On Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013, an estimated 200,000 people in Taipei turned out to express their opposition to the policies of incumbent Republic of China in-exile President Ma Ying-jeou. The protest, Taiwan’s largest since Ma’s re-election last year, was directed at Ma’s handling of the economy and his tilt toward China. Supporters of Chen Shui-bian, Ma’s predecessor in office, also marched calling for the release of Chen who has been imprisoned since shortly after leaving office in 2008.
Ma Ying-jeou ignored the huge weekend rally to visit the grave of Chiang Kai-shek and announce new scholarships to students from China wanting to study in Taiwan. Under President Chen Shui-bain, Chinese students were restricted to protect the Taiwanese job market but that has all changed with Ma’s overtures to the People’s Republic of China under the so-called “one China” doctrine.
Taiwan’s unresolved international status, the product of Cold War foreign policy of the United States, is at the heart of virtually all political discussion in Taiwan. The United States imposed Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government on the island in 1945 as an occupation force. However, the civil war in China that led to Chiang’s ouster in 1949 led to an extended exile for the ROC that continues to this day.
The Republic of China in-exile maintains it is the legitimate government of Taiwan, while the People’s Republic of China calls Taiwan “Chinese Taipei” and considers the island a renegade province. The United States is the “principle occupying power” of Taiwan under the San Francisco Peace Treaty that ended World War II with Japan but has adopted a “strategic ambiguity” policy that leaves the fate of 23 million people in limbo.
All three governments, the USA, the ROC, and the PRC, oppose independence for Taiwan leaving the islanders little option but to take to the streets. With no clear roadmap to independence, the independence movement is fractured into numerous groups, each with their own strategy, leaving the organized Kuomintang in power.
Chen Shui-bian, president of the ROC from 2000 to 2008, is now imprisoned on alleged corruption charges following a controversial trial and is becoming a rallying point for Taiwanese yearning for their own country. However, four years of harsh prison conditions have broken Chen’s health and spirit leaving him unable to lead his followers.
Although the mass protest, organized by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, focused on the economy and Ma’s overtures to China, support for Chen Shui-bian’s release from prison was visible throughout the massive crowd. One vocal contingent called itself the Rescue Abian Grand Army.
Ironically, Chen Shui-bian’s plight may serve to unify the independence movement and ultimately drive Ma Ying-jou’s Kuomintang government from power.