Shelley Rigger is an expert on East Asian politics, with a special focus on Taiwan. She currently serves as the Brown Professor of East Asian Politics at Davidson College. In addition to teaching, she also trains military officers, participates in conferences, and has testified before Congress a few times. She is the author of Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), Politics in Taiwan: Voting for Democracy (Routledge 1999) and From Opposition to Power: Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (Lynee Rienner Publishers, 2001). She was interviewed by Andrew Sheets '17 and Glenys Kirana '16 on Nov. 9, 2015.
Regarding the recent meeting between President Xi Jinping and President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore last weekend, what do you think would be some of the motives for Ma to set up the meeting at this particular time, especially given that he is in the last few months of his term? Is President Xi scared that relations with Taiwan will grow hostile should Ma be replaced by Tsai Ing-wen?
Ma’s motivation is not absolutely obvious, but, first of all, he has been working on this relationship and trying to put on a solid footing throughout his entire presidency. I think he recognizes the deep challenges and differences of opinions, preferences, and the kind of visions for the future between the two sides. It has been a high priority for Ma all along to try to minimize conflict and maximize the scope of cooperation. It makes sense that given the opportunity, Ma would seize the chance to meet with the Chinese leader. Some people are saying that the purpose of this is to constrain his successor, but I think he knows that the next president will do what she, or he perhaps, wants to do.
The real driver here is public opinion in Taiwan. It is a democratic country and it will be guided by the preferences of its people — the idea that you can somehow lock down the future, which politicians might try to do, generally does not have a high chance of success. The other motivation some people have suggested is that he is trying to improve the chances that the KMT candidate, Eric Chu, is elected. Ma is smarter than that, and he knows this is going to make Chu’s electoral bid more complicated. So I do not think that is the reason.
The one that is more interesting is Xi Jinping’s motivation. The PRC talks about the "Taiwan authority," and I suppose they could say that Ma is the leader of the "Taiwan authority." But Beijing’s preference has long been to deal with Taiwanese leaders in their capacity as party leaders. Ma is not the leader of any political party.
The only standing he has to meet with Xi is as a leader in some meaningful sense of Taiwan's people. Allowing him to be recognized in that way seems to be a change from Beijing’s previous practice. Why Beijing would make a change at this moment I find harder to understand than why Ma would make such a change at this moment.
One of the key takeaways from this summit is that Ma has been wanting more international space for Taiwan and more representation in international organizations. In response to that, Xi said he understood Taiwan's need as long as it does not go against the One-China policy. Could you elaborate on how it is significant or if you think there are going to be any significant changes as a result of the summit?
Your question is an interesting way to look at this meeting. One of the things that Taiwan needs no matter who is president is more international space and recognition. Those are strong goals for all Taiwanese political leaders because it is important to the voters that Taiwan not become isolated.
By meeting Ma, Xi is making a pretty strong statement that as long as Taiwan is willing to work under the frame of one China - and for the PRC the 1992 consensus is an adequate statement of one China - then China is willing to allow Taiwan some international space. This is pretty interesting because the message from PRC scholars and lower-ranking officials that they have been kind of sending through various channels - public and private - that the '92 consensus is an absolutely crucial litmus test for cross strait relations. It is also a litmus test for whether or not the PRC cracks down and resumes its policies of squeezing Taiwan on international space. It may be that this meeting for Xi was an opportunity to say in even stronger terms, to the next president, “If you can satisfy us, that you are operating under a One-China framework, then your international space can continue to either expand or remain where it was.” This is important for the next president to know because the alternative is to lose international space and face an open threat from the PRC, and definitely something that either presidential candidate is going to worry about.
Do you think there are any other significant takeaways that came out of this meeting besides that statement?
Perhaps the strongest message is that the summit happened at all. They told us beforehand not to expect any deliverables. Nonetheless, it is a pretty historic moment even though a lot of critics of the Ma administration are saying it is no big deal. It is a big deal because Beijing has not shown much interest in doing something like this previously, so as much as a lame duck as Ma is and as close we are to the elections, it still seems significant that they have moved away from their previous insistence on never meeting with political leaders from Taiwan in this way. But beyond that, it's pretty pro forma kind of statements out of both sides. I do not think anybody said anything that we need to get real hot and bothered about.
What are some of the implications of this meeting on the Taiwanese and Chinese domestic audiences?
