Editor's Note

For the second publication of the ADRN special working paper series, Dr. Chin-en Wu and Dr. Yun-han Chu, associate research fellow and distinguished research fellow of Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica explore populist movements in Taiwan. In their discussion, Dr. Wu and Dr. Chu analyze Taiwanese populist organizations and the environment that has contributed to their rise. In doing so, they argue that the “bottom-up model” of Taiwan is largely a “rejection” of the pro-mainland establishment and its attempts to “weaken Taiwan’s democracy.” They also add that the movement has room for improvement as they have not yet made “significant contributions to Taiwan’s political and social development.” In conclusion, Dr. Wu and Dr. Chu suggest that a “broad and inclusive definition of ‘the people’ is a better approach for the health of democracy.”



Quotes from the Paper


During President Ma’s terms, a series of social protests took place in Taiwan. These movements disapproved of the way the KMT was handling cross-strait relations, economic development, social justice, and environmental management. It is widely conceived among civil society organizations that the KMT, domestic big business, and multinational companies constitute a power bloc that rigs the economy and weakens Taiwan's democracy. The direct political results of these anti-establishment social movements were the creation of the White Force (WF) and the New Power Party (NPP). The leaders of both forces are political novices and opinion leaders of the social movements. These two political forces tend to assert a Manichean dualism of the corrupt elite and the pure masses.


Literature Review

Mudde and Mudde and Kaltwasser consider populism a thin-centered ideology whose core idea is that a society consists of the pure and common people and the corrupt elite. The populist leaders claim that they represent the general will of the people rather than the special interests of the elite. Because of the thin ideology, populism is compatible with different ideologies and in different historical and geographical economic contexts. Weyland defines populism as a political strategy in which political leaders argue that they directly represent the will of the people. The relationship between the populist leaders and the common people is less institutionalized and more fluid. Thus, political movements that clearly make the distinction between the pure people and the corrupt elite and that claim to represent the interests of the ordinary people are often labeled as populist. Moreover, because populism condemns the corruption and ineffectiveness of representative systems, they emphasize the importance of a direct relationship between leaders and the people. Thus, populists endorse many forms of direct democracy.


Populists and Their Demands

Who Are the Populists?

During President Ma’s terms in office, a series of social protests took place in Taiwan. Civil society organizations (CSOs) disapproved of the ruling KMT elites and their policies. These social movements railed against the coalition of the KMT, big business, and the model of economic development. The KMT government denoted an old regime that is politically, socially, and economically conservative. CSOs and the young generation tend to embrace progressive values and perceive the KMT’s policies as putting too much emphasis on economic growth and paying too little attention to distributive justice and environmental protection. The KMT governed Taiwan for seventy years, except for the short period between 2000 and 2008. Many members of CSOs fought for Taiwan’s democratic transition in the past, and so they do not like the KMT, especially the authoritarian legacy the present-day party inherited, such as the huge party assets and its close relationship with local factions. In addition, CSOs demand open government and greater civic participation in the government decision-making process. Moreover, they are uneasy with the closer economic relationship between Taiwan and China and the official interactions between the two sides. It is perceived that the KMT’s economic policies rely too heavily on the Chinese market. It is widely conceived in civil society that the KMT and big business groups, which invest heavily in China, form a coalition that rigs the economy and even tries to weaken Taiwan's vibrant democracy. The CSOs care about freedom and democracy and have a low level of trust in the KMT government, meaning they worry about the political implications of Taiwan’s economy increasingly relying on the Chinese market. A typical observation is that the big conglomerates monopolize local and cross-strait business, depriving ordinary people and the young generation of economic opportunities.


The Populist Issues and Agendas

The social movements focus on a wide variety of social issues, ranging from ecology, distributive justice, human rights protection, judicial reform, and China's encroachment. They are based on many progressive social values or the so-called post-material values, and tend to embrace liberal democratic values. All of these movements disapprove of the way the KMT has handled cross-strait management, economic development, distributive justice, and environmental management. To a different degree, they also declare a Manichean dualism of corrupt elites and pure masses and perceive a failure of representative democracy. They focus individually on one particular social issue while in many cases expressing support for each other. These CSOs are independent and are not officially affiliated with any political party. They undertake a variety of direct actions such as marching, sit-ins, petitions, boycotts, and staging protests against the government and, in some cases, companies.


