Written by Monte R. Bullard, June 2017*
Monte R. Bullard is a retired U.S. Army Colonel who holds a PhD from UC Berkeley. Bullard possesses 16 years of experience in Asia with the U.S. Army, including 5 years as a diplomat.
The following interview is based on an informal discussion with a former senior official in Taiwan who is concerned that there are forces within Taiwan that could lead to instability and, in collusion with the U.S., potentially a military confrontation with China. The interviewee underscores the importance of the findings of my e-book Strait Talk: An In-depth Analysis of China-Taiwan-U.S. Relations, that the optimal solution is for the next generations to find an answer to the Taiwan-China issue and it should be found by the young people on both sides of the strait. Even though the interviewee was biased against the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and in particular the current Tsai administration, it includes many points that should be integrated in to any analysis of the current political situation because it represents the views of numerous key people within Taiwan. The conclusion is that the current DPP-led government's governance strategy is incompetent and corrupt and that it is doing many things to establish the foundation for a declaration of or a move toward independence. In general, the U.S. government supports “Taiwan” writ large, probably not knowing how potentially problematic the current party in power is or how U.S. actions and statements are likely to embolden certain Taiwanese leaders to take action.
Independence and Unification Forces
According to the interviewee, there are three main groups who are promoting independence on Taiwan. The groups consist of:
- Church groups (Presbyterian mostly)
- Medical Sciences graduates
These groups are considered elites in Taiwan. Most of them are Taiwanese who have been trained abroad, often in the U.S. and Japan, and have a strong tendency to lean toward the policies of the DPP.
On the other side, there are three main groups who support KMT status quo or unification policies:
- Military retirees
- Civil Service (active and retired)
- Teachers (active and retired)
Currently these groups come together primarily because of the current DPP-led government’s incompetent governance, political efforts to reduce their pensions as well as the growing indications of movements toward a declaration of independence, i.e. enforcing de-sinicization policies bluntly.
DPP’s Political Efforts
In the minds of most Taiwan people, May 20, 2016 is a major date in Taiwan’s history. It was the day Tsai Ing-wen was sworn into office and refused to accept the 1992 consensus. At that time policies began to change. Some policies changed by executive fiat and others changed by revisions to the law by the Legislative Yuan. The Tsai administration is trying to push through a series of new policies to alter the political landscape. In effect its effort inclines toward an authoritarian political system, which in part is a result of a weak and divided KMT.
According to my interviewee, one major political effort is the administration’s attempt to gain control of the budget. The administration claims the previous government spent too much money so in order to balance the budget, it initiated a new policy. The DPP-led government started with the major cost reform for tens of thousands of retired people.
My interviewee states that a large number of his colleagues and he consider their pensions to have been a contract between them and the government and should not be tampered with (Of course, the same argument emerges when someone wants to tamper with American social security or military retirement pay). The Tsai administration has proposed the reduction of retirement pay by 40%. In fact the retirees’ 18% favorable deposit interest will be cut to 0% in 6 years. The year-end bonus for retired government workers (military, civil service and teachers) was also reduced. Although the harshest policies are occurring under the Tsai administration, about 3 or 4 years ago the Ma administration cancelled the year-end bonus completely for all retired government workers, excluding those whose monthly pensions are NT$25,000 and less. The Ma administration's pension reform was a main driver for the KMT’s downfall in the January 2016 elections.
The so-called ‘pension reform program’ was not proposed by the Examination Yuan as stipulated by the ROC Constitution. Instead, President Tsai appointed a committee containing members who are DPP supporters to work out the reform program. During that process, the committee not only did not consult other groups but also did not allow external observers in during the discussions.
Pensions, compared to laborers, were very generous and there were so many senior people with large pensions. At one time they had ten times more generals than the US Military. According to my interviewee, there were around 1000 generals under Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang believed that to counter attack the mainland required officers; and the ROC needed loyal cadres in those recovered areas. Now they now have 300 general officers for their relatively small army. The larger US military has about 650 flag officers. It is important to remember that the vast majority of generals have a following of former subordinates and students that owe them loyalty. The same goes for the teachers. So they actually represent a larger threat to the DPP and the current ruling government than we as outsiders might imagine.
