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Chen Shui-bian: On Independence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 September 2010

Jonathan Sullivan
University of Nottingham. Email:
Will Lowe
Maastricht University. Email:


Chen Shui-bian achieved an international reputation for his promotion of Taiwan independence. Whilst that reputation may have been well earned, the analyses on which this conclusion is based are frequently flawed in two ways. First, by using an undifferentiated notion of independence, they tend to conflate sovereignty with less threatening expressions of Taiwanese identity and pro-democracy discourse. Second, by failing to take into account the impact of immediate strategic context, analysts ignore a fundamental element of democratic political communication. In our empirical analysis of more than 2,000 of Chen's speeches, we seek to avoid both flaws by unpacking the concept of independence and taking into account Chen's strategic relationship with his primary audiences. Our findings challenge popular portrayals of Chen, but more importantly they have strong implications for policy makers and students of political rhetoric with regard to current and future ROC presidents.

Copyright © The China Quarterly 2010

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1 As an indication of this fame, a Lexis-Nexis search of English language news sources between 2003 and 2008 returns 1,390 articles with three or more mentions of Chen in connection with “Taiwan independence.”

2 A similar Lexis-Nexis search returns 464 articles in which Chen is associated three or more times with “recklessness” or “danger.”

3 Ross, Robert, “Explaining Taiwan's revisionist diplomacy,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 15, No. 48 (2006), pp. 443–58CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an alternative opinion see Friedman, Edward, “Taiwan's independence plot,” Issues and Studies, Vol. 42, No. 4 (2006), pp. 6795Google Scholar.

4 Ross, “Explaining Taiwan's revisionist diplomacy,” p. 456.

5 Converse, Philip, “The nature of belief systems in mass publics,” in Apter, David (ed.), Ideology and Discontent (New York: Free Press, 1964), pp. 206–62Google Scholar; Campbell, Angus, Converse, Philip, Miller, Warren and Stokes, Donald, The American Voter (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1960)Google Scholar; Key, V.O., The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting 1936–1960 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1966)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Popkin, Samuel, The Reasoning Voter (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Zaller, John, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 For instance Clark, Cal, “The paradox of the national identity issue in Chen Shui-Bian's 2004 presidential campaign: base constituencies vs the moderate middle,” Issues and Studies, Vol. 41, No. 1 (2004), pp. 5386Google Scholar.

7 This is in contrast to a full information spatial politics model with a single homogenous audience, where political actors are expected to gravitate towards a single “median-voter” position. Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957)Google Scholar; Hinich, Melvin and Munger, Michael, Analytical Politics (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 In reality Chen faced heavy constraints in turning rhetoric into policy outcomes. As Alan Romberg pointed out, “the proposals Chen can carry out would not take him across PRC ‘redlines’; those that would, he lacks the wherewithal to carry out.” “Recent developments in Taiwan: Politics in command-but at what cost?” PacNet No. 6 (2006), p. 1.

9 Rigger, Shelley, “Social science and national identity: a critique,” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 4 (1999), pp. 537–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 Rigger, Shelley, “Maintaining the status quo: what it means and why Taiwanese prefer it,” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 14, No. 2 (2001), p. 104CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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12 Fell, Dafydd, Party Politics in Taiwan (London: Routledge, 2005), p. 122Google Scholar.

13 Rigger, Shelley, “Party politics and Taiwan's external relations,” Orbis, Vol. 49, No. 3 (2005), p. 428CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 Friedman, “Taiwan's independence plot,” p. 78.

15 For a more detailed vision of the “worst case scenario” see Wu, Yu-shan, “Taiwanese nationalism and its implications: Testing the worst-case scenario,” Asian Survey, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2004), pp. 614–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 Friedman, “Taiwan's independence plot,” p. 76.

17 Wachman, Alan, “The China–Taiwan relationship: a cold war of words,” Orbis, Vol. 45, No. 4 (2000), p. 699Google Scholar.

18 The salient document in this regard is the “Resolution on Taiwan's Future,” adopted at the DPP party congress in 1999. It states among other things that “Taiwan is a sovereign independent country [and] although named the ROC under its current constitution is not subject to the jurisdiction of the PRC.”

19 Extracted from Lee's “state to state” interview with Deutsche Welle in 1999. Italics added.

20 Fell, Party Politics in Taiwan, p. 98.

21 The DPP's “discovery” of ROC sovereignty was a significant development, not least because the main thrust of its earlier position was precisely independence from the ROC, which many supporters perceived to be inherited from the mainland and inconsistent with Taiwan's historical and political reality. See Corcuff, Stephane, “The supporters of unification and the Taiwanisation movement,” China Perspectives, Vol. 53 (2005), p. 50Google Scholar.