I have not read a lot about popular reaction in the PRC because, first of all, popular reaction in the PRC is hard to gauge, but also I do not know how much attention people would pay to this meeting. For many PRC citizens, this is probably not something that would keep them glued to the TV. But one thing that is interesting to me about this is that it might cause some people in China to think, “Well, we’re talking to [Taiwan] now.” So there could be some reverberations.
One of the ways to understand the PRC's position and why they agreed to do this meeting is their [old] policy of trying to win over the Taiwanese people - through the kinds of strong political table pounding with nice economic collaboration gestures - is not succeeding. The idea was that there would be a sweet carrot and a big stick is not working because the sweet carrot is not winning people over and the big stick is not really scaring people into choosing unification.
As for the Taiwanese side, it is possible that people close to Ma said the past breakthroughs on cross strait relations have been good in elections because they show that the KMT is uniquely able to handle the relationship with the PRC and to maintain good relations. If that is the case, I'm dumbfounded because everyone who pays attention to Taiwan elections agrees that this is not an obvious plus for the KMT in either the presidential or the legislative elections. If you look at the polls, it's pretty clear that the idea that the president might unilaterally do something that would alter the relationship with the mainland in significant ways is not a good thing. So I do not see how it could help the presidential candidate, except by maybe winning back or increasing enthusiasm among traditional KMT supporters who are not a majority in the electorate. The other electoral effect of this meeting is likely to take the KMT's difficult situation in the legislative election and make it more difficult. The legislative candidates have been trying to campaign on local issues and their own personal relationships with voters - all these sort of traditional legislative virtues - and to stay away from national issues and especially to stay away from cross strait issues.
The president, a KMT member, has now made this election all about cross strait relations when his own party's legislative candidate has been actively running away from campaigning on cross strait relations. So moving on to the upcoming Taiwan elections, in what ways do you think China could exert its influence on Taiwan, if at all?
This is probably the Hail Mary pass for the PRC hoping that there is some segment of the Taiwan electorate that really worries about bad cross strait relations and that is excited about the prospect of a breakthrough in relations. I am just not sure this segment of the electorate is that big. But you know what, let's look at it as a glass half full for a change, right? In previous elections, the PRC's way of trying to influence Taiwan's voters at this stage of the campaign has been to terrorize them with threats. So this is better than that, right?
Are Beijing-Taipei relations going to strengthen or weaken post-election?
I think the other part of Beijing’s strategy right now for influencing these elections, or to influence the post-election, is to work with the U.S. to try and encourage Tsai Ing-wen. I don’t think they’re trying to change the outcome of the election I think they’re trying to change how everybody will act after. Maybe they are trying to get the U.S. to encourage Tsai to give as much as she can within the constraints of public opinion within Taiwan. That way, the PRC will not have to pull out the big stick after the election.
Their goal is to avoid a crisis, but they worry that they will not get enough back from Tsai to avoid a crisis, and I think they’re trying to communicate that through every conceivable channel. In public media through open statements, through private channels talking to various people close to Tsai, and also they don’t say, “Hey, Barack Obama, you need to tell Tsai what to do,” but they communicate with various people who have the ear of American policy-makers “Here’s what would allow us to save face after the election and avoid a crisis.” And to the extent those policy makers have channels through to Taiwan they can communicate that. And I think there is a little bit of a feeling that right after the election you have some political capital, you have the opportunity to be a little bit more flexible, that would be great from the PRC point of view if Tsai could do that. To the second part of your question, it really depends on whether Tsai feels it’s in her interest, in her party’s interest, or in Taiwan’s interest to give the PRC a little face by saying something that they can call consistent with a One-China framework.
In terms of Tsai’s domestic policies, how likely do you think Tsai is going to deliver on her promises of a new economic model based on innovation, employment, and redistribution?
I think it’s really hard. One of the things to love about Taiwan is they’re so often ahead of the curve in terms of understanding what is needed, especially economically. The U.S. needs a new economic policy based on innovation, employment, and distribution. Europe needs that, the whole developed world needs this. But it’s the Taiwanese presidential candidate who articulates it. I think part of the reason for that is Taiwan is this kind of hummingbird economy. It has to sip glucose constantly or it just runs out of energy and drops to the ground. It doesn’t have momentum because it’s a small economy that’s functioning at a very high level.
