Taiwan's culture is predominantly Chinese, with strong Japanese and Western influences. A large percentage of the population has a profound sense of being "Taiwanese." Historically, when both were competing for control of the mainland, there were political similarities between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). For the past several decades, however, the political structure on Taiwan has become much more democratic while politics on the mainland continue to be dominated by the CCP. As China modernizes and becomes more connected to the global community, there is a persistent push from citizens to be given more personal freedom and a voice in their governance. Appearing to be uncertain of its future, the CCP has in some ways responded to this appeal for greater self-expression by expanding its surveillance and intimidation.
In the 1980s, the KMT on Taiwan faced this same challenge and chose a different path. It ended martial law and allowed its citizens to form competing political parties, most notably the Taiwanese-led Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This liberalization was done because it appeared to be the only way to ensure both domestic tranquility and continued American support. Today, the KMT competes openly with other political parties in regularly scheduled elections for all levels of government. These contests are hotly fought, the results are very close, and a rotation in power between the main political parties is common.
The KMT is currently the ruling party on Taiwan, but there is a good possibility that the 2016 Presidential elections will see a return to power of the DPP. If this occurs, then the DPP might well face a daunting set of circumstances: the PRC will have greatly increased its cross-Straits combat readiness, the United States will be facing a conundrum of whether to accept PRC hegemony over Taiwan or to risk war with Beijing, and Taiwan itself will have become much more integrated economically, socially, and culturally with the mainland. In this environment, it would seem reckless for the DPP to advance a strongly pro-independence policy. Some kind of mutually beneficial reconciliation of differences with the mainland would appear to be necessary for continued stability in the Straits region. If this were to be the DPP course of action, then party leaders could use the next four years (2012-2016) as an opportunity both to explain their policies to Beijing and Washington, and to try to reach an understanding with these capitals and other countries in the region on ways to preserve Taiwan's international status and to strengthen its economy.
What is occurring today on Taiwan is an evolving and maturing democratic political system in which both the KMT and DPP (originally far apart in their policies and vision of Taiwan's future) are finding common grounds based on national interests and the livelihood of the people. This type of political process is possible for mainland China as well, but its likelihood would be severely diminished if Taiwan's democratic experiment were to fail.
July 2, 2012