22 Chao, Chien-min, “One step forward, one step backward: Chen Shui-bian's mainland policy,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 12, No. 34 (2003), p. 141CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

23 Lieberthal, Kenneth, “Preventing a war over Taiwan,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 2 (2005), p. 54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 A more forthright statement in this vein is the argument that, “while Taiwan is definitely independent, it is so, in law, only as the ROC, not as Taiwan.” Corcuff, “The supporters of unification and the Taiwanisation movement,” p. 50.

25 Dittmer, Lowell, “Taiwan's aim-inhibited quest for identity and the China factor,” Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 40 No. 1/2 (2005), p. 86CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Schubert, Gunther, “Taiwan's political parties and national identity: the rise of an overarching consensus,” Asian Survey, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2004), pp. 534–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Clark, “The paradox of the national identity issue,” p. 79.

28 John Fuh-Sheng Hsieh, “National identity and Taiwan's mainland China policy,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 13, No. 40 (2004), p. 479.

29 Schubert, “Taiwan's political parties and national identity,” p. 548.

30 Cabestan, Jean-Pierre, “Specificities and limits of Taiwanese nationalism,” China Perspectives, Vol. 62 (2005), p. 37Google Scholar.

31 Lynch, Daniel, “Taiwan's self-conscious nation-building project,” Asian Survey, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2004), p. 514CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 Dittmer, “Taiwan's aim-inhibited quest for identity and the China factor,” p. 72.

33 Dittmer, Lowell, “Taiwan and the issue of national identity,” Asian Survey, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2004), p. 475CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 Wachman, “The China–Taiwan relationship.”

35 Wang, T.Y. and Liu, I.C., “Contending identities in Taiwan: implications for cross-Strait relations,” Asian Survey, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2004), pp. 568–90CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

36 The link between micro (individual identity) and macro-politics (political movements) is perceptively examined in Niou, “Understanding Taiwan independence and its policy implications”; Yu-shan Wu, “Taiwanese nationalism and its implications”; Wang and Liu “Contending identities in Taiwan.”

37 Cabestan, “Specificities and limits of Taiwanese nationalism,” p. 34.

38 Clark, “The paradox of the national identity issue.”

39 For a perceptive account of Chen's “Son of Taiwan” campaign rhetoric in 2000, see Rigger, Shelley, From Opposition to Power: Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2001)Google Scholar.

40 Lin, Tse-Min, Chu, Yun-Han and Hinich, Melvin J., “Conflict displacement and regime transition in Taiwan: a spatial analysis,” World Politics, Vol. 48, No. 4 (1996), pp. 453–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

41 Clark, “The paradox of the national identity issue,” p. 74.

42 Corcuff, Stephane, “The symbolic dimension of democratization and the transition of national identity under Lee Teng-hui,” in Corcuff, Stephane (ed.), Memories of the Future: National Identity Issues and the Search for a New Taiwan (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2002)Google Scholar. In light of Chen's troubled tenure and a legacy further tarnished by post-presidency corruption charges, it is easy to forget the symbolic magnitude of his surprise victory in 2000. For a stirring account of those momentous times see Rigger, From Opposition to Power.

43 Rigger, From Opposition to Power.

44 Copper, John F., “Taiwan: democracy's gone awry?” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 12, No. 34 (2003), pp. 145–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Chu, Yun-han, “Taiwan's year of stress,” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2005), pp. 4358Google Scholar.

45 Kao, Mily, “The referendum phenomenon in Taiwan,” Asian Survey, Vol. 44, No. 4 (2004), pp. 591613CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mattlin, Mikael, “Referendum as a form of zaoshi,” Issues and Studies, Vol. 40, No. 2 (2004), pp. 155–85Google Scholar. We should remember however that provision for referenda was written in the ROC Constitution and the legislation that activated article 136 was a KMT sponsored bill passed in a legislature controlled by the KMT and its allies.

46 Ibid. Although holding referenda concurrent with presidential elections was clever, particularly in 2004, it should also be noted that this it is not unusual in other democracies, usually for cost-cutting purposes.

47 Mattlin, Mikael, “Same content, different wrapping: cross-Strait policy under DPP rule,” China Perspectives, Vol. 56 (2004), p. 29Google Scholar.

48 Rigger, “Party politics and Taiwan's external relations,” p. 422; Flemming Christiansen, “Putting Taiwan's constitution on the agenda,” European Association of Taiwan Studies, University of London, April 2004, p. 1.

49 Mattlin, “Same content, different wrapping,” p. 33.

50 Dittmer, “Taiwan's aim-inhibited quest,” p. 87.

51 Goldstein, Steven, “The Taiwan Strait: a continuing status quo of deadlock?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs, Vol. 15, No. 1 (2002), p. 85CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Wu, Joseph, “Political earthquake and aftershocks: the DPP after the 2000 presidential election,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 11, No. 33 (2002), p. 638CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 Dittmer, “Taiwan and the issue of national identity,” p. 478.

54 Lieberthal, “Preventing a war over Taiwan,” p. 54.

55 Sheng, Lijun, China and Taiwan: Cross-Straits Relations under Chen Shuibian (New York: Zed Books, 2002), p. 123Google Scholar.

