Identifying Consensus in the Blue-Green Continuum

Taiwanese people will vote in a few hours for their president and legislature. Much has been written on these elections, and no doubt that, considering what is at stake, much literature will follow. One word that is coming back constantly in the debate is precisely the opposite of what we expect in democracy: consensus.

Even a distant look at the elections, however, will reveal quite quickly that there are two different consensuses debated in Taiwan these days. One, the so-called “1992 consensus”, the other, the “Taiwan Consensus”. Neither of them is a new idea at all, however they’ve found a new actuality in this campaign.

Two major camps are still opposed in Taiwan today, the blues and the greens. If this division might perhaps, in the future, represent less accurately the opinions than now, it seems that this division is still operative. Before discussing each other’s version of the consensus, and propose a third one, let’s briefly remind the reader what those colored camps represent.

The blues are a nebula of forces revolving around the Kuomintang, while the greens are the sum of forces around the Democratic Progressive party. Neither group is homogeneous, but in this 2012 election the green camp appears more united than the blue one, which is divided among two candidates, Ma Ying-jeou and James Soong. The question that I want to address in this post is where is the boundary between the greens and the blues? The question is, in fact, more complex than it may appear.

A general perception is that the division line is between pro-unification and pro-independence. That is a very inaccurate perception. Most of the blues are in fact against independence, which is not equivalent to being pro-unification; and how surprising it might be for the non-specialist, most of the blues who vote for Ma are definitely not in favour of unification. It appears that only the top, Mainlander elite strata of the KMT still favors an option that runs directly against a massive support in Taiwan for the preservation of the status quo – 88.2% in September 2011 if we add up support for all variations of the status quo. In Taiwan, unification has no electoral market at all – only 1.4 % of the electorate favors unification immediately.

On the other side, the greens most often dream of independence – or, we should say, as the ROC is considered in Taiwan as a sovereign and independent regime that is not controlled by PRC – of the formal change of the nation’s name from Republic of China to Republic of Taiwan, which is the technicality behind the so-called, and misleading expression of, “Taiwan independence”. And clearly, we can say that probably the vast majority of greens oppose unification in any form.

In sum, I’d say that, instead of a unification-independence divide, the line of demarcation is rather anti-independence against anti-unification forces. Which, all in all, leads the majority to support the status quo.

What is sure too is that the immense majority of Taiwanese are against unification with the mainland. When the 2008 election of Ma Ying-jeou of the KMT – whose platform favors unification – was interpreted by many outside Taiwan as a vote for a rapprochement with China, it was largely a mistake. In 2008 the middle classes voted for better economic ties with China, and not for a pro-unification platform, which was clearly toned down by Ma during the 2008 campaign, as well as in the last year of his mandate, in 2011. He did so for fear of antagonizing an electorate that, according to official statistics, increasingly considered that the pace of negotiations across the straits was going too fast.

However, characterizing the opposition between the blues and the greens along those lines is not sufficient either. There is another variable, the so-called “consciousness”. Certainly, the line is not an ethnic one here: if roughly 80% of Taiwan’s Mainlanders are considered voting for the blues and other Mainlander candidates (including among young generations), the ethnic Taiwanese vote either for the KMT or the DPP. In other words, Mainlanders have a tendency, due to a complex psychology of fear (as refugees of the civil war) to vote along ethnic lines, but the ethnic Taiwanese do not. This fact enables the KMT to survive electorally in Taiwan – and pretty well if we think that the KMT (in concert with blue allies) has never lost its majority in Parliament. Otherwise, with just 12% of Taiwan’s population being Mainlanders, the KMT would long ago have become a minority party.

“Consciousness”, whether “Chinese” or “Taiwanese”, however, subsumes these ethnic differences, encompassing them. Yet, together with other factors, among which relations of interest, whether personal or economic, political or administrative, play a central role in Taiwanese politics. People whose Chinese consciousness prevails (they may be Mainlanders or ethnically Taiwanese or Aborigines) do identify with Taiwan and most of them consider Taiwan as their “home”, within the wider Chinese “nation”. The identification with the later is mostly cultural and not political – except in extreme cases – and they tend to oppose unification in large numbers. People whose Taiwanese consciousness prevails do not always reject a sense of proximity with the cultural China, but radically oppose the idea of unification, or sharing blood ties that necessarily lead to unification in the future, either as a historical necessity or a return to a normal situation. This latter group includes not only ethnic Taiwanese, but also a growing number of Mainlanders. In sum, we do find Mainlanders whose Taiwanese consciousness is growing, and many Taiwanese whose Chinese consciousness prevails.

