What is Taiwan independence?

Han Kuo-yu held a big rally in Taipei today. I had planned on going, but it was raining. Anyway, the entire thing was broadcast on Han Kuo-yu Official Propaganda Media Sponsored by Wang Wang Sponsored by China CiTV news, including sideline reporters giving live updates from inside buses driving up from southern Taiwan and interviews with peddlers trying to sell herbal candy. I just couldn’t stomach too much of that stuff today.

Instead, I thought I’d try to write out a thought that has been rattling around in my head for a couple of months, since even before William Lai announced his challenge to Tsai Ing-wen. The basic idea is this: there is a growing split among people who want Taiwan to someday become independent. This is generational, but it is more fundamentally about what Taiwan independence means and what is necessary to make Taiwan independent. The group of people who are generally labeled as the Taiwan independence movement have a very different idea about these things than the mainstream of the DPP elite, and this is what is driving the fundamentalists’ dissatisfaction with Tsai and Lai’s challenge to her.

Let’s start in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when the current elders of the Taiwan independence movement were crystalizing their views. For these people, the primary obstacle to Taiwan independence was the KMT and its authoritarian regime in Taiwan. The task at hand was to dislodge the KMT from power so that they could declare independence. Some of them tried violence, but most of them eventually merged with the Tangwai pro-democracy movement to try to remove the KMT through democratic means. They have always placed a premium on trying to get the government and the populace to make statements about Taiwan’s sovereignty. One of the avenues for this was putting the Taiwan Independence Plank in the DPP’s party platform in 1991. Another was to push for referendums, so that the people could directly vote on whether Taiwan should become independent.

To these people, the threat from the PRC was a red herring. The KMT used the possibility of a military invasion to scare people from supporting Taiwan independence, so in order to make their case, they had to argue that the threat was a lie. In the authoritarian era, this was fairly easy. The PRC didn’t really have the capacity to launch an invasion of Taiwan, and the USA military guaranteed Taiwan’s security. The ROC military was fundamentally seen as part of the KMT regime. When martial law was still in effect, the military’s primary task was to suppress Taiwan’s population. Even after martial law, the ROC military was regarded more as an enemy to be overcome and neutered than as a potentially useful tool. There is deep distrust of the military among fundamentalists, who see a disproportionately mainlander officer corps and a Chinese nationalist political ideology. Even today, independence fundamentalists are often stunningly dismissive of the threat from China and aggressively confident in the USA.

The independence fundamentalists are angry with the Tsai administration for not doing enough to promote Taiwan independence. She has conspicuously refrained from the types of actions that President Chen vigorously pursued, such as renaming all the state-run companies with “China” in their name, promoting nationalist referendums, proposing a new constitution, and stirring up nationalist debates at every opportunity. Note that all these are inward-oriented. The way to pursue Taiwan independence was for Taiwan to come to some sort of internal consensus so that it could outwardly declare its independence to the world. I think the final straw that pushed the independence fundamentalists over the edge was the 2018 referendum on using the name “Taiwan” in the 2022 Tokyo Olympics. Tsai did not openly support this referendum. In fact, she tried to stop DPP elected officials from participating in rallies supporting the measure. The measure failed, and I think the fundamentalists blamed her, seeing her reticence as outright betrayal.


Let’s turn to the other side, who have a very different vision of Taiwan independence. They don’t have a commonly accepted label, so I’m going to call them “pragmatists.” For this group, Taiwan is already de facto independent. Democratization fundamentally transformed Taiwan. The authoritarian KMT had to transform itself into a normal political party, one of several contesting power. That is, the KMT was redefined as being under the constitution, not above it.  With democracy, the population of Taiwan was already exercising sovereignty. Thus, in 1995, DPP chair Shih Ming-teh declared that the DPP would not and could not formally declare independence if it took power. Since Taiwan was already independent, there was no need to do so, and altering Taiwan’s sovereignty was beyond the ordinary powers of a governing majority. When it became apparent that the DPP had a real shot to win the 2000 presidential election, it passed a resolution on Taiwan’s future declaring the independence plank a mere historical document. The status quo is something to be protected, not overturned.

For the pragmatists, the main threat to Taiwan independence is not internal, it is external. The threat from China is real, and the primary task is to build up the capacity to resist Chinese attempts to swallow Taiwan. From day one of her presidency, Tsai has spent a tremendous amount of energy on the military. She has funded projects, she regularly visits bases and has photo-ops, and, in public speeches, she proudly and pointedly asserts her status as commander-in-chief much more than Lee, Chen, or Ma ever did. If the independence fundamentalists see the military as an obstacle, the pragmatists view the military as a vital bulwark protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty. If China invades, Taiwan only has one military available to fight. Regardless of which party the officers prefer, independence advocates have no choice but to work with them. Rather than try to starve or disempower the military, pragmatists want to create a powerful and professional military loyal to the state. If the military is loyal to the ROC, then independence advocates must reconcile themselves to accepting the ROC. Unlike the fundamentalists, the pragmatists take the Chinese invasion threat very seriously. Deterring it is the most important thing a Taiwan independence supporter can do.

