Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) campaign for Taiwan’s presidency regularly gets framed as a force of reaction against a generalized status quo. As a third party candidate, he presents himself as the solution to messy partisan battles between the two largest parties in Taiwan, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). He also presents himself as the transparent antidote to corruption elsewhere. And he often suggests that he works through a scientific decision-making process, against the old pan-blue or pan-green ideologies.
What this framing misses is that, in an important way, Ko can be seen as representing the continuing legacy of one of the most significant political projects in Taiwan’s democratic history. And that, along with several other key aspects of the same legacy, is the major takeaway from our interview with Andre Beckershoff, author of a new book on said project.
Beckershoff’s book describes how between 2004 and 2014, Taiwanese business elites came together in a concerted attempt to separate off economics and culture from questions around Taiwan’s sovereignty, using think tanks, media and cross-strait exchanges to lay the groundwork for a number of trade deals with China under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). The intervention of the Sunflower Movement stalled this rapprochement and “repoliticized” the issues involved, resulting in the infamous cancellation of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement in 2014. Speaking via video call, Beckershoff points out that Ko’s apparent “pragmatism” now operates as an extension of the original project’s logic.
“I think the biggest legacy of the cross-strait rapprochement is the … pragmatism in cross-strait affairs [and] I think Ko Wen-je is — not without contradictions … a very clear personification of this cross-strait pragmatism,” Beckershoff says.
Two important pieces of evidence for this connection come up in our conversation. First, during his time as mayor of Taipei, Beckershoff points out Ko organized the Taipei-Shanghai forum (albeit also noting his predecessor started it and his successor continued it). Second, Beckershoff points out that Ko’s self-described “pragmatism” in relations with China includes the possibility (though he has been typically unclear on the issue) of renegotiating the infamous Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement which animated the Sunflower Movement.
So, Ko’s popularity with young people, who are most likely to identify strongly as Taiwanese, while taking up positions such as these, suggests a degree of lasting separation between economics and culture on the one hand and politics on the other. And this is not the only “depoliticization” legacy Beckershoff sees being priced into the current status quo.
Asked how those involved in the project might see its results in 2023, Beckershoff says there may be “[d]isappointment that the trade agreement did not go through and that the ‘normalization’ came to a halt.” However, as the economic benefits of manufacturing in China have become less obvious — as wages there had risen and foreign direct investment from Taiwan became less financially valuable to China, for instance — it has been easier for big business to tolerate President Tsai Ing-wen’s attempt to look toward Southeast Asia and South Asia, even while China will “always be on the menu.” What’s more, there may also be room for contentment about the new normal that was reached after Ma’s presidency regarding economic relations with China.
“There is a certain level that this normalization has reached… that trade has not gone down. There is the economic cooperation framework agreement that is still in place. [Taiwan and China] still have a lot of normalized economic exchanges between both sides and this is … something that cannot … be rescinded by the Tsai government,” Beckershoff says. “There can be incentives to come back to Taiwan… but it’s very hard to [further tighten] restrictions on economic relations with China now.”
Of course, there are also restrictions on what business can demand that didn’t exist between 2004 and 2014. Beckershoff says the 2019 protests in Hong Kong which helped secure Tsai Ing-wen her second term in office made it more difficult to frame economic or cultural relations as politically neutral, and this has only continued as tensions between the U.S. and China have ramped up and China’s military drills around Taiwan have escalated.
But importantly none of this has eliminated the room for a message of “pragmatism” or political “neutrality,” now embodied by Ko Wen-je. So what happens if Ko wins? Should he become president, would a countermovement emerge, as the Sunflower Movement did in 2014?
I suggest that speaking to people in Taiwan now, there’s not much of a sense that it would. For one thing, young people drove the Sunflower Movement and young people are more likely to vote for Ko this time around. However, Beckershoff, who interviewed dozens of activists involved in the Sunflower Movement for his book, sounds a note of caution about predicting when social movements turn up: Despite the attempts at organizing structures in advance of the Sunflower Movement, “the social movements were, as Karl Marx put it, ‘like a mole under the surface of the earth.’ And even people very close to these movements could not foresee what was brewing in the background or under the surface.”
In other words, just as the legacy of depoliticized cross-strait relations lives on through Ko’s rhetoric and current trade relations, another reaction to them can’t be ruled out either — even if it’s hard to see it coming.
Social Forces in the Re-Making of Cross-Strait Relations: Hegemony and Social Movements in Taiwan by Andre Beckershoff is out now.
Edit: For clarity, the phrase “further tighten” was added to the phrase “it’s very hard to place restrictions on economic relations with China now,” to avoid implying that there is currently a total lack of restrictions.
Photo: Richard A. Brooks/AFP