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The key force in Taiwan's politics that English press doesn't cover

The DPP's factions are roaring to life and threaten party unity as Tsai Ing-wen enters her lame-duck period, but you'd never know it from the English language press

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President Tsai Ing-wen (center) leading a moment of silence for the train crash victims at the DPP meeting Wednesday. 

President Tsai Ing-wen (center) leading a moment of silence for the train crash victims at the DPP meeting Wednesday.  (CNA photo)

TAICHUNG (Taiwan News) — In the local press and on TV talk shows, there is seemingly endless discussion recently about the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) factions (派系). During the ongoing DPP primaries and tussles over local party head appointments, the press breathlessly kept score of every victory and loss by each of the factions. The media was full of speculation on which factions were backing Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) and which were backing Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) to be the party’s candidate for Taipei Mayor. Not all of the speculation appears to have been accurate.

Much of the media coverage assumes the audience knows the affiliations of major players and sub-factions. Yet, if you’ve been reading the local news in English since the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) era, you could be forgiven for not knowing they even exist.

A Google news search for “Taiwan DPP factions” only turns a few articles from the past decade, and almost all only refer to them in passing. Only three substantively explain what they are, two by Aaron Wytze Wilson in 2016 and one by myself from 2021, and all three are out-of-date.

To truly understand what is going on in Taiwan politics, and why, for example the DPP settled on Chen Shih-chung as their candidate for Taipei and forced Lin Chia-lung to be their candidate in New Taipei, you need to understand the factions. They are integral to DPP internal politics, and shape many of their actions and choices of political appointees.

Factional politics figured heavily into why Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) is the premier, Lin Chia-lung was named transportation minister and You Si-Kun (游錫堃) is the legislative speaker. If you’re stuck with English language news, you likely can’t name all the factions, let alone know which of those factions key players are members of or affiliated with.

It didn't always used to be this way

Why does the English language media ignore this critical element of Taiwan’s political culture? Interestingly, this didn’t use to be the case, which brings us to probably the biggest reason why.

Prior to the Ma administration, they were mentioned frequently, and with good reason. From the founding of the DPP, the factions played a big and very vocal role in Taiwan politics.

During the DPP administration of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), the factional infighting in the party was vicious, very public and frequently embarrassing to the party and the administration. So frustrated with all the damage the factions were causing, then party DPP Chair You Si-kun (ironically as it later turned out), got the party to officially ban the factions in 2006.

It failed miserably. In spite of the factions vowing to stop operating, they didn’t and it may have made things worse by making political machinations even more opaque and behind the scenes.

The Kuomintang (KMT) frequently used this infighting to attack the DPP, portraying themselves as the adult, responsible party in contrast to the infantile, uncohesive and squabbling DPP.

Unfortunately for the DPP at the time, due to all their own self-inflicted wounds, that KMT portrayal had an element of truth, and the public knew it — and the KMT won in a landslide in 2008. In the aftermath of that disaster and the wreckage left by the scandal-plagued Chen administration, the party turned to a relative middle-weight in the party to take over as chair: Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

Tsai Ing-wen changes the game

She turned out to be an inspired choice, and she was able to effectively lead the party out of the woods. This was transformative for the DPP, so much so I devoted an entire column to it.

At the time, Tsai wasn’t affiliated with any faction, which gave her an advantage in trying to reign them in. The way she did so was clever: She balanced their relative power and fixed it in place.

For years she has balanced them in roughly equal proportions in political and party positions, giving them little to fight over. Though once ideological, for the most part by this point the factions were more interested in power and influence, and Tsai simply locked them into a status quo.

So, they quieted down. With little strife, there was little for the press to grab a hold on.

This quietness is very much reflected in my now-outdated 2021 piece on the factions, but in it I predicted:

“Sometime in 2022 or 2023, as Tsai approaches being a lame-duck both as president and presumably as party chair (though that’s not certain), the knives will come out. Everything will be up for grabs, and the scramble for power that the factions were originally created for will come to the fore again.

In for a bumpy ride

Something to watch for is whether the factions splinter and realign into different groupings under stress like they did in the period following the Chen presidency.”

This is precisely what has happened during this DPP primary season, and the press was full of references to jockeying for power in anticipation of the post-Tsai era. As predicted, a new faction formed.

At the biannual party convention on July 17 to hold internal party elections for the 11 members of the Central Review Committee and the 30 members of the Central Executive Committee, which in turn elects the 10 members of the Central Standing Committee, the faction balance was either “about the same” or a big win for New Tide (新潮流系統, usually abbreviated to 新系), depending on the commentator. In fact, I think both are basically right. New Tide, being the biggest and most powerful, won more, but in similar proportions to recent elections.

Interestingly, however, pretty much everyone agreed that the New Tide sub-faction loyal to Vice President William Lai (賴清德) did well, suggesting some power shifts are occurring in New Tide in anticipation of Lai becoming the party’s presidential candidate, and presumptive future party chair.

The huge gap between local and English language press

There are other reasons why the factions are barely mentioned in English language press.

One is that they are somewhat murky in their operations, and the hyperactive and sensationalistic local press relies on anonymous insider tips and wild speculation, which the more staid English press is wary of. That problem is compounded by the partisan nature of most press outlets.

Another problem is that English articles on local politics are usually broad summaries, which leave little space to explain the role factions are playing. For every political article on local politics, there might be as many as hundreds in the local press examining the issue from all angles–and often even big stories in the local press don’t make the English press at all (though Taiwan News is more likely to do so).

A related problem is for a reader to understand a reference to the factions and the key players, they need to know about them in the first place. That takes up a lot of column inches of context because, unlike prior to the Ma administration, none of that context is being provided in the English press already.

I expect internal power shifts and factional infighting will only accelerate next year, posing serious challenges to party unity. As this plays out, the factions will be playing an even bigger role in the political landscape.

To bridge this gap in knowledge between the local news and English news and bring you, dear reader, up to speed and in-the-know, watch this space. In upcoming columns we’ll explore what the factions are and who are some of the key players.

Courtney Donovan Smith (石東文) is a regular contributing columnist for Taiwan News, the central Taiwan correspondent for ICRT FM100 Radio News, co-publisher of Compass Magazine, co-founder of Taiwan Report (report.tw) and former chair of the Taichung American Chamber of Commerce. Twitter: @donovan_smith.