Political Progress and Change in Taiwan: A DPP Perspective





After a period of renewal and rebuilding since losing the 2008 presidential election, Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is preparing to run and win on domestic issues in next year's presidential campaign.

That was the message Bi-khim Hsiao (GSAS '95), international affairs spokesperson for the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan's 2012 presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, conveyed to a capacity crowd of students, faculty, staff and members of the public at a lecture sponsored by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute of Columbia University on November 16 in the Kellogg Center at Columbia's International Affairs Building.

In her address, part of a series on "Leadership Change in East and Southeast Asia: Regional and Global Implications," Hsiao identified three major steps that Tsai and the DPP have taken to bring the party back to prominence in Taiwan politics.

First, the party has focused on cultivating young leaders to take over from the first-generation leadership of the DPP, who came of age in the military dictatorship era. After 2008, future presidential candidate Tsai gathered the next generation of political leaders to start the recovery process, and sent them to contest legislative by-elections in districts throughout Taiwan. "Even though times remained very difficult, she sent young people to difficult districts to try to cultivate them," Hsiao said. Hsiao herself ran for a seat in Hualien on Taiwan's east coast—an election she lost—but the party as a whole made gains in the by-elections.

Second, the party has eschewed large donations and focused on small-amount fundraising. During the latter part of President Chen Shui-Bian's tenure, the DPP had been plagued with allegations of corruption, and it now seeks to rehabilitate its public image as the party of clean politics, a point of contrast with its chief adversary the Kuomintang (KMT), which has traditionally been linked with large businesses, Hsiao said. A symbol of the party's new emphasis on small-donor fundraising is the so-called "piggy-bank revolution" in which people are donating plastic piggy-banks to the Tsai campaign.

Third, the DPP is emphasizing domestic issues in its campaigning. Concerns like the economy, jobs, income disparities, the environment and nuclear energy have become the key issues, Hsiao said. Although cross-strait relations and questions of identity are still important, Taiwanese politics is evolving to compete on issues across a traditional left-right spectrum as in other advanced democracies, she said. On that spectrum, according to Hsiao, the DPP seeks to be a "center-left" political party. In economic matters, the party proposes to orient the country toward job-producing industries, particularly energy, and to reemphasize agriculture, a high-cost industry that nevertheless provides many jobs.

During a lively Q&A session following the talk moderated by Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science Andrew Nathan, audience members asked about a range of issues, including the DPP's position on cross-strait relations, political engagement and feelings toward China among the younger generation, and American policy toward Taiwan. Concerning the DPP's stance toward mainland China, Hsiao emphasized that both the DPP and KMT would like to maintain the status quo, but that security is a key concern. While the DPP wishes no enmity toward the mainland, Hsiao said, the party and the Taiwanese public remain concerned about the aggressive buildup of missiles across the strait, and she encouraged the mainland government to engage with all political parties on Taiwan, not just the KMT. The party strenuously disagreed with the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and the mainland negotiated by the current KMT administration, but it will respect the agreement and seek any changes through the normal democratic process, she said.

Concerning the US stance toward Taiwan, Hsiao emphasized that "we expect [from the US] a continuing honoring of the Taiwan Relations Act and US commitments to Taiwan, and that those commitments are not affected by China's growing presence and international leverage." As the US faces a number of significant domestic and international challenges, Hsiao noted that Taiwan has generally been keeping a low profile on the US foreign policy agenda.

Hsiao was welcomed by Weatherhead Institute Director and Professor of Anthropology Myron Cohen and introduced by Professor Nathan. Nathan noted that Hsiao's relationship with Columbia goes back to 1993, when she entered the university intending to go for a Ph.D. in political science. Intrigued by new political possibilities as Taiwan transformed itself into a multi-party democracy, she instead took a master's degree and left to start the DPP's Washington, D.C., office. After that, she became chief of foreign affairs for the DPP and served in the Taiwan legislature during Chen's administration.

- Charles Starks, '12 MARSEA


(L to R): Myron Cohen, Director of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute; Bi-khim Hsiao, Spokesperson, Tsai Ing-wen Presidential Campaign 2012; Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science

Hsiao addresses an audience of more than 100 at the Kellogg Center.

Hsiao responds to an audience member's question.


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