On economics, the pragmatists are again different. While the fundamentalists don’t actively want Taiwan’s economy to be integrated into China’s, this is not necessarily one of their top priorities. President Chen was actually quite aggressive in lowering barriers to investment in China, and peak period of the hollowing out of Taiwan’s industrial base was under his administration. This fits with the idea that China is not really the threat. The pragmatists see economic integration with China as far more dangerous. China now has economic leverage that it can use to put pressure on Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty. Thus, Tsai has tried to slowly decouple the two economies, both by pushing for more economic cooperation with other countries and also by encouraging Taiwanese companies in China to come back home. For the pragmatists, this effort is central to promotion of Taiwan’s sovereignty.

For the pragmatists, exercises of self-expression, such as referendums, are a self-indulgent luxury, not the essence of the movement. It might be fun and emotionally satisfying to poke China in the eye, but one must be mindful of the consequences. If China attacks, Taiwan will need military help from the USA (and Japan). If that attack is triggered by a provocative referendum, American and Japanese public opinion might not support sending troops. Since the goal is to maintain sovereignty, these sorts of public statements can be counterproductive and downright dangerous. Referendums, in particular, are a lose-lose proposition. If they pass, they make Taiwan’s international position more precarious (because China is more likely to attack and the USA is less likely to help). Pragmatists are forced to consider voting against such propositions, which is a painful act in and of itself. If the measure fails, it adds weight to the Chinese insistence that Chinese on both sides believe that there is only one China. The best option is to keep these damn referendums off the ballot.

Fundamentalists are much more open to forcing the issue. If the referendum law is ever modified to allow the question of whether Taiwan should declare independence, they absolutely will push for such a referendum as soon as possible. If you believe that the primary obstacles are internal, then there is no reason not to try. If the question fails, you simply try again in a few years. That is what the Quebec and Scottish nationalists have done. For the pragmatists, since the primary obstacles to Taiwan independence are external, the timing of any declaration of formal independence depends on the external environment. That is, they have to wait until China no longer has the capacity or the will to invade Taiwan, or until political will in the USA congeals in a much stronger and clearer direction, or until Taiwan builds up its own military capacity, or until some dramatic event like the end of the Cold War changes the entire world and makes things possible that previously seemed unimaginable. In the meantime, the pragmatists’ task is to maintain Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty so that when the opportunity comes, Taiwan will be ready.



12 Responses to “What is Taiwan independence?”

  1. Rev. Michael Stainton Says:

    A good primer on the green conumdrum. I will share it with some Canadian MP’s. To what extent do you think that the father of the “pragmatists” is LTH, who famously said (in 1992?) something like “I absolutely don’t need to declare Taiwan independence. Taiwan already is an independent soverign naation. Its name is Republic of China”?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      LTH, as always, straddles both sides. He was, of necessity, a pragmatist. After all, as a rising politician within and then the leader of the KMT, he couldn’t be too overt about his preferences. Nevertheless, when his power was secure enough, he consistently pushed Taiwanese sovereignty with public statements. The special state-to-state relationship is still the starkest statement of Taiwan independence that any president has made.

  2. cassambito Says:

    Nice explanation! Could you write about the other side of the spectrum, i.e. the unification fundamentalists and pragmatists?

    Who would be the pragmatists in this case? The ones who favor de facto independence with strong political and economical ties with China?

    Another question: what is the ratio of Taiwanese people within these four categories?

  3. JB Says:

    That fundamentalist independence supporters don’t consider China a real threat is an interesting observation that never occurred to me- indeed to most observers probably think the idea is absurd. In a sense I think fundamentalists are correct, that the true challenge is internal, and if Taiwan’s population is united it will be far easier to gain/maintain independence. The problem is that most Taiwanese do see China as a powerful threat, and also would like politicians to focus on the economy and quality of life, not just on ideological issues. Accepting the ROC shell is a low price for maintaining independence. This means the fundamentalist path is a dead end- not only is it provocative to outside powers, it relies on assumptions that a large majority of Taiwanese can’t accept. What’s tragic is that this same assumption has led the fundamentalists to risk handing back power to an increasingly pro-surrender KMT rather than allow a pragmatic DPP to stay in power.

  4. BAR Says:

    I think there’s a false dilemma being pushed here. I don’t think “pragmatists”, as you put it, are against referendums because they “provoke” China, and they certainly do not vote against them.

