Lessons for Hong Kong from Taiwan's recent elections

Even before the conclusion of Taiwan's leadership and legislature elections on Jan 16, the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Eric Chu Li-luan by Ms Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was a foregone conclusion. The heavy losses sustained by KMT in the "legislative yuan's" elections and the meteoric rise of the young challengers from the New Power Party (NPP), however, caught many by surprise. The stunning outcomes hold many lessons for Hong Kong.

From the outset, the KMT's campaign seemed to fail. Entering the fray as a last-resort replacement for the KMT's first woman candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, Mr Chu's campaign came across as lacking in courage and conviction. Mr Chu's inability to move people with him, coupled with Mr Ma Ying-jeou's many policy missteps, caused the KMT to lose more than three million votes in the leadership election and almost half of its seats in the "legislative yuan". The double whammy for the KMT led many to wonder whether this grand old party would ever regain its past glory as Taiwan's dominant political force.

As in Hong Kong, the mainland was the dominant factor affecting the outcomes of the elections. Identity issues and the relationship between Taiwan and the mainland loomed large in the struggle between the "blue" and "green" camps. How should Taiwan define and conduct its relationship with the powerful mainland? How should Taiwan residents see themselves - as Chinese, Taiwanese or "nationals" of Taiwan as an independent political entity? These were defining issues in the elections.

Prior to the elections, the historic meeting between President Xi Jinping and Mr Ma Ying-jeou, then leader of Taiwan, in Singapore on Nov 7 last year reaffirmed the 1992 Consensus of "One-China" as the foundation for the conduct of cross-strait relations. While Mr Xi appealed to the strong, indestructible blood ties between the people of China across the Strait, Mr Zhang Zhijun, director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council, made it quite clear after the meeting that the "One-China" policy was Beijing's baseline. Against these cast-iron pronouncements, in the run-up to the elections, Ms Tsai fudged her position on cross-strait relations - she understood and respected the 1992 Consensus, but fell short of accepting it as the basis for the development of future relations.

Supporters of Taiwan's New Power Party at a rally in Taipei last month. Like Taiwan, Hong Kong cannot ignore the anger of its young people over Hong Kong's stagnation and the consequential erosion of its people's pride and self-esteem. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ms Tsai knew too well Taiwan was too economically intertwined with the mainland. Taiwan's economic growth rate slowed to an anaemic 0.85 per cent last year. Taiwan was part of East Asia's "economic miracle" in the 1980s. But local tech giants like smartphone maker HTC were on the brink of being edged out by South Korea's Samsung and China's Xiaomi. Ms Tsai was acutely aware that a rocky relationship with the mainland would not only jeopardise Taiwan's economy, but could also hand the DPP a bruising defeat in four years' time.

The same ambivalence cannot be said of the young Turks from the NPP, whose candidates won over 740,000 votes and five seats in the "legislative yuan". Led by the leading figures of the "Sunflower" student movement, this nascent party threw caution to the wind and made Taiwan independence the centrepiece of its platform. In a political "uprising" not dissimilar to the surge of the Hong Kong nativists in last year's district council elections, the ascendance of the NPP was symbolic of the angst of Taiwan's youth - a new generation of local-born young people who fret at Taiwan's stagnation but refuse to be part of the "China dream".

As in most elections, Taiwan's voters were moved by emotions rather than rational arguments. A symbol, a flag, an image had turned tides in the past, and the elections last month were no exception. On the eve of the elections, the glum apology tendered by teenage K-pop singer Chou Tsu-yu for waving the KMT's flag angered Taiwan voters so much that some estimate that half a million more voters were pushed towards Ms Tsai. Elections are won, or lost, on tears, sometimes even blood, and passion. Perseverance and determination, as in the case of 74-year-old James Soong Chu-yu, who succeeded in gathering one million more votes than in the leadership election in 2012, paid off. Voters reward the brave and the earnest campaigner, irrespective of party base or age.

Like Taiwan, Hong Kong needs to deal with the anger of its young people over Hong Kong's stagnation and the consequential erosion of its people's pride and self-esteem. Many young challengers supplanted the old soldiers in Hong Kong's district council elections last November, and Hong Kong's political landscape risks being redrawn in September's Legislative Council elections if the established parties do not wake up to the new reality.


  • The writer is an executive councillor and chairman of the New People's Party.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'Lessons for Hong Kong from Taiwan's recent elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe