As China looms large, two opposing visions face off in Taiwan's election
TAIPEI, Taiwan — The caravan of trucks departs around 9:30 a.m. on a sleepy Sunday morning.
The lead vehicle is full of partisans standing on the truck bed. One man riffs constantly into a loudspeaker, announcing to the people of the 5th District of New Taipei City that their elected legislator Su Chiao-hui is here.
More of her campaign team — including her two daughters — stand on the back of the second truck waving bright pink flags.
Su stands aside a city councilor on the third truck, wearing a pink vest – her campaign's color – and a headset microphone. She exhorts the crowd for their votes and occasionally breaks into song.
Some excited supporters chant back. Two groups set off firecrackers for good luck. Others on the street wave politely, or seem not to acknowledge the presence of four large vehicles adorned with photos of Su's face, having seen it for months leading up to Saturday's presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan.
Su is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), one of the two major and opposing entities that have dominated the island's politics for decades – the other being the Kuomintang (KMT). A third, newer party is on this year's ballot — the Taiwan People's Party — though it is not expected to finish among the top two in voting.
In a very literal way, Su represents the next generation of her party.
Su's father Su Tseng-chang recently stepped down as Taiwan's premier (the head of the executive cabinet); before that, he was chair of the DPP; and long before that, he helped to establish the DPP at the tail end of martial law in the 1980s, when Taiwanese democracy was only an aspiration.
"We are a party founded under the shadow of a one-party state," Su said in an interview with NPR. "But we wanted more democracy and freedom. And we've never stopped pursuing that."
As a child, Su saw her father lead rallies and protests. Back then, TV news coverage called the DPP a splinter movement – not a political party.
"I remember the police arresting and detaining protesters, and I sometimes wondered if my father would just not come back home one day," she said.
"Drop by drop," election by election, Su says, now 47 years old, that Taiwan has peacefully democratized. And today's DPP has, in a way, become an establishment political force. President Tsai Ing-wen has been in power for eight years; her Vice President Lai Ching-te is favored to win Saturday's election in a close contest.
Lai has vowed to continue President Tsai's agenda on international relations. Su, the daughter of a DPP party elder, is herself now running for her third term in office.
And while the DPP has historically been associated with politicians who favor formal Taiwanese independence, today's DPP leaders have moved closer to the political center on this.
"Many people think that the DPP wants independence for Taiwan, but that's not the case," she said. "The DPP is simply pushing back against China – not pushing for independence."
The eternal question in Taiwanese politics is China. Because a declaration of formal independence would cross a diplomatic red line with China – which has long viewed Taiwan as a rogue Chinese province – the DPP candidate Lai now says it's enough that Taiwan already has de facto independence.
China remains unconvinced. Its government has refused to meet with President Tsai, and has called Vice President Lai a "separatist," giving every indication that cross-strait diplomatic relations would remain frozen under a Lai administration.
"It's not us – it's China that has rejected talks with the DPP," Su said. "Actually, the DPP would be very happy to engage in reciprocal talks with China."
"If people want the DPP to resume talks with China, it's China that needs to change its behavior, not the DPP."
Su says the DPP wants to push Taiwan out into the world stage and build relationships with other countries. She accuses the KMT, in its effort to not provoke China, of limiting Taiwan's global presence, and aiming to bind itself closer to China.
"[The opposition] keeps bringing up the example of Ukraine and Russia, claiming that Ukraine instigated the war with Russia by trying to join NATO," Su said. "It's almost as if they're saying, Taiwan shouldn't try to make any friends on the global stage because it could lead to war with China – a narrative that if you vote for the DPP, you're voting for war."
Where KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih has cast this election as a choice between war with China (the DPP route) and peace (a vote for him), Su hastens to point out that neither party's vision for Taiwan is ultimately acceptable to China.
"It doesn't matter which political party is in power in Taiwan," Su said. "As long as that party is Taiwan and they're running it as a sovereign state, Beijing will always be unsatisfied."
On the same day we spoke with Su, our NPR team met with Hsu Yu-jen – known also as Jason Hsu.
Hsu, 42, was once a fellow lawmaker, elected in the same year (2016) that Su ran for and won her first term. We met Hsu outside Taiwan's congressional building, the Legislative Yuan.