In addition to the pension reform program, the Tsai administration is making changes that skirt the established institutions. For example it aims to make changes to the judicial system. So it appointed a committee to advance certain judicial reforms. Moreover, the President proposed a NT$880 billion special budget to satisfy the requirements of the DPP-ruled cities and counties. The budget however is not a regular annual budget. As a result, it will incur national debts. Finally, President Tsai changed a law regarding the introduction of the third echelon government officials. Now the directors of these governments are political appointees. This means they do not have to pass a civil servant screening system.
The Tsai administration implemented political processes in large part because of an increasingly weak and divided KMT. This trend in turn has nurtured an arrogant and increasingly authoritarian DPP-led government. The current political and social unrest occurring in Taiwan will continue until after the 2020 election.
Another group posing a challenge to the DPP’s political efforts are teachers, as mentioned above. So the DPP wants to change the way they are educated. This way they will be more compliant in promoting their approach to education. Everyone is encouraged to attend and complete college. More than ninety percent of college applications are accepted, which in the eyes of the anti-DPP folks lowers the standards. Even though all universities' official advocated for increased university fees, the government refused. As a result of the increased enrollment and low pay, many outstanding professors are hired by universities in China and Hong Kong. There are now a lot of new private colleges and that too contributes to lower standards. In fact education reform was initiated 20 years ago under then President Lee-Ten-hui. The chief author of the reform was Yuan-Tseh Lee, a Nobel Prize laureate. Yuan-Tseh Lee was not only the President of Academia Sinica but also a strong DPP supporter. The DPP-led government has taken over the Ministry of Education and is rewriting new textbooks taking out anything that says the students are Chinese. There are no more patriotic “China” lessons within the curriculum at any level... they are now only focused on Taiwan.
Former President Lee Teng-hui (KMT) initiated the process of Taiwanization (the PRC side refers to it as de-sinicization) while the subsequent president Chen Shui-bian (DPP) actively promoted the Taiwanization through various measures, namely changing the educational guidelines from Sino-centric to Taiwan-centric.
In fact, in Taiwan today the DPP actively promotes the Taiwanization of the society, especially among the younger generations attending schools and universities. In many famous high schools and almost all universities the DPP has started sponsoring various types of extra-curricular activities centered on Taiwanization. It is a common phenomenon to see flyers and posters of these activities posted on schools' and universities' bulletin boards. President Tsai even presented letters of appointment to teachers who serve as the DPP's representatives.
The concern is that education standards have been lowered and by reeducating teachers the cultural and historical connection to China will be lost. My interviewee made additional observations about the current and future direction of the educational system noting that he current Minister of Education is strong advocate of Taiwan Independence…as a result of this sentiment it will get into all aspects of the education system.
The interviewee noted that a prime goal of the DPP is to make Taiwan less dependent on China. In particular Taiwan maintains a major trade imbalance with China. The DPP wants to change this trade surplus and decrease Taiwan’s dependency on China’s economy.
Overall travel to and from China is a major issue and is a major controversy for many segments of the Taiwanese society. For example, hundreds of Taiwanese students go to China to study in China's universities at the undergraduate and graduate levels. That growing trend represents a threat to the DPP because when they return they may be more pro-Chinese, which means they may support unification.
In a similar vein, for over 10 years the People’s Republic of China has been hosting and paying for groups of about 50 General Officers to visit Beijing and be hosted in the Great Hall. This stands out because now there are a large number of retired generals who would actually welcome a takeover from China. The PRC psychological warfare effort has been successful to a degree. This observation comes from firsthand knowledge. Other groups have been propagandized or hosted by the PRC as well.