I think that Taiwanese policymakers see the necessity for certain kinds of policy changes and development economically before other larger economic entities do. But the problem with being Taiwan is precisely because it is this tiny hummingbird economy it is very hard for it to make these changes by itself. If the U.S. were to say, “We’re not doing this race to the bottom — we’re not going to let contract employment and the sharing economy, and Uber driving replace real jobs.” That is the prototype of the favela economy. Everybody just puts together a bunch of things and scratches out a living. That’s what happens in developing countries, it is no way to run a developed economy. But, can Taiwan implement that if the U.S. is still de-industrializing, de-jobifying, and converting into a contractor economy? Probably not. So the tragedy is that I think Tsai understands what needs to happen. Everyone should be looking for solutions along exactly the lines she’s proposing, but if that’s really going to happen it’s going to most likely have to happen first in a big economy, not a small economy. So I think what’s probably going to happen is that Taiwan will keep doubling down on trade and the kinds of things that have kept its economy surfing the wave of innovation in the past.
The leading candidate is a woman. What are some of the implications of Taiwan electing a female president and one who’s not related to previous leaders of the country?
It is very significant that in Taiwan women have come to play a huge role in politics without it being the sort of traditional manner. There are a number of East Asian countries that have had or have female presidents or leaders. Including right now in Myanmar, they cannot elect Aung San Suu Kyi because she had a British husband, but she’s clearly the leader of her party, but her father was a politician. Same with Park Geun-hye in Korea, and lots of other female politicians. The leading women in politics in Taiwan are really and truly women who have become leaders by virtue of their own determination and talent, not by virtue of being from political families. There are political families in Taiwan, there are a number of female legislators who inherited political organizations from other relatives, either their husbands or their fathers.
But the leaders we’re talking about, both the current DPP candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, and the previous KMT candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu, are self-made. One of the things I think worth mentioning about that is the amazing progress Taiwan has made toward education of girls and women since the 1960s. Tsai received an excellent education from childhood through her law degree in the U.K. She came up as a lawyer and then a government official and benefitted from the commitment to an investment in human capital that Taiwan has been making for decades without respect to gender. Girls are educated the same as boys in Taiwan, which is fantastic. The other thing is the value of having a system that preserves a percentage of seats in the legislature for women, and that’s how Hung Hsiu-chu, the previous KMT candidate who’s been replaced got into politics. The first time she ran was in a district but she has remained in politics and risen through the ranks in the KMT because the KMT has had an incentive to make her an important figure in order to benefit from those reserve seats for women. A lot of Scandinavian legislatures do the same thing and they are the only countries in the world that have more women in senior leadership positions in politics than Taiwan. Taiwan is very, very high on the list. I think the reserved seats and the guaranteed representation have made a difference.
What are some of the implications to U.S.-Taiwan or U.S.-China relations if Tsai were to assume the presidency?
One thing I wanted to mention—I don’t know whether the PRC planners whose idea it was to have this meeting in early November thought through this or not. I guess they probably did, but if they did they were taking an even bigger step than I realized initially. One of the results of the meeting is that there’s a chorus of voices in the U.S. saying that if Xi Jinping can meet with Ma Ying-jeou then Barack Obama can meet with Ma Ying-jeou, and that’s not something that the PRC ever would want to accept. So one of the consequences for U.S.-Taiwan relations of the meeting that is they just had is this outcry, I think there’s even a bill in Congress, a statement that we should upgrade relations with Taiwan because obviously the PRC has upgraded relations with Taiwan, and how could our relationship with Taiwan be at a lower level than Beijing’s relationship?
In 2011, Tsai made a visit to the U.S. prior to the election and it was not a very happy or easy visit. The main takeaway that everybody remembers is that a White House official said to the Financial Times, where they were quoted anonymously saying "We’re quite uncomfortable with this candidate." So I think the lesson that Tsai and her advisors took away from that is the U.S. is not going to just say “It’s fine, whatever, Taiwan’s a democracy, you guys should do what you need to do as long as you’re not completely running over all our red lines.” I think what they took away from that is that the U.S. is not going to be silent if they think that Taiwan’s potential leadership is risking a crisis in the Taiwan Strait. And actually that was the second time a statement has come out of the white house to that effect. The first time was back in 2003, 2004, when President Bush said "There’s a troublemaker in the Taiwan Strait and it’s Taiwan!" The lesson they took from that is that they needed to do a much better job of preparing for conversations with the U.S. and having answers to Washington’s questions about how they were going to manage cross strait relations.
