The NPP’s internal divisions, Ko’s new party, and the China Cleavage

Every now and then, an international media outlet will publish a story on Taiwan elections that interprets everything through the lens of relations with China. For example, someone might write a story saying that, after the recent events in Hong Kong, the DPP’s presidential prospects are surging. Every time this happens, a gaggle of Taiwan-based analysts responds by pointing out that it isn’t that simple. Taiwanese politics are complex, and Taiwan’s international relationship with China isn’t the only thing that affects voting. All kinds of things unrelated to China policy – nuclear power, labor policy, air quality, food safety, overdevelopment, corruption, marriage equality, pensions, health care, industrial policy, tax rates, whether to ban drinking straws, and on and on – also affect electoral outcomes. Of course, they are right. But…

In the broader argument about the fundamental nature of Taiwanese politics, I come down firmly on the side that argues that Taiwan has one and only one dominant political cleavage. Taiwan’s relationship with China, broadly conceived, is more important than all of those other issues put together. This China Cleavage fundamentally shapes every aspect of Taiwan’s politics, most notably the party system. To put it bluntly, you can understand most – somewhere between 70% and 90% – of Taiwan’s politics if you understand the China Cleavage. (Of course, no one – including me – fully understands the China Cleavage.) Moreover, you can’t understand anything else unless you understand how it is embedded within the China Cleavage. The conflicts over all those other issues I listed above don’t make any sense unless you understand how they are filtered through the China Cleavage. They aren’t completely absorbed by it; otherwise they wouldn’t matter at all. However, they are deeply influenced by it. The opposite is not true. You don’t need to have a solid background in food safety issues to understand the China Cleavage.

Lots of people have written about this messy cleavage that defines Taiwanese politics, so I’ll be brief. I think of it as having four related but somewhat different dimensions. The first is ethnic background – the conflict between native Taiwanese (those who were already here during the Japanese colonial era) and mainlanders (who came after WWII). This dimension was most important during the authoritarian era but has faded in importance over the past few decades. The second is national identity, whether a person self-identifies as Chinese or Taiwanese. My personal opinion is that this is currently the single most important aspect of the China Cleavage. If I were cut off from all information about Taiwan for five years and you offered to give me just one number, I would want to know the percentage of respondents identifying as Taiwanese only in the NCCU Election Study Center tracking polls. The third dimension involves Taiwan’s future status. Should Taiwan unify with China, become a formally independent state, or something else. This dimension seems to have faded in importance in recent years. The fourth dimension is how to manage day-to-day relations with China. On what basis should Taiwan have economic interactions with China? How should Taiwan regulate Taiwanese citizens in China and Chinese citizens in Taiwan? Is it important to have government-to-government communications? What is the best way to prevent war? What is the best way to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty? This dimension is rapidly increasing in importance and may even be approaching national identity in significance. It will probably continue to increase in importance because China is increasingly making demands on Taiwan and more and more aggressively challenging Taiwan’s place in international society. National identity and day-to-day relations focus attention in different places. National identity is idealistic, looking at how citizens feel about themselves and who they want to be. Day-to-day relations is much more pragmatic, searching for a workable plan of action that may not completely reflect the choices they would make in an ideal world.

Lots of people would prefer for Taiwanese elections not to be about the China Cleavage. These people are like climate change deniers. It doesn’t matter if you want to ignore this set of issues, the world will force you to pay attention to them. You might want to think about air quality, but whether or not Taiwan continues to exist simply matters more. You might want to think about labor relations as a purely domestic issue, but Taiwan’s economy is highly intertwined with China’s, and China periodically does things that send shockwaves through Taiwan’s political and economic environment. Until Taiwan’s status is thoroughly resolved – something that is hopefully not on the immediate horizon – the China Cleavage will inevitably dwarf everything else in importance.


Why am I talking about the China Cleavage? The last couple weeks in Taiwanese politics have been eventful, to say the least. I’m going to focus on two big stories, the civil war threatening to rip the New Power Party apart and the recent moves by Ko Wen-je and Terry Gou. Both of these are much more easily understood through the lens of the China Cleavage.