A few months ago, a group of 32 Taiwan General Officers traveled to China to celebrate Sun Yat-sen’s 151st birthday. They were among many others from Taiwan. When they stood for the Chinese National Anthem, some one took their photograph which was published in the newspapers and televised on TV. The DPP reacted by saying the generals were traitors and have now proposed a ban on retired generals traveling to China. The Tsai administration cancelled all of the annual memorial ceremonies to remember Sun. And in the DPP-led cities and counties tend to turn a blind eye to the amputation of Sun and Chiang statues. Now, if retired military officers travel to China, they cannot participate in political activities in China. If they do, their pension will be cut, stopped, or subject to criminal sanction. In fact all retired people – civil and military – face having their pensions terminated if they continuously stay in China for 6 months.
The result is that the DPP is finding many ways to stop or punish travel to China by all groups.
In fact, the reluctance of the Tsai administration to recognize the 1992 Consensus has dampened cross-strait exchanges. In place, in many if not all public appearances Tsai tends to avoid saying the "Republic of China" and instead uses "Taiwan" or "this country"
There are many ways travel to and from China has been reduced because of the non-recognition of the 1992 consensus. One was to reduce the number of direct flights allowed, though the airlines initiated the reduction in direct flights in order to avoid losing money. There is also a quota on how many people can travel to Taiwan… consequently the number of mainland visitors to Taiwan is much less. As a result, some airlines (e.g., Trans Asia), several hotels and bus companies have gone bankrupt.
The PRC government is also putting pressure on Taiwanese business people. The PRC government publicly stated that they would take good care of businessmen if they do not donate money to the DPP or advocate independence. So nearly all of those, and there are many, who do business with or in China become a threat to the DPP-led government. Recently Tsai Ing-wen appointed 20 Senior Policy Advisors. Nearly all were pro-independence. Two of the richest men in Taiwan were offered the appointments – the head of Taiwan Semiconductor and another famous rich person in Taichung. But they turned down the appointments because of strong business ties with China that could be upset.
The DPP-led government is introducing legislation to discourage Taiwanese from long-term stays in China while encouraging the mainlanders to stay in Taiwan. For example, a recent new rule stipulates that if a retired government worker (military or civilian) goes to and stays in the US or other country they still get their pension, but if they go to China and stay 6 months they lose their pension. Another recent new piece of legislation encourages mainland students to study in Taiwan. Students from China in the past could not get National Health Insurance in Taiwan. Now they can for a fee.
In response to the changes in the cross-strait relationship, the PRC government is blocking Taiwan’s international and diplomatic activities. At APEC Xi Jinping snubbed James Soong, Taiwan’s representative, and it is working hard now to change recognition of the Holy See from Taiwan to China believing that many catholic countries that recognize Taiwan will follow suit.
A number of military reforms began under former President Ma Ying-jeou who apparently did not like the military. Historically the General Political Warfare Department (GPWD) in the Ministry of Defense was a powerful institution. The Ma's administration lowered the GPWD's bureaucratic level from a Department to Bureau. That has significance in control over the military. In addition the Ma administration made disaster relief a chief mission of the military and abrogated military law. These actions have been continued under Tsai's administration which has had and continues to have concerns about the military.
One organization controlled by the GPWD is the Vocational Assistance Commission for Retired Servicemen (VACRS), which was discussed in my book Citizen Soldier. It is a very powerful organization that manages all retired military people, including the VA hospitals and support units such as the business units. The DPP-led government appointed a former DPP congressman, Li Wenchung, who had failed to get reelected several times, to serve as the Deputy Director of VACRS. According to the interviewee, Li is arrogant and generally incompetent. But his mission is obviously to neutralize some of the power of the retired military. According to the interviewee, many high-ranking retirees are unhappy about the DPP’s associates becoming directors of VACRS’ business units.
The morale of the military is at an all-time low and they are having significant problems in recruiting. My interviewee noted that the morale of the police is almost as low as that of the military. An example of this issue was the Sunflower Movement, which involved massive protests and resulted in the law being changed against the police.
One of the changes that upset the military most was the negating of Military Law, a process that started during Ma’s administration. This means the military is not allowed now to discipline its own serious offenders. They must go to a civilian court.