Absorbed into the Existing Political System

Both the NPP and the WF participate in elections and remain independent from the main political parties. The strong discontent against the ruling elites during President Ma’s second term contributed to the victory of the DPP, and the growth of the NPP and the WF. The DPP did not nominate candidates in those districts where the NPP nominated candidates, helping them win several seats. The NPP gained 6.11 percent of the votes and five seats from the total of 113 in the 2016 parliamentary elections, quickly becoming the third-largest party in the legislature. The main supporters of the two movements tend to be young people, liberal-minded people, and people who favor Taiwan’s independence or maintaining the status quo. Mayor Ko enjoyed quite high approval ratings in the first half of his term, especially among younger voters, although his approval ratings did decline in the second half. Ko received 57 percent of the vote in the 2014 Taipei mayoral elections, but only received 41 percent in the 2018 elections. Meanwhile, the NPP’s approval rating dropped from 14 percent in 2016 to 6 percent in late 2017.


Causes of the Rise of Populism

Economic Reasons

The first important underlying cause of the anti-establishment movement is that Taiwan’s economy has passed the high-income threshold. In the wake of globalization, manufacturing companies have moved to developing countries with abundant sources of labor, cheap land, and poor environmental regulations. Globalization benefits the people in developing countries and the skilled workers and elites in wealthy countries. Therefore, the working class and a significant portion of the middle class have “lost confidence in mainstream parties and established institutions.” Given this situation, some politicians have begun to blame developing countries for causing their economic problems. Along with rising globalization and advances in production automation, income inequality and unemployment rates in Taiwan have increased. The household income survey indicates that the country’s Gini coefficient was 0.337 in 2015. This number is roughly equal to those of Japan and South Korea and much lower than those of Hong Kong and Singapore. However, pre-redistribution incomes show that income inequality is becoming a serious problem in Taiwan. Moreover, overtime income inequality has also worsened. The income ratio of the fifth to ninety-fifth percentile was 1:33 in 1998, but rose to an alarming 1:99 in 2014. Compared to other major industrialized countries, Taiwan’s tax rates are relatively low, making it difficult to correct the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity.


Political Issues

On the other hand, the KMT still has some lingering authoritarian legacies. First, it still has huge party assets, which unlevels the playing field of elections. In each election, the KMT can easily outspend its rivals by transferring some of the party’s assets to finance the campaign. Next, the KMT tends to nominate candidates who are the children of prominent former government and party leaders. In primaries, the party leaders favor combining registered party member votes and district-wide opinion polling rather than solely relying on the latter. Under this mechanism, the party leaders can easily influence how registered party members vote. In addition, the KMT works comparatively more closely with local factions, and nominates people with criminal records. Related to this, a higher percentage of its candidates or vote brokers are prosecuted in legislative and local elections for vote buying. Finally, the KMT is reluctant to deal with some aspects of the historical interpretation and inheritance of its authoritarian past. These issues include releasing political archives, erasing authoritarian symbols, and addressing its party assets.


The China Factor

The Blue-Green divide has been the main theme of Taiwan’s political development since 2000. Both camps fiercely compete to gain control of the state apparatus so that they can control the pace and direction of the cross-strait economic and political relationship. After 2008, President Ma’s administration sought a closer economic relationship with China. His government sequentially introduced direct air, sea, and postal links with mainland China, opened the door to mainland Chinese tourists, lifted the ban on inbound investment by mainland Chinese firms, and loosened the 40 percent cap on mainland-bound investment by listed companies. There is a strong sentiment among the opposition that cross-strait economic integration may eventually aggravate Taiwan’s economic vulnerability, facilitate Beijing’s political infiltration into Taiwanese society, and lead to the erosion of Taiwan’s autonomy. On the political side, President Ma embraced the “One China, Two Interpretations” policy, or the so-called 1992 Consensus. The Pan-Green camp believes the one-China policy constrains Taiwan’s international space. This social divide has historical roots, but the China factor plays a decisive role in aggravating it. The China factor includes the rising political and military power of China and the tightening controls initiated during President Xi’s term. Mainland China policies pursued by President Ma to encourage cross-strait economic integration further exacerbated the social divide.