56 Clark, “The paradox of the national identity issue,” p. 80.

57 Cohen, Jeffrey, “Presidential rhetoric and the public agenda,” American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 39, No. 1 (1995), pp. 87107CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Edwards, George III and Wood, B. Dan, “Who influences whom? The President, Congress and the media,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 93, No. 2 (1999), pp. 327–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mouw, Calvin and Mackuen, Michael, “The strategic agenda in legislative politics,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 86, No. 1 (1992), pp. 87105CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Riker, William, The Art of Political Manipulation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986)Google Scholar.

58 Indeed there is tentative evidence to suggest that Chen, and Lee before him, purposefully used a parochial stage to project a message to a much wider audience. Lin finds that of 40 “key speeches” delivered between 1992 and 2005, the majority of the ones that emphasized “Taiwan's independent sovereignty or protested PRC aggression” used informal occasions to do so. Jih-wen Lin, “Uncovering the informal dimensions of Taiwan's cross-Strait policy-making,” 34th Sino-American Conference, University of Virginia, 2005, p. 9.

59 Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy.

60 Istenič, Saša, “Taiwan's business communities in mainland China: contesting influence over cross-Strait economic policy,” Leeds East Asia Papers, No. 65 (2004)Google Scholar; Larus, Elizabeth Freund, “Taiwan's quest for international recognition,” Issues and Studies, Vol. 42, No. 2 (2006), pp. 2352Google Scholar; Lin, Catherine, “Taiwan's overseas opposition movement and grassroots diplomacy in the United States: the case of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 15, No. 46 (2006), pp. 133–59CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Jih-wen Lin, “Uncovering the informal dimensions of Taiwan's cross-Strait policy-making.”

61 Popping, Roel, Computer-Assisted Text Analysis (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 Neuendorf, Kimberley, The Content Analysis Guidebook (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2002)Google Scholar.

63 Laver, Michael, Benoit, Ken and Garry, John, “Extracting policy positions from political texts using words as data,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, No. 2 (2003), pp. 311–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

64 Kao, “The referendum phenomenon in Taiwan;” Christiansen, “Putting Taiwan's constitution on the agenda,” These authors also note that referenda were conceived as a means for Chen to bypass the institutional gridlock created by divided government.

65 See for instance Rigger, Shelley, “Taiwan in 2003,” Asian Survey, Vol. 44, No. 1 (2004), p. 187CrossRefGoogle Scholar. We intend the empirical analysis to demonstrate, at least, that this reading of the referendum and constitutional reform issues is reasonable.

66 To some extent the construction of any content dictionary requires subjective decisions about the connotations of word and phrase content in a complex discourse (as indicated by the discussion of referenda and constitutional reform above). Our dictionary is thus not intended to be the final word on textual indicators of the three categories.

67 Subsequent work will, however, explore the economic integration aspect of cross-Strait discourse.

68 Between 20 March and 7 June 2000, three Chen speeches were available, including one as president-elect and his first inauguration. Though these are obviously important speeches, the consistent record of President Chen's public speeches did not begin until 7 June 2000.

71 Will Lowe, “Yoshikoder: an open source multilingual content analysis tool for social scientists,” APSA Annual Meeting, Philadelphia, 2006.

72 Exceptionally, in the case of “New Year and National Day” and other formal speeches, such as inaugurations, we coded the form of the speech rather than the audience.

73 At this point we should acknowledge that our strategic argument is under-determined by the available data, by which we mean that our assessment of Chen's discursive behaviour is more difficult in the absence of comparative data. Unfortunately, speeches made by other political figures in Taiwan, e.g. in the opposition, were not available in anything like the same abundance as Chen's. Similarly, our argument about audiences is weakened by the absence of data on the positions and preferences of these groups. In effect we are limited to the inference that Chen's relationship with these groups varied, but the degree and direction of this variation we leave to future work.

74 By this statement we do not mean to imply that all audiences (and all speeches) are equally important. However, in our large-scale analysis we treat audiences as separate effects to avoid the problems, discussed in the introduction, of arbitrarily attaching importance to select audiences.

75 In fact Chen's speeches do get longer over the period, so to take account for this and avoid biasing the results, all of our models are normalized by the length of each speech.

76 This is because external events enter each model additively and raise or lower all audiences' fitted proportions together; there were no significant interactions. By contrast, our argument depends only on the relative proportions of each category per audience which all remain the same, rather than their absolute values.

77 It should be noted that whilst the probability of Chen mentioning indicators of sovereignty appears to be extremely low, language-use norms dictate that the resting levels of category counts for complex concepts is always likely to be low. Zipf, George, Human Behavior and the Principle of Least Effort (New York: Hafner, 1965 [1949])Google Scholar.

78 Ross, “Explaining Taiwan's revisionist diplomacy”; Ross, Robert, “Taiwan's fading independence movement,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 2 (2006), pp. 141–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.