My interviewee believes that even crimes within the military must go to a civilian court. This came from a case 2 or 3 years ago where a soldier used his iPhone to take many pictures of military things that were a problem and made them public. He was placed in confinement for a month and died there. The story was that he did too much PT and died of exhaustion. (Most of the policy changes take a single case to support a change). Soldiers now have to go to civilian court to be tried and there can be no confinement. It could be that the way the abolishment of the Military Law occurred -- when President Ma Ying-jeou abolished the legal system within the military, he issued an order through his chain-of-command to the Prime Minister who in turn initiated the abolishment. It could be said that Ma was Blue Skin (KMT) Green Bones because he inclined toward the DPP's position which seriously hurt the KMT. But the closer reality could be that Ma more often than not placed his own "historical position" above all else.
Another factor contributing to the problem of morale was because after the DPP took control of the Legislature, it found a way to let people buy senior rank in the military. For a fee, they could be appointed General. But what is unclear is whether it was only from those within military. He noted that the old Whampoa Spirit (Similar to West Point’s “Duty, Honor, Country) has been diluted and discipline within the military is lax. Many of the old values are gone. Although the interviewee did not specify when the gradual dilution of the Whampoa Spirit started to occur, it is believed to start during Chen Shui-bian’s administration (DPP).
Congress is now much more powerful in Taiwan. Often it calls active military men to testify against the military if they are upset about something. (In fact I was called to testify about the General Political Warfare Department when I was in Taiwan teaching at Tamkang University in 1993). According to my interviewee, some were obvious plants to embarrass the military. In fact it is becoming an increasingly common practice that the Legislative Yuan summons the Defense Minister or high-ranking generals to be interrogated and rudely shamed. The DPP-led government also uses its controlled press to highlight these things.
My interviewee noted that the Minister of Defense now has operational control over the military whereas it used to be the Chief of the General Staff. The MND is now controlled by the DPP, which changes military policy against the advice of retired generals. One example, among many, is that they change the First Priority Mission of the military to Disaster Relief. It is no longer to protect from PRC attack.
Disaster Relief could in part shore up the dramatic policy changes to and the trends in the military service. As early as 2015 the transition began to make the military all voluntary. It is expected that prior to January 2018 the Taiwan military will be a fully voluntary force. Yet, there is still low recruitment and low retention. One way to train Taiwanese people indirectly for military service is to train them for disaster relief.
But there are issues with the disaster relief program. During a disaster (e.g., typhoon) soldiers are sent to stricken areas and are operationally controlled by local civilians. That is not good from a military perspective. It also means that in military planning the majority of the budget in lower units now goes to Disaster Relief rather than training or other equipment.
There is coordination between civilian government and the military regarding disaster relief missions, but DPP politicians tend to be very dominant and arrogant and disaster-affected people do not express any appreciation. Expenses of the relief operations are supposed to be paid by local governments, but under political pressure the military has had to assimilate all. The military has spent billions of NT$ since Ma administration.
When Ma Ying-jeou announced his 3 “no’s” policy, it looked to some like a complete end to the military:
- No independence
- No reunification
- No war
If no war, there is no need for a military. The military budget can be cut. In fact in the eyes of the DPP it can become a Disaster Relief Agency.
Apparently, a key player in the changing of the military mission was a man named Wang Jin-pyng 王金平 who was the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan for 18 years. He was a KMT fellow, but a master negotiator. He wanted compromise on everything. He brokered a number of closed-door compromises and many on both sides were not happy. When a DPP Caucus Head and Party Whip Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘 was accused of bribery more than 3 years ago, Wang called the Chief Prosecutor to ask him for leniency. Wang made so many compromises that the KMT, Ma, wanted to fire him, but he was appointed not elected. They went to court and the court (the Judicial Branch now dominated by DPP) said the KMT could not fire Wang.
As part of their overall strategy to gain control of media, the DPP now controls more and more media outlets while marginalizing the KMT news outlets. There are 4 major TV stations that are run by the DPP. Minshi (民視—Formosa TV) is the most important. It also controls some radio stations. What used to be the main source of print news, the Central Daily News (中央日報) (was controlled by the KMT), is now only a website. It used to be the most important newspaper.