The New Power Party was founded on the assumption that Taiwan does NOT have a single dominant political cleavage. The NPP positioned itself as a pro-Taiwan party occupying roughly the same space as the DPP on the China Cleavage spectrum. Unlike the Taiwan Solidarity Union or some of the new political parties that have been announced in the past few weeks, the NPP did not differentiate itself from the DPP by staking out a markedly more extreme position on this spectrum. Rather, it differentiated itself by staking out a markedly different position on a second dimension, the progressive-conservative dimension. The NPP argued that the DPP was fundamentally a conservative pro-Taiwan party, and it would be a progressive pro-Taiwan party. Thus, the NPP took different positions on things like labor unions, the welfare state, student issues, and, above all, marriage equality.

In recent months, the NPP has had an internal debate over its future path. Some, led by Freddy Lim and Tzu-yung Hung, want the NPP to cooperate with the DPP in the presidential election to guard against throwing the presidency to pro-China forces. Others, led by KC Huang and Yung-ming Hsu, feel that this will condemn the NPP to an existence as the DPP’s junior partner. They want the NPP to set its own course and become an unaffiliated party that can bargain with (and extract more concessions from) either major party. These two visions effectively force members to ask themselves whether the China Cleavage or the progressive-conservative cleavage is more important to them.

If the latter is true, Huang and Hsu are probably right to want to escape the DPP’s shadow. The NPP will be able to maintain its popular support, since its voters will continue to support them. (Voters tend to vote for whatever they think is the most important thing.) Moreover, the NPP will have more bargaining power in the legislature if it can deny both major parties an outright majority.

However, the progressive-conservative cleavage simply isn’t more important than the China Cleavage. Even NPP, who might like that to be so, know deep in their guts that the China Cleavage trumps everything. Maintaining Taiwan’s sovereignty is a prerequisite for everything else. Marriage equality is impossible without liberal democracy, and liberal democracy is incompatible with any arrangement the PRC would agree to. Lim and Hung simply (and correctly) aren’t willing to throw the presidency to the KMT, even if that means that the NPP is doomed to remain a “small green” party. They can’t convince themselves that their progressive agenda makes it ok to ignore the China Cleavage. If Huang and Hsu insist on directly challenging the DPP, the NPP will inevitably be plunged into this sort of civil war.

Being a “small green” party may not be the path that the NPP wants, but, unless it wants to adjust its position on the China Cleavage spectrum, that is the only viable path to survival. They simply cannot be a pro-Taiwan party that purposely divides the pro-Taiwan vote and helps the pro-China side to win, no matter how wonderfully progressive they are. They can perhaps survive by sticking to their 2016 positioning. In 2016, they cooperated with the DPP in the presidential and district legislative races. In the party list ballot, they contented themselves with the (small) chunk of pro-Taiwan voters who were also progressive. If the NPP does choose to adjust its position on China, it has two other options. It either has to become more extreme and argue that the DPP is not actually a pro-Taiwan party or become more moderate and argue against pro-Taiwan positions. If it takes the latter path, it has an obvious ally in Ko Wen-je.


Ko Wen-je is setting up a new party today, the Taiwan People’s Party. He also may or may not be running for president. He also may or may not be cooperating with Terry Gou, who also may or may not be running for president. I’m fairly sure that at least one of them will run. At any rate, we don’t know exactly what it will look like, but there will be a challenge from the center.

Like the NPP, Ko’s most enthusiastic supporters may not want to care very much about the China Cleavage. Ko’s base is disaffected youth who think that both major parties are corrupt and do not represent them. However, there isn’t really a cluster of issues that Ko taps into to bind these voters to him for the long run. Ko, unlike the NPP, was glaringly absent during the debate over marriage equality. When he did speak, it was for the other side. To the extent that Ko has any specific issue, it is that he has paid off lots of government debt. However, I don’t think that his supporters are really motivated by lowering the city debt. I think they are more motivated by his style. They see him as speaking bluntly and plainly. He sometimes says controversial things, but that is ok because it shows that he is not an ordinary, polished (meaning corrupt) establishment politician. So far, Ko has a good record on corruption, and this is also one of his main appeals.  However, corruption is what we call a valence issue: it is unidirectional. Everyone is against corruption, and everyone wants less of it. Being against corruption is like being for a good economy and praising mothers. Enduring parties are founded on positional issues, not valence issues. Someone else has to enthusiastically take the position that you are standing against. If Ko were just a plain-speaking, honest politician, he wouldn’t be very interesting.

