Dr. Karl Ho and Dr. Dennis Lu-Chung Weng, pictured at the 2014 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. (Copyright Rebecca Kuang) Dr. Karl Ho and Dr. Dennis Lu-Chung Weng recently presented a paper entitled “The Political Economy of (Dis)Integration: A Case Study of Taiwan-China Trade Relationships at the 2014 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. The two sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs at the conference to discuss Taiwan’s upcoming elections and its relationship with mainland China.

GJIA: What are the main findings of the paper you are presenting at the Taiwan Domestic Politics and Cross-Strait Relations panel?

KH: Our paper is about the political economy of trade between China and Taiwan. We tested a model from an economist by the name of Alberto Alesina, who argues that free trade will lead to political separatism or, in other words, that more trade between two countries [such as China and Taiwan] makes it less likely that they will become a union. There are contextual conditions to Alesina’s argument. One is globalization, a global market with multilateral free trade, which creates incentives for countries to pursue multilateral trade instead of focusing on just one other nation. In this environment, there are no incentives for small countries to join a union. One counterexample is the European Union, specifically the question of why small countries continue to join it. There are many reasons for these nations to seek membership, but there are also many reasons to keep a loose relationship with the EU. Recent events in the Eurozone suggest that small countries are not really better off joining the EU; as a result, some are even considering keeping their distance from the EU in regards to trade and monetary policy. In the case of Taiwan and China, in 2010 a framework agreement between the two nations enacted a greater degree of free trade, fewer tariffs, and closer economic relations. In that sense, Taiwan is seeing increasing integration with China, the opposite of the trend governing some nations’ relations with the EU. Our paper analyzed economic and political data  between the two countries from 2003 to 2012. We found that as soon as the Economic Cooperative Framework Agreement (ECFA) came under negotiation between the two countries, the general public in Taiwan responded to it, some in positive ways and some in negative ways. Taiwanese citizens are growing more skeptical about these increasing economic ties because they feel that their nation is becoming too close to China. This is clear evidence that the Taiwanese public is in an ambivalent state when it comes to China—as a nation, they are not quite sure which way to go.

GJIA: The final term in office for Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s current president, ends in less than two years and there are rumors that his opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), will sweep elections. Do you foresee that happening? If so, what are the implications of the DPP coming into power, especially in regards to Chinese-Taiwanese political and economic relations?

DW: Some foresee that the DPP will be elected in 2016. According to public opinion polls, the Kuomintang (KMT) has not been doing very well recently, so it’s possible. However, there are other factors that will influence the electoral outcome. And, even if the DPP does get elected, additional factors will influence the future relationship between mainland China and Taiwan. First of all, mainland China will needs to figure out how to deal with the DPP, which has traditionally been the party more in favor of Taiwanese independence. China will also need to realize that Taiwan’s public is afraid of the idea of associating with communism even if the two countries have a better trade relationship. The Taiwanese public will therefore have to be assured that closer ties have nothing to do with further political integration. If elected, the DPP will also need to know how to deal with China and how to respond to internal conflict. Part of the DPP still strongly supports Taiwanese independence, an issue that has divided the party and that will have to be resolved if they are to win general support from the Taiwanese people and get elected. The current leader of the DPP, Tsai Ing-wen, will likely emerge as the party’s presidential candidate. Tsai’s main argument is that Taiwan needs to have consensus, a pitch she is aiming at her own supporters rather than at the general public because DPP supporters are traditionally pro-Taiwanese independence. Like its party, DPP supporters are currently divided—but once Ing-wen’s vision of a Taiwanese consensus is realized, the DPP has a very good chance of being elected. If this occurs, the Taiwanese consensus will also be something for the mainland Chinese government to deal with.

KH: There will also be Taiwanese midterm mayoral, and local elections held this year in the middle of President Ying-jeou’s final term. The incumbent president’s KMT party should expect to experience setbacks in this election because the midterms will allow the opposition to capitalize on the KMT’s poor record and win political gains. The KMT’s popularity rating is low and the president’s image is not good, all of which will hurt KMT candidates both in the midterm and in the upcoming 2016 elections. These will be critical elections because, in addition to the presidential race, the legislative elections held that year may end up going to the opposition DPP as well. Two more factors need to be emphasized, however. The first is that a very significant segment of the Taiwanese population—according to our analysis, about forty percent—is still showing no support for either party. This large bloc of undecided voters is critical, and will ultimately determine the fate of both parties and, naturally, the political future of the country in the short term. The other factor that cannot be underestimated is the spillover effect of Hong Kong. The Chinese government is currently determining what the 2017 election format for Hong Kong’s chief executive will be. A decision will likely be reached in a few days’ time by the Chinese congress, which will vote on the issue. If the resolution passed in China does not show democratic practices or universal suffrage for Hong Kong voters, it will only further fuel Hong Kong’s strong dissident sentiment that has already begun to brew an Occupy-style movement. Such a rejection of Chinese authority would have a spillover effect in Taiwan; if the Chinese government is framed for triggering this Occupy movement, the DPP’s pro-independence factions could benefit in both this year’s midterm and the 2016 elections.