But the KMT under Ma Ying-jeou also failed to support the Central Daily News. After Ma won the second presidential election, he invited high-ranking retired generals to a tea-party to express his gratitude. Hsu Li-neng, former GPWD Chief and VACRS Director, considered the Central Daily News an important medium for internal communication and external propaganda, so he asked Ma to restore its print form. But Ma replied that, “I am reelected again, though the Central Daily News has no print form”, yet his victory in fact hinged on the 5 "olds" (e.g., Lao Mei (Americans) (老美); Lao Gong (Communists)（老共); Lao Jiang (generals)（老将); Lao Ban (businessmen) （老板); and Lao Puo (Ma’s Wife) （老婆）
The KMT Role
A major internal struggle is occurring within the KMT and that further weakens its voice. A split has occurred in the political party pitting the Taiwan KMT (no dealings with China) against the National KMT (dealings with China). Specifically the former faction wants to maintain the status quo and not have positive contact with China in order to cater to local supporters; whereas the latter faction wants to contact China in order to achieve unification. The KMT has become so fragmented nobody will run for party leader. After a struggle, Hung Hsiu-chu became the chairperson of the party. She had gone to China and at one point met with the PRC President and CPC General Secretary Xi Jinping, which was a strike against her. The former vice president Wu Den-yih, who has won the party-chair election and will be inaugurated on August 1, did not go to China, which worked in his favor. Wu went to the US to visit Overseas Chinese communities he publicly attacked Hung so he could get the KMT Chairmanship. In short, on Taiwan today there is lots of intraparty struggle. My interviewee considers Wu to be Taiwan KMT and Hong more National KMT.
On the institutional front, several changes have occurred that decreases the KMT’s political power while increasing the DPP’s. On the current Supreme Court, 3 of 5 new judges are strong advocates of Taiwan Independence and have openly “hated” the KMT. The National Congress was disbanded completely. Not only is Tsai Ing-wen the President of Taiwan. But Tsai also serves as the Chairperson of the DPP. Furthermore, Tsai controls Legislative, Executive and Judicial Yuans. Now there is a new Judicial Reform Commission (司法改革委員會). Almost all the members are open advocates of Taiwan Independence. The DPP now has enough seats in the Legislative Yuan to pass laws, the Executive Yuan to enforce laws and the Judicial Yuan to reinforce laws.
According to the interviewee, another major target of the DPP-led government is the vast assets of the KMT. The government set up the Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee (不当黨产处理委员会 )（不當黨產處理委員會) to investigate the KMT's asset situation. This major commission was established to recover KMT assets that they got when they defeated the Japanese and have been building since. The committee is 99% pro-DPP. The committee’s effort has been to change the process and laws so it can recover the assets legally. It has apparently frozen deposits in two banks: Bank of Taiwan and Sinopec. The commission has apparently confiscated two large companies for having “improper assets.”
The DPP is using the same strategies and tactics used by the KMT to gain control over Taiwanese society and politics. This change is causing many longtime supporters of the KMT and of unification with the mainland to become pessimistic about Taiwan and its future, especially its future with China. The main concern for the U.S. government is that there are potential forces within Taiwan that are building momentum to move toward some form of independence and that they will meet resistance within Taiwan and from the People’s Republic of China which could result in cross-strait instability. If there is any out it will be a conservative DPP person and a split in the DPP so that some less drastic members can delay anything for, as we concluded in www.Straittalk88.com two or three generations.
If not, we could easily be headed for a situation in which Taiwan leaders take a step or series of steps that China perceives to be a declaration of independence and China would definitely react. My interviewee believes that the PRC will not resort to the use of force against Taiwan, even if it moves toward independence. The PRC has plenty of economic and political options that can be used to pressure (and control) Taiwan before they resort to military force. He believes that the PRC would use force if the U.S. starts or enters into the conflict across the Taiwan Strait.