However, Ko has also taken a centrist position on the China Cleavage. His One Family discourse effectively stakes out a position somewhere in the muddy middle. Unlike the KMT, he does not explicitly endorse the 92 Consensus or the One China policy. Unlike the DPP, he makes nods toward the notion that China and Taiwan are somehow connected.

Terry Gou has also staked out a relatively centrist position, though his is closer to the KMT than Ko’s. While the KMT drifts to a more extreme position by endorsing a peace treaty and jettisoning ideas such as No unification, No Independence, No War, Gou has shifted toward the center. He has suggested that Ma’s 92 Consensus is too weak, and the critical part is “each side with its own interpretation.” He has also played around with a Two China’s discourse.  Gou is clearer than Ko about the fundamental nature of Taiwan as Chinese. However, both argue that they would do more than the KMT to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty.

This centrist positioning suggests that the Ko/Gou alliance (if one takes shape) might be a viable stance. However, China will have something to say about that. Under Ma Ying-jeou, the KMT’s policy was to engage formally with the PRC to spur economic growth. However, this meant that the KMT had to entice the PRC into the meeting room, and that meant satisfying PRC demands on sovereignty. The 92 Consensus was designed as a formula that would simultaneously satisfy China (“One China”) and reassure the Taiwanese electorate that the KMT wasn’t plunging headlong into unification (“each side with its own interpretation”).  In recent years, the PRC has been increasingly dissatisfied with this formulation, constantly urging the KMT to go one step further. Since the KMT still needs the PRC to enter the meeting rooms, it has been dragged to a more extreme position.

Ko and Gou are effectively ignoring the KMT’s experience and arguing that they can get all the benefit of the 92 Consensus with even less of a concession on sovereignty than even Ma, much less Han, had to make. This is going to be a difficult position to explain to the public during the campaign. I have no idea if China will stay silent, thus helping Ko/Gou by not publicly vetoing their proposal, or feel the need to clarify that it requires more. If either is elected, I suspect they will find their position untenable and will be driven either to the DPP’s position of living without official contact or the KMT’s position of fully endorsing One China and taking concrete steps toward unification (eg: peace treaty) in order to get into the meeting room. As we say in Texas, the only things in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.


The hegemony of the China Cleavage isn’t entirely a bad thing. In fact, Kharis Templeman has made a powerful argument that Taiwan’s successful democracy has been achieved not in spite of the China Cleavage, but precisely because of it. The China Cleavage gives Taiwanese politics structure and stability. You may have a different opinion, but we don’t get to try it a different way. For better or worse, Taiwan’s relationship with China, broadly conceived, will continue to be the most important force in Taiwanese for the foreseeable future.


I wrote this post before watching the rollout of Ko Wen-je’s new party. Let’s just say that it isn’t going well so far.

When news leaked that Ko had registered a party named the Taiwan People’s Party, a name previously used in the 1920s by a group led by Chiang Wei-shui, criticism came quickly. Chiang’s family members publicly and vocally opposed Ko’s use of the name. They think that Ko is taking advantage of Chiang’s good reputation while not representing Chiang’s ideals. DPP surrogates have elaborated on this by contrasting Chiang’s defense of Taiwanese autonomy (“Taiwan is the Taiwanese people’s Taiwan”) with Ko’s ambivalent One Family discourse. Right off the bat, Ko is being defined as wishy washy on China and lacking in core values.

I wondered who would show up as a founding member of the new TPP. I thought maybe Ko would have some high-profile figures from society and maybe even a smattering of defectors from both the blue and green camps. Nope. Almost all of the prominent roles are being filled by officials from the Taipei city government. (Terry Gou and Wang Jin-pyng sent flowers but did not personally attend.)