It was here, in 2014, that protesters occupied the building for about a month – touched off by the then-KMT government's trade agreement with China. It came to be known as the Sunflower Movement, and it was led by students.
"It was quite amazing that they were able to organize the movement as well as making sure that they get their homework covered," Hsu said.
Hsu supported the protesters by donating server space, through his company at the time. And the Sunflower Movement inspired him to get into politics, first as a government advisor on youth policy and entrepreneurship. But he was later recruited by the very party that the students were protesting — the KMT.
"I realized you need to be in the government to change the system," Hsu said. "And you have to be willing to be on both sides and to build that bridge."
"[The KMT] wanted someone with fresh thinking, no political baggage, not a second generation of politician ... I hesitated because that doesn't really fit 100% well with my ideology, but I felt, you know, maybe being inside, I can create some chemistry change within this old party."
Hsu describes himself as among the progressive wing of his party. In fact, his outspoken support of same-sex marriage created a rift between him and more conservative KMT elders.
At the time, anti-gay protesters also made their way down to the Legislative Yuan. He says some even made life-size dolls of him and whipped the dolls as they would an effigy.
Hsu was an at-large legislator. In Taiwan, citizens vote for both their district's representative and for a political party; a number of legislative seats are reserved for that at-large vote, and allotted to parties in proportion to their share of the vote. Parties can distribute those seats to their would-be legislators as they see fit.
Following his 2019 vote to legalize same-sex marriage (which passed and was made into law), the KMT did not see fit to nominate Hsu as a legislator for the 2020 election. Currently, he's a fellow at Harvard University's school of public policy and government, focused on semiconductors and geopolitics.
And yet, he remains an advisor to KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih. Ultimately, he favors the KMT's approach to China.
"It takes two to tango," Hsu said. "I think there needs to be a common understanding of what the red line is to both sides. I think the KMT has historically been able to thread that line pretty well and also create an ambiguity on both sides to allow room for survival and resistance on both sides."
China has given no indication of budging on its position that Taiwan is Chinese territory. And Hsu admits he doesn't know the endgame to better relations, only that it's important to buy time.
"There isn't a satisfying answer to both sides, meaning Taiwan and China at the moment," Hsu said. "We believe that the best way to deal with the situation is to kick the can down the road."
Just as the DPP has historically been associated with formal Taiwan independence, the KMT – the present-day outgrowth of the military regime that fled from civil war in China and then ruled over Taiwan starting in 1949 – has historically been associated with unification; of somehow eventually merging China and Taiwan under one ruling body.
That idea has long been unpopular in now-democratic Taiwan, and KMT officials also have moved to the center on cross-strait issues. Like their opposition, the KMT now also advocates for the status quo of sovereign self-governance in Taiwan, without unification or formal independence.
The difference between the now center-left and center-right parties, Hsu says, really comes down to China's perception of their behavior and rhetoric.
"The way that the DPP deals with the situation is leading China to believe that Taiwan is pursuing de jure independence without saying it, and that the U.S. is supporting the DPP administration to do so," Hsu says. "So it's really a three-way question. The level of threat is very high, but then the level of assurance on three sides is very low."
If the DPP's Lai wins the presidential election, Hsu says his party is due for an ideological soul-searching on this issue. It's clear to him that too many believe the KMT to be too pro-China. And he thinks it ought to seek out the voices of younger generations within the century-old party.
"We are dealing with a China very different from [what the] KMT dealt with in the last 30 years," Hsu said. "We should recognize its ambition and be cautious of it."
Among the party priorities Hsu outlined, he also offers another, more symbolic proposal. The official name of his party translates to the "China Kuomintang." It's strange to him that in this day and age, it's not called the Taiwan Kuomintang.
"If I would ever be the chairman of KMT, that's the name I would use," he said.
If there's one thing both Jason Hsu and Su Chiao-hui advocate, it's that the future of Taiwan belongs to a democratic, self-governing Taiwan.
"The DPP's biggest achievement is that now, you can proudly say, 'I am a Taiwanese person,' and nobody will confuse you with Thailand," Su joked.
Su thanked her father and his generation for leaving a better Taiwan, where people can live and speak freely. She said it's now her responsibility to preserve that freedom and leave Taiwan in an even better place for her children, and for future generations to come.
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