In late March, Taiwan’s former president, Ma Ying-jeou, made a historic trip to China, becoming the first former or serving Taiwan leader to visit the mainland since 1949.
Ma, who served from 2008-16, said he wished to visit his ancestral homeland in Hunan province and several Chinese cities.
The photo ops were many, but most attention was paid to his remarks on Taiwan’s and China’s unique relationship and how they are both part of “one China.”
Not so long ago, his comments might have had little traction. Taiwan is formally the Republic of China, named for the government that fled to the island, a former Japanese colony, at the end of the Chinese Civil War in the late 1940s.
For many Chinese families who left with the government led by the nationalist Kuomintang, or KMT, party, seeing the two sides become one country was a lifelong dream barred by the politics of the Cold War.
This time, however, a former president was lambasted by Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council and largely seemed out of touch.
In contemporary Taiwan, the dream of a united China has all but vanished except among a small minority of Taiwan’s residents, most of whom are older or contemporaries of the 72-year-old Ma.
The change has been relatively swift. As late as 1992, as many as a quarter of Taiwan residents still saw themselves as “Chinese” and another 46% as both “Taiwanese and Chinese,” according to a long-running identity poll by Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, but those numbers have dropped sharply in the past 30 years to just 2.7% and 32.9%, respectively.
Instead, more than 60% of respondents identified as “Taiwanese” in 2022 up from just 17.6% in 1992, as a new nationalism has gained ground following democratization in 1996.
The KMT and Taiwan’s other major political party, the Democratic Progressive Party, have followed suit and now either see unification with China as a distant goal or one that is wholly unwanted.
“If reunification is on the right, and de jure independence on the left, then the KMT is on the center-right, and the DPP is on the center-left,” said Kwei-bo Huang, vice dean and associate professor of diplomacy at National Chengchi University College of International Affairs.
Even as Taiwan finds its new identity, its political parties are still being shaped by a century-old historical legacy based in China.
The Republic of China was founded in 1912, after the collapse of the Qing Empire. That government led China during the turbulent decades preceding World War II before fleeing the victorious Chinese Communist Party to Taiwan.
From Taipei, the KMT-led government claimed to still represent China as it ruled Taiwan under an authoritarian grip until democratization in the 1990s. It is still shaped by this legacy, even as it has evolved into a modern political party.
The party, for example, still adheres to the republic’s constitution’s claim to be the “sole legitimate government over mainland China and Taiwan,” said Chih-Yung Ho, deputy dean of the KMT’s Institute of Revolutionary Practice, which advocates reunification with China under the premise of “freedom democracy, and an equitable distribution of wealth.”
In practice, however, it has had to change with the times, given that China’s current government is unpalatable to most Taiwan residents.
Support for “moving towards unification” from the current “status quo” has dropped from a peak of 19.5% of respondents in 1996 to just 6% in 2022, according to NCCU’s survey, so the KMT has pivoted to pursuing “peaceful development of the Taiwan Strait.” Unification, said Ho, is a distant question for “future generations to come” for most KMT supporters.
Within the party itself, some conservative factions remain, such as those led by Ma that seek reunification in the near future, but they are still in a small minority. Party members such as 84-year-old hardliner Wang Chien-shein who announced plans to run for president in March under a banner of “peaceful unification by 2025” are also considered fringe elements.
For Taiwan’s other major political party, the DPP, these are all issues that belong in the past, along with the KMT-led authoritarian martial law that defined Taiwanese life from 1945-87.
Founded in the 1986 as decades of martial law were winding down, the DPP offers a very different approach to Taiwan politics that emphasizes Taiwan as a distinct political identity that is neither defined by the Republic of China nor the People’s Republic in Beijing. It has also come to champion Taiwan nationalism, which draws on Taiwan’s pre-1945 history and the contributions of Japanese and indigenous Taiwanese culture, as well as that of earlier Chinese groups who immigrated to Taiwan hundreds of years ago.
The DPP stops short of publicly advocating for independence – meaning for a Taiwan separate from both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China – because it would trigger an attack by Beijing.
Instead, leaders such as President Tsai Ing-wen have taken the approach that Taiwan is de facto an independent country and steadily dropped most references to the “ROC” on diplomatic offices, passports, and in the media.
Their policy mirrors widely held feelings of many Taiwan citizens – more than half of whom want to maintain the status quo “indefinitely” or “decide at a later date,” according to NCCU polls. Nearly a third of respondents also said that they would like to maintain the status quo and “move towards independence,” although it was not defined when.
This could change soon with next year’s presidential election.
DPP presidential candidate William Lai Ching-tee, the current vice president, is far more outspoken than Tsai on issues such as independence while the party is also in the midst of a transition, said Lev Nachman, an assistant professor at NCCU who studies Taiwanese party politics.
It is unclear whether more pro-independence or more “status quo” forces will take the helm of the party, he said.
A similar struggle is likely happening inside the KMT, Nachman said, as that party has yet to select its candidate. Frontrunners include New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yih, who has stayed quiet on issues such as unification, and billionaire Foxconn founder Terry Gou, who has criticized the DPP’s more open “pro-Taiwan independence” stance.
“The thing to keep in mind is all parties are run by parties, Taiwan is no exception. The status of factions is now in flux because all the parties are trying to figure out what their next presidential campaign will look like,” Nachman said.