Today’s other big news is that protests and government/thug crackdowns continue to intensify in Taiwan Hong Kong. Han Kuo-yu gave a pro-China response to the media, expressing hope that the chaos in Hong Kong would end quickly and pointedly refusing to express support for demonstrators or democracy and declining to assign blame to China or the Hong Kong authorities. That was predictable, as the KMT has decided to do whatever it takes to maintain an amicable relationship with the PRC. Ko’s response was more surprising. Ko said that he didn’t know anything about it, and that the protests in Hong Kong had nothing to do with Taiwan. He might as well have covered his eyes, turned his back, and then buried his head in the sand. So maybe that is how Ko intends to deal with China…

At the ceremony, Ko gave a short speech laying out his vision for his new party. He argued that Taiwan has lousy government because the two big parties run the country along ideological lines. What is he for? All the things you want! Good policies, effective governance, human rights, democracy, standing with public opinion, respect for expertise, no corruption, and (I think) economic development. Notice anything missing? That’s right. In this speech laying out the basic ideals of the new party, Ko did not mention sovereignty or China. He completely ignored the question of how he would manage the single most important question facing the country.

I guess Ko doesn’t agree with my thesis in this post. If today’s performance was any indication, he’s going to try to ignore the China Cleavage. At the very least, he’s going to argue that other things are more important. We’ll see how well this argument goes over with the general public. I don’t think he can run for president this way, though maybe his party can win a few (less than five) seats on the party list. Perhaps he is leaving the door open for an alliance with Terry Gou. If Gou is the presidential candidate, he will define the position on China. Still, I expected him to say something vague about protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty and having fruitful relations with China. He couldn’t even manage that.

13 Responses to “The NPP’s internal divisions, Ko’s new party, and the China Cleavage”

  1. Rev. Michael Stainton Says:

    Your deep focus and clarity of analysis s always such a delight , as mich as for its intelligence as its insights. I look forward to this alternative to the endless FB posts and rants from my Canadian green Taiwanese! BTW Freddy Lim is coming through To on what I assume is a pre-election fundraising trip. On trips (alals not fundraising), I will be in Taiwan visiting my aboriginal godons and grandchildren between September 26 and October 23 and would be happy to get together with you then. M

  2. Kharis Templeman Says:

    Excellent piece, Nathan, as always (and thanks for the shout-out!). Count me in the “China Cleavage dominates everything” camp as well.

    I’d add just one thing to your analysis: the PRC of 2008 is not the PRC of today, so the KMT (and Ko and/or Gou, if they run) will have a harder job now selling a China-friendly, pro-integration message. China’s economy is growing slower and total productivity is declining, its state enterprises are again expanding at the expense of the private sector, its political restrictions are much tighter, its approach to overseas diplomacy less conciliatory, its military bluster greater, its overseas influence operations more widespread and insidious, and its leadership more paranoid about internal and external threats and even less willing to permit public spaces that it cannot control to exist.

    In 2008 Ma Ying-jeou could reasonably promise that Taiwan would gain many benefits from greater economic integration with mainland China without conceding any sovereignty or political freedoms. And, that the PRC might still evolve politically in Taiwan’s direction, rather than the other way around. (Rather incredibly, Chou Hsi-wei made this argument again in an interview just last month, here:

    Now, in 2019, that’s just not an electorally viable position: there’s no evidence China under Xi Jinping is moving in a direction that makes its system more appealing to the average Taiwanese, and lots that it is moving the other way. Greater economic integration now comes with obvious and deeply worrying tradeoffs that cannot be simply dismissed. But the KMT hasn’t adapted its rhetoric to this new China: all the major party figures, from Wu Den-yi to Han to Ma to even Eric Chu, have continued blithely to insist that, first, a KMT president could and would simply reset cross-Strait relations back to 2008 via the 1992 Consensus formula, and second, that greater openness to the Chinese mainland would still make Taiwan better off and worth the price of any concessions they’d have to make to get cross-Strait cooperation from Beijing. I don’t buy either of those assumptions, and more importantly, I doubt the median Taiwanese voter will either.