    The “pragmatist” camp isn’t mad at the Green Geezers for “provoking China”, which is 110% a PRC trope (and you should do much better than ascribing it). They’re mad because the Green Geezers, through their recalcitrance stemming from TI fundamentalism, have unashamedly split the unity of the pro-Taiwan camp at a deeply critical juncture.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Tsai did try to prevent DPP figures from supporting the 2018 referendum.
      The question isn’t whether the pragmatists are mad at the fundamentalists; it is why the fundamentalists are so mad at the pragmatists that they felt a need to challenge a sitting president from their side.

      Re: provoking China. It is correct that only China is interested in starting a war; Taiwan is not going to invade China. Nonetheless, China’s willingness to take this step depends on factors such as how easily it can sell the action to its own populace and how likely the US is to send in troops. Referendums arguably strengthen the Chinese hawks’ hand on both of those critical factors, so they do make China more likely to invade.

      • Shelley E Rigger Says:

        I hope you’re right on both points, but I’m not so sanguine about a unification referendum (which of course would not be called that). Referendums are tricky things; the questions can be worded deceptively, the timing can be weird, people can be persuaded that they’re voting for something they don’t actually want. Consider Brexit: it was a terrible idea, but people were deceived into voting for it, and it’s tearing the UK apart. And they can’t undo it. I can see paths to a successful referendum that would put Taiwan on an irreversible path to unification. This possibility was first suggested to me by someone in your “pragmatist” camp, and he used this word: Anschluss.

  5. Roger Says:

    Dear FrozenGarlic,

    Thank you for this blog, really, really…thank you.

    I spent my childhood as an expat in Taiwan, from 1987 until I graduated high school in 1999. My grandparents fled China and settled in Taiwan with the KMT, so as you can imagine my parents are deeply “blue,” and my politics growing up was accordingly partisan. I remember attending New Party rallies when I was in middle school, waving the yellow flags and chanting along with w/e reactionary slogan I was taught to chant.

    I’ve long admired the level of civic and political engagement of Taiwanese citizens. As time passed, I’ve also come to appreciate the fact that Taiwan is now the only bastion of Chinese democracy left on this planet, and the vibrancy of its political discourse is astounding.

    As such, I am what you would describe as a “pragmatic pro-independence” supporter, stunning my mom/aunts/uncles with my newfound position in Taiwanese politics. They resort to accusing me basically of being an American, a “gaijin” foreigner who knows nothing about Taiwan etc…

    I can read (barely) newspaper-level Chinese, and better yet watch clips on youtube…but as you know, finding impartial political narratives seem almost impossible.

    So thank you again for putting your cogent thoughts to paper/screen. I will be spending a lot of time reading through your old entries!

  6. Shelley E Rigger Says:

    Thanks for this interesting reflection. I made a similar argument in “Why Taiwan Matters:” Until the mid-’90s, the focus of the independence movement was the “China inside” (China as ROC/KMT/waishengren), but when Beijing began to show its teeth, many on the Green side came to realize that the “China outside” was an even bigger threat. Your analysis brings that logic up to the present. The Deep Greens’ response to Trump also makes sense in this context. They are looking for data points to support the idea that the PRC is not a real threat, and they’re finding them. The problem is, no one really knows what Trump’s bottom line is for Taiwan. My guess is he doesn’t have one, and that is extremely dangerous.

    Speaking of dangerous … If the Greens put an independence referendum on the ballot, surely the Blues will put a unification referendum on at the same time. Given the results of the 2014 referendums, is anyone ready to predict the results?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      The deep blues would be making a mistake by putting a unification measure on the ballot since it would definitely fail by a spectacular margin. They would be better off to let the independence measure fail and then try to publicly interpret that as a pro-unification result. Having both fail would send a message that Taiwan wants the status quo — which is actually true. Maybe if the independence fundamentalists do ever manage to put an independence referendum on the ballot, moderates should put a matching unification measure on just so that it is clear that voting against immediate independence is not the same thing as wanting unification.

      Fortunately, it seems likely that the referendum law will be changed to raise the threshold and discourage this nonsense.

      • Shelley E Rigger Says:

        (My reply attached itself to the wrong comment the first time — sorry about that!)

        I hope you’re right on both points, but I’m not so sanguine about a unification referendum (which of course would not be called that). Referendums are tricky things; the questions can be worded deceptively, the timing can be weird, people can be persuaded that they’re voting for something they don’t actually want. Consider Brexit: it was a terrible idea, but people were deceived into voting for it, and it’s tearing the UK apart. And they can’t undo it. I can see paths to a successful referendum that would put Taiwan on an irreversible path to unification. This possibility was first suggested to me by someone in your “pragmatist” camp, and he used this word: Anschluss.

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