Upon these factors we also have to add relations of interests, and the notion more generally understood by the term “guanxi”. Many Taiwanese who invest in China and wish to see Tsai Ying-wen of the DPP elected tomorrow keep close ties with China and with the KMT. In Taiwan’s politics, as well as in cross-Strait politics, the only certainty is that nothing is definitely defined and opposed. Everything is, rather, on a continuum.

Continuum, consensus… As I noted above, two consensuses are constantly invoked. On the surface, they are clearly incompatible. The blue camp is insisting that Taiwan and China reached a consensus on “One China, Two interpretations” in 1992, clearly meaning that each side considers to be the only one China, either the PRC on the Mainland or the ROC on Taiwan. The opposition in Taiwan replies that this consensus, if it ever existed, was reached secretly between two parties, the CCP and the KMT, and not between the two states. As such, they argue that it is a secret, partisan agreement, and thus unacceptable. In response, the DPP launched the idea of a “Taiwan consensus”, insisting that the future of Taiwan must be defined democratically and ratified by the nation’s representative bodies.

To a great extent, these two ideas are not exactly new: the “1992 Consensus” has been the object of heated debates since the early 2000s – its inventor even acknowledged inventing the notion, while the then President denied it ever existed. On its side, the “Taiwan consensus” is a new expression that designates the necessity for Taiwan to present a unified response to Chinese pressure and to decide its future by itself – but it is an idea already defended by the Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian administrations, and by all supporters of the Taiwanese national movement.

These two consensuses are certainly different and since democracy requires the construction of electoral competitors as enemies, each camp dramatizes the differences and exaggerates the traits of the other camp. This tends to obliviate, for analysts, the fact that moderate parties are situated on a central consensus, just across the boundary line from one another. Sure, the blues and the greens are in opposition on one important thing: they look in opposite directions in terms of the ultimate future of Taiwan – independence or unification. However, in practical terms, they in fact agree on several important issues: developing the economy, benefitting from closer economic ties with China, and protecting the nation’s sovereignty.

Analysts must learn not to forget differences, but not to exaggerate them either. In fact, the moderate blues and moderate greens are closely situated on the continuum. By understanding this, we not only see differently the real differences between Ma and Tsai, but also the remarkable continuities between the administrations of Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou. All three tried, in their own way, to protect Taiwan’s and the ROC’s sovereignty, while actually developing greater ties with China. Between the three successive administrations, and between the two current candidates, there is an obvious consensus, which is the real consensus we should focus on.

Substantial differences exist, however, between the greens and the blues: on how negotiations with China are led and interpreted through the filter of their respective political cultures. Both camps are making a bet. The blues in power bet that the sovereignty of the ROC, at least for the years to come, will survive negotiations and rapprochement with China. The greens bet that, if they come back to power, they’ll be able to benefit from China’s economic rise (and thus, not be sidelined) without having to cede too much to China in the process.

The truth is that no one knows which of these two bets is the less unrealistic, or if either of them is realistic at all. And here lies the true, deep difference between the two camps: the blues do know that there are risks to seeing the regime’s sovereignty eroded. But, at least among the supporters of the greater China ideology who lead the KMT today, this embarrassing risk is, in a way, acceptable in the sense that, after all, the benefactor is the Chinese nation. After all, they think, “China is changing”, and “we want to be united again”. In face of this, the greens are upset to see what they consider a lack of commitment to protecting the ROC’s sovereignty. The Greens are now fully conscious that relations with China must be developed. The DPP has transformed itself into a staunch defender of the ROC, the regime that they have considered for so long as having colonized Taiwan after 1945. And a DPP committed to developing ties with China insists on reaching agreements that are validated by a consensus at home, and ratified in parliament.

As we can see, the KMT and the DPP, or the blues’ and the green’s positions are different, but are nevertheless situated on a continuum. Democracy can only be peacefully governed at the center; and Taiwan is one more good example of this.

Stephane Corcuff is Associate Professor of Chinese politics at Sciences-Po Lyon and a researcher at the Institute of East Asia (Lyon) and CEFC-Taipei. His latest book in Chinese was published in Nov. 2011 (中華鄰國-臺灣閾境性, Neighbour of China. The liminality of Taiwan) and is recommended reading.