GJIA: How has the recent Sunflower Movement affected Taiwanese politics and China-Taiwan relations?

KH: The March 2014 Sunflower Movement captured the world’s attention. The movement was sparked when student-led protesters advanced into the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s congress, and also briefly occupied the presidential Executive Yuan. For many Taiwanese citizens, the protests sparked a moment to reflect on where Taiwan is headed as a country. While many argue that this is a DPP-mobilized action, our analysis shows that the sentiments behind the movement are also appealing to some non-partisans and middle-of-the-road Taiwanese voters. If this portion of the population, mobilized by the Sunflower Movement, throws its political support to either side, it could go on to decide the fate of the country. This echoes the ambivalence that exists within Taiwan’s population we discussed earlier. Taiwanese citizens do not know whether they want to be an independent nation or if they want to get closer to China or form an economic union. A large part of this population is still pondering which direction to move in; if the Sunflower Movement has identified a direction that appeals to them, it may translate into a clear direction forward for the country.

DW: As a young scholar, I can provide the somewhat jaded perspective of Taiwan’s younger generation as well. These voters sees politics as being in the past—as a black box in which politicians don't care about younger generations, don’t care that college graduates can’t find jobs. They cannot see a future, so they protest. Having grown up in Taiwan, I am an optimist. I believe this movement could provide an opportunity for Taiwanese society to view politics differently in the future. The important message this movement sends out is that politicians should care about the general public and take their opinions into consideration, especially younger generations. This kind of activism is not only happening in Taiwan, but in Hong Kong and other Asian democracies as well. Empirical data illustrate that younger generations see politics differently. In the past, Asian countries have always seen politics as a hierarchical system in which political leaders may be selected in an election but are never punished for their behavior in office. In Western democracies, by contrast, voters select politicians but blame them severely if they do not deliver while in office. This is not the case in Asia, especially for older generations of voters who either believe Ma Ying-jeou is a perfect president or that Tsai Ing-wen is a great leader. They don't attempt to critically investigate whether these leaders are really doing a good job or if they simply act the part. Younger generations, however, have shown that they care about politics and for their political future. They want jobs, money, and opportunities for the future. That is the message of the Sunflower movement, and it’s a message that is going to carry on in the future.

GJIA: This year was the first year in which senior officials from mainland China and Taiwan held formal meetings. There has been some speculation as to whether Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart will meet. What would a meeting between the two leaders signify for the future of China-Taiwan political relations?

KH: Multiple factors underlie this question. First, for President Ma, the meeting would be very meaningful. It could be historic, but it could also be very dangerous for him and his party. Right now, the KMT is covering its bases, and it is quite likely they will see uphill battles in some constituencies this upcoming November in the midterm elections as a result. Thus, while this meeting could be difficult for Ma, it also brings potential problems for President Xi, who is Currently dealing with two main issues. One is the uneasy situtation in Hong Kong, and the problem of how to turn unrest into good political capital. The second is political challenges within his party. A meeting would be good for him in this regard, but could also cause local Taiwanese backlash against the KMT and perhaps boost popular support for the opposition DPP. That would present a midterm problem for Ma and, by extension, for Xi, who would prefer to deal with a ruling Taiwanese regime friendly to the Chinese Communist Party—so far, that party is the KMT. Hong Kong’s governing bodies also currently support the CCP. If Xi changes the political equilibrium in the region by meeting with Ma, this delicate balance will be shaken up and a domino effect may ensue. So this is an issue both leaders will be handling with care.

DW: From a statistical perspective, President Ma needs to face this problem at home because many of his citizens believe that such an action would constitute “selling out” Taiwan’s autonomy to the CCP. A meeting with Xi Jinping will very likely hurt the KMT in the midterm elections, and perhaps the 2016 elections as well. If Xi Jinping only meets with Ma, the DPP will assuredly criticize the meeting through commercials or other propaganda. Ma must therefore tread lightly. Historically speaking, diplomatic recognition of this sort by China is this is probably a good thing for cross-strait relations between the two entities; from a strategic perspective, however, it will probably hurt the KMT. It is possible that the DPP will try to meet with Xi as well, as DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen has also met with Zhang Zhijun, a representative from mainland China—a must if the DPP seeks to lead Taiwan forward if it takes this year’s midterm and the 2016 elections. Considerations of his party aside, Ma’s term is ending soon, and he will probably take the meeting with President Xi as a matter of securing his own legacy. He would be the first political leader to meet with the president of mainland China since Taiwan’s declared secession in 1949. Such a meeting is very important to Ma. He wants to make history.


Dr. Karl Ho is a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Dallas School of Economic, Political, and Policy Sciences. 

Dr. Dennis Lu-Chung Weng is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the department of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

Dr. Ho and Dr. Weng were interviewed by Rebecca Kuang on 29 August 2014 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.