TAIPEI (Reuters) - Taiwan is spinning away from China’s idealized model of “one country, two systems” as a renewed spirit of democracy sweeps across its political sphere, rousing a new cadre of grassroots leaders critical of a shared future with China.
The number of new political parties and advocacy groups has surged following advances by the pro-independence Democratic progressive Party (DPP) in November elections that routed the ruling pro-China Nationalist party from positions in local government. The victory of Taiwan’s main opposition party was preceded by a massive protest by thousands of students in March last year over a trade pact with China.
More groups are likely to emerge before next year’s presidential and legislative elections. Such political fragmentation will make it harder for China to strike the deals it has been pushing for to pull Taiwan closer into its economic orbit.
Freddy Lim, whose New Power Party is one of 14 new parties registered since last July, wants more openness and greater discussion of issues, including how Taiwan handles ties with China. “The determination for change by society is very strong,” said Lim, a former chief of rights group Amnesty International in Taiwan who is standing for a legislative seat.
Taiwan citizens want to reclaim a sense of identity many feel they have lost since China-friendly Ma Ying-jeou became president in 2008. He is set to end his second, and final presidential term, in early 2016.
Ma’s pro-China trade policies have benefited big business, making his Nationalists the go-to party for Beijing, which deems Taiwan a renegade province to be taken back by force if necessary, particularly if it moves toward independence.
But Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, the label given to the student protests, suspended the ratification of the cross-strait trade pact, holding up progress on economic ties with China.
“It shows the possibility of a third way,” said Joseph Lin, chairman of Taiwan’s Judicial Reform Foundation, which is defending 118 people charged over the protests. “It shakes up the pre-existing relationship between politics and moneyed interests.”
Last year’s massive protests in Hong Kong against Beijing’s control of the former British colony fed the suspicion of people in Taiwan over the island’s closer ties with China. Many in Taiwan say the Hong Kong protesters were inspired by the island’s sit-in.
“People in Taiwan understandably have to be more cautious than ever in watching out that their liberties aren’t eroded and that Chinese business does not buy up Taiwan business and become more influential,” said Jerome Cohen, a senior fellow of the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations.
That is where the new parties come in. They aim to disrupt Taiwan’s two-party system, in which the Nationalists and the DPP hold the bulk of the 113 seats in the legislature.
Just five of more than 260 of the island’s political parties figure in parliament. A newly formed Social Democratic Party, led by social activists, plans to set up shop soon.
Sunflower protest leaders have also formed advocacy groups such as Taiwan March, which seeks constitutional reform.
China-born Wu’er Kaixi, one of the students who led Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protest in 1989, has launched a campaign to represent his adopted home, Taichung, in central Taiwan, where he has lived since 1996.
Last year’s protest was the spur, he said, adding, “In the old picture, I would not have the chance or the urge to do this.”
Lawmaker Hsu Hsin-ying, who quit the Nationalists in January, plans another run for the legislature, but this time representing a new party that is still being set up.
“Taiwan needs another voice,” Hsu said.
Editing by Clarence Fernandez