Frozen Garlic: The NPP’s internal divisions, Ko’s new party, and the China Cleavage

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Every now and then, an international media outlet will publish a story on Taiwan elections that interprets everything through the lens of relations with China. For example, someone might write a story saying that, after the recent events in Hong Kong, the DPP’s presidential prospects are surging. Every time this happens, a gaggle of Taiwan-based analysts responds by pointing out that it isn’t that simple. Taiwanese politics are complex, and Taiwan’s international relationship with China isn’t the only thing that affects voting. All kinds of things unrelated to China policy – nuclear power, labor policy, air quality, food safety, overdevelopment, corruption, marriage equality, pensions, health care, industrial policy, tax rates, whether to ban drinking straws, and on and on – also affect electoral outcomes. Of course, they are right. But…

In the broader argument about the fundamental nature of Taiwanese politics, I come down firmly on the side that argues that Taiwan has one and only one dominant political cleavage. Taiwan’s relationship with China, broadly conceived, is more important than all of those other issues put together. This China Cleavage fundamentally shapes every aspect of Taiwan’s politics, most notably the party system. To put it bluntly, you can understand most – somewhere between 70% and 90% – of Taiwan’s politics if you understand the China Cleavage. (Of course, no one – including me – fully understands the China Cleavage.) Moreover, you can’t understand anything else unless you understand how it is embedded within the China Cleavage. The conflicts over all those other issues I listed above don’t make any sense unless you understand how they are filtered through the China Cleavage. They aren’t completely absorbed by it; otherwise they wouldn’t matter at all. However, they are deeply influenced by it. The opposite is not true. You don’t need to have a solid background in food safety issues to understand the China Cleavage.

Lots of people have written about this messy cleavage that defines Taiwanese politics, so I’ll be brief. I think of it as having four related but somewhat different dimensions.

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