    • frozengarlic Says:

      Great points. I was a lot more confident that the KMT’s position was too far away from the median voter before last November, though.

      Has your paper been published yet?

      • Kharis Templeman Says:

        Paper will be out in the next issue of IJTS–should be available there within the next couple of weeks.

  3. Seán Carless Says:

    “Today’s other big news is that protests and government/thug crackdowns continue to intensify in Taiwan.” Can you fix that typo?

  4. Mark Swofford Says:

    As relevant as the China cleavage thesis may be for the 2020 election, it feels like it would be a major stretch to apply it to the results of the 2018 votes. Does anyone other than perhaps some deep blues believe that the drubbing the DPP received then was mainly in response to the DPP’s cross-strait policy?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      You have a point. The further away you get from national elections, the less national issues matter. However, they still matter. The overwhelming majority of votes in the 2018 mayoral elections went along established party lines. Also, one of the most important and largely overlooked trends is that the ESC polls showed four straight years of decline in exclusive Taiwanese identity from 2015 to 2018. (There has been a bounce-back in 2019.) I don’t understand exactly what was happening, but the DPP was somehow losing ground in that high-level argument. It could be that 2016 was more about sovereignty while 2018 was more (like 2008 and 2012) about economic relations. At any rate, I don’t think the 2018 result was totally unrelated to the China Cleavage.

  5. Joseph Says:

    I’d guess Ko wants to appeal to voters who want to move beyond blue and green and think China is a distraction from the real issue of governance. I’ve met quite a few people like this, though I doubt there’s enough to get him anywhere near victory. Moreover he’s not just vague about China, he’s vague about everything. Committed supporters may not care, but anyone looking for a clear direction on any issue may start having second thoughts. His motivation right now seems more like revenge against the DPP and especially Tsai rather than any particular political goal. Maybe he’ll throw the election to Han, but it’s hard to see his party having any staying power beyond 2024.
    I’m curious if Tsai is regretting making alliances with Ko and the NPP. Having the NPP in the legislature is at least better than those seats being in KMT hands, but perhaps the DPP would be happier with an incompetent KMT mayor in Taipei than a hostile independent.

  6. frozengarlic Says:

    Austin Wang has just published a post making a similar point to mine.

    One way you can tell the second dimension doesn’t matter very much is that no one agrees on what the second dimension actually is.

  7. P.C. Saunders Says:

    This is a well-argued piece.

    The implication is that Ko and the Taiwan People’s Party will have difficulty staking out a middle ground in the face of attacks from the KMT (for unrealistic policies about how they (Ko and the TPP) will manage the mainland) and from the DPP (for inability to show that they will stand up to the Mainland and defend Taiwan). Ko’s squishiness on what his policy is a liability and probably an untenable position in a campaign where he would be attacked by both sides.

    Nathan also makes the (probably correct) point that the 1992 consensus isn’t good enough for Beijing anymore. This raises the question of whether Beijing will feel the need to clarify this point (which will give the Taiwan electorate a dose of reality, but hurt the KMT’s electoral chances) or be clear to the KMT in private but quiet in public in order to bolster the broader case that 4 more years of Tsai will inflict grave damage on Taiwan’s economy. The pressure would be applied publicly AFTER the election.

    He doesn’t address the question of how a third party candidate for President would affect relative support for Tsai and Han, and potentially support for their parties in the LY.

    WRT the NPP, it sounds like they have come to an accommodation with the DPP to de-conflict LY candidates in some districts, thus resolving the party’s debate referred to in the front part of the piece.

    Obviously, Hong Kong is another factor that could shape Taiwan views on the Mainland and how to strike the right balance between maintaining good relations that allow economic access and standing up for Taiwan.

  8. The Remarkable Han Kuo-yu Faces a Rough Road Ahead - Ketagalan Media Says:

    […] than the majority of the Taiwanese electorate. National elections in Taiwan are, above all else, shaped by the issue of national sovereignty in the face of challenges from Beijing. His Chinese nationalist stance, and accommodating attitude to the Chinese Communist Party-led […]

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