In the week prior to Taiwan's March 22, 2008 presidential election, lame-duck President Chen Shuibian of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (Minjindang or DPP) declared that he might refuse to hand over control of the Presidential Office to the holder of a U.S. Green Card, a jab at then-KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-Jeou. In an election watched anxiously in both Beijing and Washington, as well as in other regional centers in Asia, Taiwanese voters then delivered the DPP its second electoral disaster of the year.
In January, the opposition KMT (Kuomintang or Nationalist Party) had won the year's first crushing victory over the DPP in the legislative elections. By March 23, it became clear that Taiwanese voters had chosen to abandon the DPP after eight years in office. In the process, they returned Taiwan's administration to a single-party system (yidang duda or "one party rule") similar to the sort that had preceded the DPP for decades.
The presidential election, held as always on a Saturday to encourage widespread voter participation, marked the climax of months of noisy, often petty and ad hominen disputation at barnstorming rallies held up and down the island. Smaller than any of the twenty-two mainland provinces that make up the People's Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan is not quite as large as Massachusetts and Rhode Island combined. It is also the second-most densely populated society on earth (after Bangladesh).
Reporting paper ballots counted by hand, the Central Elections Commission (CEC) announced that evening that KMT candidate Ma Ying-Jeou, arguably the most pro-China candidate in Taiwan's history, had won the election with a 2-million vote margin drawn from the 13 million votes cast (with 76% voter turnout). At a celebratory public gathering held on the evening of March 22, President-Elect Ma issued the statesmanlike comment "This election result is not a personal result, or a victory for the KMT, it is a victory for all Taiwanese people."
That simple statement hides a complex question: Who are the Taiwanese to whom Ma referred?
Lee Teng-hui, the Taiwan-born, Japanese- and American-educated former KMT president as well as the spiritual father of "Taiwanese consciousness" (Taiwan zhuti yishi) endorsed Ma's campaign for Taipei mayor in 1994 with the comment that, despite being a Mainlander, he is a "New Taiwanese." Not everyone accepts this definition of "Taiwanese," to be sure. I remember the days when "Taiwanese" only meant those whose ancestors were already on the island when the KMT refugees arrived with Chiang Kai-shek from the mainland in 1949, and whose mother-language is either Min'nan (Taiwanese) or Hakka. In addition to his native Mandarin Chinese, Ma speaks fluent American English and a belabored Taiwanese as second languages.
The question itself underscores the very significant recent changes in Taiwanese politics. Although democracy in Taiwan remains in its infancy, over the last decade and a half the island state has experienced more formalized, high-level, electoral and constitutional political change than either neighbor Japan or China has had in five decades or more.
The question also points to the equally substantial continuities in Taiwanese society that threaten to undo these changes. The question of Taiwan's relationship to the PRC informs all political discussions, as do the historically fraught relations between the native Taiwanese and the 1949 mainland Chinese arrivals.