The Influence of Populism upon Democracy

Contributions of the Populist Movement

As the literature has shown, the main threat of the top-down model of populist movements is that political leaders endorse democracy but not liberal democracy. The political elite tend to distrust representative democracy and the idea of checks and balances. In contrast, Taiwan’s populism is formed by autonomous civil society organizations which have launched several social movements. These movements have over time given rise to new political forces: the White Force and the NPP. As a bottom-up model of populism, Taiwan’s populism does not pose a threat to liberal democracy. All parties in Taiwan firmly believe in the superiority of democracy and embrace democratic principles. The KMT, the DPP, the WF, and the NPP have no intention of interrupting existing democratic norms. Both the NPP and the WF were absorbed into the existing political system by participating in elections and following democratic rules. At the individual level, as discussed above, popular support for liberal democracy in Taiwan is very high compared to other East Asian countries. Most populist supporters in Taiwan are liberal value holders and more likely to believe in the superiority of democracy. It is the threat from a closer KMT-Beijing relationship that sparks their fears. This movement in part aims to protect Taiwan’s democracy by forcing the government not to make deals with the communist regime and to pass the Supervision Act to regulate future trade negotiations. Those who strongly believe in liberal democratic values tend to feel the threat most forcibly. They ask for direct democracy and strong supervision of the government. In addition, a liberal orientation is also associated with a greater emphasis on equality and environmental protection. The populist issues essentially are associated with protecting and deepening democracy, so this movement is unlikely to damage democracy.


Potential Negative Influence

This populist movement, however, also has some potential negative impacts on the functioning and governance of Taiwan’s democracy. These impacts include interference with the functioning of representative democracy, constraints on the profession of technocrats, and the oversimplification of certain problems, which we will discuss in turn. Because the newly revisited referendum law lowers the quorum requirement, ten referendum cases were voted upon in the 2018 local elections. This number is simply too high for people to understand, digest, and ultimately make decisions on. Moreover, such cases are proposed, deliberated, and voted upon within just two months. The current practice of direct democracy does not allow thorough social deliberation as can be seen in some matured democracies. Taiwan is a divided society with different national identities and views of the cross-strait political and economic relationship. Referendum questions often carry a dichotomous message and provide less room for compromise. For these identity-related issues, it might be better to deliberate and make compromises in representative institutions. Finally, the amended referendum law removes the power of the referendum reviewing committee, making it unable to check whether an initiative violates the constitution or confirm that its wording is understandable. The current referendum practice is an interesting experiment, but the institution needs to be carefully modified.



Taiwan features a bottom-up model of populism. Taiwan’s populist movement is organized by autonomous civil society organizations. This movement has given rise to new political forces, the White Force and the New Power Party. The movement rejects the KMT’s handling of cross-strait management, economic development, distributive justice, and environmental management. It is widely believed among civil society that the KMT, domestic big business, and Taiwanese companies that invest heavily in China form a coalition that has rigged the economy and is trying to weaken Taiwan's democracy. Civil society organizations have staged several large-scale protests and were able to successfully block several government policies. As a bottom-up model, this movement has helped introduce several political reforms to level the political playing field and increase civic participation in decision making. In addition, a unique feature of Taiwan’s populism is that this movement in large part stems from fears over a close economic relationship between a small democracy and a great authoritarian power. Some of those who feel the threat most strongly are those who are liberal-minded. They seek to protect Taiwan’s democracy by forcing the government not to make any deals with a communist government. Popular support for liberal democracy is also high in Taiwan. The source of the populist movement and its bottom-up characteristics mean that this movement is unlikely to influence the stability of the country’s democracy. Instead, this movement has in the past few years made significant contributions to Taiwan’s political and social development. This populist movement, however, also has some potential negative impacts on the functioning and governance of democracy. These related issues include the functioning of representative democracy, technocratic governance, and oversimplification of the true problems.



Author’s Biography


Chin-en Wu is the associate research fellow at the Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica, Taiwan. He received his Ph.D. degree from the University of Michigan. His main research interest includes the impact of economic development on political regime dynamics and how regime type influences economic performance.

Yun-han Chu is Distinguished Research Fellow of Institute of Political Science at Academia Sinica and Professor of Political Science at National Taiwan University. He serves concurrently as president of Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange. Professor Chu received his Ph. D. in political science from the University of Minnesota and joined the faculty of National Taiwan University in 1987.