by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Presidential Office/Public Domain
LEE TENG-HUI recently drew fire for calling for the localization and Taiwanization of the Republic of China, but claiming that there is no explicit need for Taiwanese independence in a recently published book. Lee would point to the shifts in consciousness among Taiwanese by which Taiwanese already identified with a “Taiwan Republic of China” but not China, yet suggested that something was still lacking for Taiwan to assert its nationhood as indicated through that the majority of Taiwanese support maintaining the status quo to politics explicitly advocating Taiwanese independence.
Lee has, of course, in recent times been roundly criticized by both DPP and KMT alike through statements claiming that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are unequivocally Japanese territory. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands are, of course, disputed territory between China and Japan, but as a product of the Republic of China framework, Taiwan also has a claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Tsai Ing-Wen and the DPP have, in fact, reiterated these claims in the past and Lee would come under fire from the DPP as a result of his statements. The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands remain a political sticking point that even Tsai and the DPP would have to continue to assert the ROC’s sovereignty over them.
Tsai Ing-Wen declaring her victory in past presidential elections. Photo credit: Liberty Times
But do we see shifts in the discourse about independence/unification as reflected in Lee’s statements? Interestingly enough, in past 2016 elections, we saw the collapse of the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU). The TSU was originally founded in response to Lee’s 2001 call for a third party to be formed outside the DPP and KMT and considers Lee it’s spiritual leader. The TSU previously had been a party which engaged in dramatic actions in the legislative chamber to protest the attempts of the KMT to push bills through legislature. After its defeat in 2016 elections, Lee refused to meet with party leader Huang Kun-huei, who had resigned after the TSU’s failure to maintain even a single seat in legislature. The TSU has since also laid off all of its staffers.
The TSU’s losses can be attributed to, in part, a failure of campaign strategy, but also the fact that it was displaced by the New Power Party (NPP), comprised by leading activists from the Sunflower Movement. The NPP seems as though it will assume the role previously taken by the TSU, of acting as a party outside the DPP and KMT which nevertheless operates within the rubric of pan-Green politics. However, Lee would be willing to meet with leaders of the NPP in late January eventually met with leaders of the NPP in late January, and offered to establish a thinktank to assist the NPP in the future.
It remains to be seen what Lee’s call for the localization of the ROC framework would mean. Tsai Ing-Wen has herself indicated that she intends to carry out cross-strait relations on the basis of the ROC constitution and the ROC framework. However, the issue of ROC independence versus Taiwanese independence is a divisive issue among Taiwanese civil society activists. It would appear that the DPP wishes to stick to the ROC framework for the sake of pragmatism, but many question as to whether retaining the ROC framework would forever be a straightjacket binding Taiwan to China and preserve a point of leverage for the KMT.
In part, Taiwanese independence already calls for the rewriting of the constitution to replace the Republic of China framework with a hypothetical Republic of Taiwan, so Lee’s proposal of a “Taiwan Republic of China” seems like something of a middle of the road option. Lee’s point may not be to call for as dramatic a rewriting of he constitution as would be proposed by Taiwanese independence advocates.
If it is that the NPP allies itself with Lee and his call for localizing the ROC framework, this will be controversial among Taiwanese activists, seeing as the NPP has already come under fire for possibly being closer to “ROC independence” rather than ‘Taiwanese independence”. Lee himself is respected within Taiwanese civil society, but also a controversial figure.
Lee and Tsai in 2015. Photo credit: 劉康彥/ETToday
Interestingly, if we are to compare the respective political stances of Lee and Tsai Ing-Wen, one finds that both are guided by a perceived need for pragmatic political considerations. Tsai is in some way Lee’s student, seeing as Tsai first rose to prominence as the head of a secret study group convened by Lee to establish a legal basis for Taiwanese independence during Lee’s presidency, one which even Lien Chan, Lee’s vice president, did not know about. Likewise, if the DPP is attempting to avoid a repeat of the controversies of the Chen Shui-Bian presidency, it would be Lee that offers a political model of a comparatively successful presidency.
Some of Tsai’s current platforms seem reminiscent of Lee’s past policies, for example, the New Southwards Policy to build closer trade ties with Southeast Asian countries to wean Taiwan off of economic dependence on China. Or builder closer diplomatic ties with Japan through allying with the anti-China Japanese right-wing political establishment which is currently in power, as we saw during both Tsai and Lee’s visits to Japan in the past year.
More generally, one suspects that Lee is attempting to establish a middle ground between Tsai’s hewing to the political line of maintaining status quo and the call for Taiwanese independence. This may actually serve to push Tsai closer to Taiwanese independence, but would not be as potentially disruptive as a declaration of Taiwanese independence. But the same question persists of whether preserving the ROC framework in any form would remain as a fetter upon Taiwan.