The Republic of China, more commonly known as Taiwan, celebrated its 112th National Day on October 10. President Tsai Ing-wen was joined on stage by members of her administration, foreign dignitaries, and representatives from across Taiwan’s political spectrum for an annual ceremony in front of the Presidential Office Building. Missing from this group were any representatives of the opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), including former President Ma Ying-jeou.
Ma, who had attended every National Day celebration since leaving office in 2016, announced in the week prior to this year’s event that he would be boycotting the celebration hosted by the Tsai administration over its English title: “Taiwan National Day 2023.” In a strongly-worded social media post, Ma asked, “When did the name of our country change from ‘the ROC’ to ‘Taiwan’?”
Ma decried this name change as Tsai “peddling Taiwan independence” and flouting the ROC constitution. He also called for voters to reject her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), at the upcoming 2024 presidential and legislative elections.
On the surface, this was a clear political stunt to rally the KMT’s base. DPP politicians pointed out that Ma took part in the same events during the past two years, which were also titled “Taiwan National Day,” but is only raising the issue now. While the KMT has levied complaints about the DPP’s de-sinicization efforts in past years, the party joined Ma’s boycott this year.
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This political row over an event title isn’t just about churning out votes for either side. For the KMT, the significance of upholding the ROC name and its National Day is pertinent to its identity and approach to cross-strait relations. For exactly the same reasons, celebrating a “Taiwan National Day” is just as exasperating for the DPP.
October 10 commemorates the start of the 1911 Wuchang Uprising, which led to the collapse of the imperial Qing dynasty and the establishment of the ROC in the mainland on New Year’s Day 1912. The KMT-led government was later defeated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and forced to retreat to Taiwan in 1949, where it would continue to celebrate its National Day on October 10 as a point of pride.
Yet the ROC title is as much an issue of Chinese national pride as it is central to the KMT’s strategy in maintaining the cross-strait status quo today. The ROC constitution still stakes a symbolic claim over the mainland, which is reciprocated by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s claim over Taiwan. Based on their overlapping objectives for a one-China outcome, the KMT and the CCP devised the “1992 Consensus.”
Ma Ying-jeou continues to tout the role of the 1992 Consensus in facilitating friendly relations with Beijing during his presidency, a stark contrast to the heightened cross-strait tensions under Tsai. The KMT’s presidential candidate for 2024, New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih, has also endorsed the 1992 Consensus for Taipei to re-engage in cross-strait dialogue as part of his “3Ds strategy.”
Diminishing the significance of the ROC, as seen in the nomenclature of “Taiwan National Day,” can amount to an existential threat for the KMT by downplaying the party’s role in history and undermining its position as an effective interlocutor that has maintained peace across the Taiwan Strait. On the other hand, the DPP celebrating “Taiwan National Day” is a pragmatic compromise of ideals that defined its identity to uphold the same status quo.
“Taiwan National Day,” despite its name, does not celebrate the founding of a Taiwanese nation but marks a day its forebears’ oppressors used to legitimize their rule under the ROC. The DPP was established in 1986 by local Taiwanese activists who faced oppression by the authoritarian KMT government due to their advocacy for Taiwan’s “self-determination” and “normalization.”
The DPP, often labeled as the “pro-independence” party, does have aspirational goals for Taiwan to become a de jure independent country, as stated in an “independence clause” in the party charter – a clause that has never been officially terminated. However, the DPP modified this position in 1999 by passing the “Resolution of Taiwan’s Future” into its charter, claiming that Taiwan, officially called the ROC, is already independent.
President Tsai has followed this formula during her two terms in office. She has reassured stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific region that Taipei will not unilaterally change the status quo by moving toward independence, while also advocating for Taiwan’s increased visibility on the international stage. Central to Tsai’s steadfast approach are her “four commitments,” which regard Taiwan as having a free and democratic constitutional system that is not subordinate to the PRC.
The DPP’s presidential candidate in 2024, Vice President William Lai, has also pledged to uphold Tsai’s “four commitments,” but his past statements on Taiwan independence have raised questions. Lai has repeatedly referred to himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence” and has enjoyed the support of hardline party supporters seeking the same outcome. In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Lai adjusted his position, reiterating that “Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent country,” so it is “unnecessary to declare independence.”
By toeing a careful line, Tsai, Lai, and the DPP have demonstrated utmost restraint and pragmatism to garner trust and support in navigating the cross-strait relationship, even when this comes at the cost of temporarily shelving the party’s founding aspiration of seeing Taiwan independent from both the ROC and the PRC, or celebrating a day that has little meaning for the party.
On a day that commemorates the beginning of a faraway war fought over a century ago, the KMT and the DPP’s discontent over the title of the “Taiwan National Day” is rooted in histories that continue to define their differing approaches to the cross-strait issue. For average voters in Taiwan though, the title of the National Day event and the resulting boycott are likely technicalities that matter little. Most people continue to mistakenly wish Taiwan a “happy birthday” on October 10.