By J. Michael Cole, July 6, 2021
Although frequent manoeuvres by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and martial signalling by Beijing have contributed to a sense of imminent crisis in the Taiwan Strait, a far more insidious (and potentially devastating) phenomenon has received little attention in international media. Like termites, political polarization eats away at a society’s ability to function as a cohesive unit in times of crisis. Polarization manufactures and simultaneously undermines trust in the other; it erodes belief in fact by flooding the environment with subjectivity; and it creates opportunities for exploitation by external forces.
All societies, especially democracies, have a certain element of polarization, which is usually manifested in the form of party affiliation. In healthy democracies, polarization, while occasionally giving way to heated expressions, usually operates within certain rules of the game or constraints. It remains, therefore, within the realm of loyal opposition: firm, vociferous, but eventually open to dialogue and refraining from treating the other side – a ruling party or one in the opposition – as the enemy. Moreover, even in countries with high polarization, such as Israel, the two sides usually put their differences aside in times of emergency in order to resolve a crisis. This is particularly important when a crisis – the threat of war, a pandemic – poses an existential threat to the nation.
Taiwan often is an exception to this rule. Longstanding divisions stemming from its history remain powerful undercurrents in the political environment. Despite the passage of time, which has gradually blurred the contours of a once ethnic-based self-identification (i.e., waishengren, the “Mainlanders” who arrived in Taiwan after 1945, versus benshengren), and the advent of democratization in the late 1980s, the Taiwanese political environment is still subject to divisions that have unhealthy implications for the country’s ability to function. This polarization is sustained, and at times exacerbated, by political parties rather than society.
Relying on a highly polarized media environment, political parties in Taiwan have the ability to dial polarization up or down as needed. This instrumentalization of divisions has usually occurred in the lead-up to major elections in Taiwan, leading to the kind of tribalism that has been observed in other democracies. Such flare-ups, therefore, have usually been temporary before returning to a more controlled state. The advent of social media as a political tool, however, has compounded the problem of polarization.
As a result, Taiwan arguably experienced its most divisive elections in nationwide local elections in 2018 and the general elections in 2020, when opposition candidates played up tribalism through an effective combination of highly divisive rhetoric and disinformation that spread like wildfire on social media. Rather than healthy competition, those elections often turned into scorched-earth, zero-sum contests in which one’s political opponents – from candidates to their supporters – were treated as enemies instead of citizens in a shared polity who happen to have differences on certain issues. Consequently, the 2020 elections gave rise to vitriolic rhetoric, intimidation, threats of assault and even death threats, something unprecedented in Taiwan’s democratic history.
The recent lowering of thresholds for referendums has also created new avenues for polarization, which interest groups and political parties have also exploited using the same tools. On those occasions, ultraconservative groups have also joined forces with conservative elements within political parties to foster divisions, adopting rhetoric and unleashing disinformation on social media that widened divisions, turned the other side into existential foes, and further eroded the fabric of society. Referendums on the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, for example, saw the emergence of a movement that spread fear, disseminated disinformation on social media, and turned an entire category of people – members of the LGBTQI+ community, along with their supporters – into a class that, from their perspective, represented nothing less than an assault on the nation’s bloodline and security. The debate divided families, communities, religious organizations, and caused damage that will take years to repair.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a recent outbreak in Taiwan, have also led to the re-emergence of polarization to an extent that threatens the nation’s ability to address the crisis. As with the recent elections and the referendum on marriage equality, polarization has been fuelled and exacerbated by parties in the opposition. As with previous incidents, the campaign has been marked with high levels of disinformation and the treatment of the other – in this case the central government and the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control – as nothing less than an enemy that must be destroyed (in one particularly troubling instance, a member of the main opposition party said that the minister of health should be killed by firing squad for his failure to prevent the emergence of a COVID cluster).
As the battle rages, factual reality has been displaced by subjectivity. Anything that makes the other side look bad, however outlandish, will be absorbed and spread in social media groups, politicians’ Facebook pages, and TV talk shows. As Taiwan combats its first real outbreak of COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, opposition figures have often seemed keen to derail government efforts, sabotage collaboration, and undermine public confidence in health experts, science, and vaccines. The country is at war, and yet opposition figures treat the government as the main enemy.
Longstanding divisions in Taiwanese society have also compounded the problem, with supporters of the government and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) accusing their detractors of being little more than agents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which since the beginning of the pandemic has done its utmost to undermine Taiwan’s response. For example, Beijing went so far as to derail Taipei’s efforts to procure vaccines from a German manufacturer.
Such accusations are not entirely unfounded: some politicians in Taiwan’s opposition are indeed suspected of collaborating with the CCP. However, in many cases, what motivates opposition politicians in their attacks on the government isn’t so much a desire to do Beijing’s bid as the recognition of an opportunity to weaken DPP politicians ahead of subsequent elections. Thus, for many, anything that makes the governing party look bad in the public’s eye is permitted, from outright lies to foot-dragging to obstruction that hampers government efforts and unnecessarily prolongs the COVID outbreak. For those, as long as the government looks bad – better yet, as long as it fails – it’s good for them. It turns legislators against health officials, mayor against mayor, and a segment of the public against the president, all at a time when the response to the COVID crisis should be a whole-of-society effort.
In some instances, such behaviour coincides with similar efforts by Beijing, not due to any coordination or a shared ideology, but simply the result of similar strategies to assail the government in Taipei. Other than those who have been co-opted by the CCP, the opposition politicians and their supporters who weaponize polarization do so for parochial reasons, i.e., to weaken their opponent. The danger in all this is that accusations by the DPP side, to the effect that all members of the opposition are tools of the CCP, further exacerbate divisions by making an enemy of the other side, one that purportedly seeks to destroy Taiwan by assisting Beijing’s annexationist efforts. They must realize that not all criticism of the DPP or the Tsai Ing-wen administration is the result of CCP fellow travellers.
This continuous battle, moreover, creates foibles in Taiwan’s armor that the CCP can exploit to its advantage. Besides contributing to the disinformation environment, Beijing is a close student of the contradictions and crises within Taiwanese society that can be exploited, either through exacerbation or the co-optation of individuals who will do anything to undermine their domestic opponent. This situation is reminiscent of what Timothy Snyder describes in his book The Road to Unfreedom: “This level of partisanship, where the enemy is the opposing party and the outside world is neglected, creates a vulnerability that can be exploited by hostile actors in the outside world.”
A country with a broken polity will not be able to stand up to an external opponent. If it can’t come together to address a health emergency, if it allows its irresponsible politicians to manipulate and exacerbate divisions, it’s difficult to imagine how it could foster the unity that would be needed to counter an attempted military invasion by the PLA.
Ironically, despite the small number of politicians who appear to share the CCP’s goals with regards to Taiwan, the majority are not in favour of unification and share many values with their purported enemies in the opposite camp. And yet, through their irresponsible harnessing of polarization and disinformation for short-term political gain, they become inadvertent allies of the hostile regime across the Taiwan Strait. Healthy competition is at the heart of democracy. However, abusing the freedoms that democracy gives participants in its exercise by not respecting the rules and forsaking the necessity of acting as a loyal opposition, constitutes nothing less than the use of democracy to destroy it.
Before it’s too late, all sides in Taiwan must tone down the rhetoric, put an end to the outbreak of disinformation, and take stock of what is in the national interest. They must bridge the increasingly unhealthy divisions that now flare up with increasing frequency, and cast out those in positions of authority who refuse to do so. Finally, they must concentrate their efforts so as to present a united front against the real enemies facing this country: COVID-19 and the CCP.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is a former intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.