show that a new model of political change in Taiwan is possible. Those are the stakes of politics which are, in some sense, Taipei-centric but whose implications extend to the rest of the country. But it remains to be seen whether this can be done.