So I think it is fair to say that Tsai has spent the last four years making sure that she had answers to the questions she was going to be asked in Washington as well as the questions she’s going to be asked on the campaign trail in Taiwan.
Can you talk a little bit more about the legislative Yuan? Do you think the KMT can retain its majority, or what happens if the DPP captures the legislature?
It is looking very unlikely that the KMT will retain its majority. The actual legislative polling is not fully in swing in district, but two months ago the general consensus was that the KMT is probably going to lose the majority and the DPP is probably not going to get a majority, so there will be enough independent and third-party candidates to put it in the realm of a coalition government. My sense from reading the various people who prognosticate on these things and thinking about it myself is that now it looks like the DPP has an excellent chance to win a majority. If that happens there are three things that are really interesting.
One, we’re going to find out what the DPP is like as the ruling party in the legislature for the first time. The DPP has never really had the opportunity to operate as a true majority in the legislature.
Another thing we’re going to find out is what the DPP is like under conditions of unified government. The previous DPP president was president under divided government. The KMT or a coalition of KMT-leaning parties had the majority in the legislature while Chen Shui-bian, the DPP president, had the executive branch. So we’ve never actually seen what the DPP can do with unified government.
The third thing that will happen is that we will find out what a democratic Taiwan looks like without the KMT speaker of the legislature. Wang Jin-pyng has been the speaker of the legislature almost from the beginning of the contemporary democratic era in Taiwan politics. His way of controlling the legislature has been very idiosyncratic. It’s not clear how much of it is him personally versus institutional forces or requirements making the legislature work that way. He’s a little like Tip O'Neill, the Speaker of the House for a long time in the US and he ran the House in a certain way, and you could say the same thing about Nancy Pelosi, too.
For the person who is speaker of the house or whatever the title is in a particular country, it actually matters a lot how they run things — how they let legislation go forward, how they negotiate. Wang Jin-pyng in Taiwan was into personalizing a lot of issues and insisting on very closely held negotiations in which every imaginable political force had a voice. It really slowed down the legislative process and drove the executive crazy. It drove Ma Ying-jeou crazy and the two are from the same party. It drove Chen Shui-bian crazy when he was president before Ma even though they were from different parties. I’m really curious to see if the DPP gains control of the legislature who they put in place as the speaker and whether the speaker views his or her position as more like being the legislative leader on behalf of a DPP president or sees his job as running the legislature as a freestanding, autonomous institution that’s not necessarily very responsive to the president even if the president is of the same party.
Last year the Sunflower Movement really captured media everywhere. How has the Sunflower Movement affected the general public’s perception of what they look for in a government or president, if that has any effect on this upcoming election?
Yes, I think it has. One thing that was really interesting was the immediate deployment of the word “Black box” to describe Ma’s decision to meet Xi. The whole concept of the black box as the enemy of democracy in Taiwan is a product of the Sunflower Movement. People used that term before, but it became common parlance in Taiwan as a result of the Sunflowers that what Taiwan needs is to not have black box government. It was really interesting that people identified this as a major problem with Ma’s decision to meet Xi and also that they used that terminology.
I think the Sunflowers heightened the awareness of the need for transparency in government and what people are looking for now in politicians are people who will have credibility when they promise transparency.
And that’s a huge liability for Ma’s party, because after being criticized for a lack of transparency through the Sunflower Movement they did two really big things, both of which were very un-transparent and both of which created a big backlash. One was changing high school textbooks to make them a little bit less Taiwan-centric and open to a more Sino-centric view of history, and the other is this meeting with Xi in Singapore.
Timeline of relations between China and Taiwan
1971: Recognition shifts from Taiwan to China for U.N. seat.
1987: Taiwan and China allow cross-strait family visits.
1992: Consensus of 1992 reached in meeting between semi-official representatives of PRC and ROC, allows either side to use their own definition of China.
1998: Taiwan envoy Koo Chen-fu meets Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
2005: Nationalist Party Chairman Lien Chan of Taiwan and Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao of China meet in Beijing, the first meeting between the heads of these rival parties in 60 years.
2008: President Ma Ying-jeou takes office in Taiwan, begins meetings with China.
2010: China and Taiwan sign economic cooperation framework agreement cutting tariffs.
2015: Tsai Ing-wen, predicted winner of the election, has rejected the 1992 consensus.