On January 11, 2020, incumbent President Tsai Ing-Wen was reelected as president of Taiwan. In a landslide victory, Tsai secured over 57% of the ballot with 8.2 million votes, the largest vote total for a candidate since the island held its first direct presidential election in 1996. Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), also won a majority of seats (61) in the Legislative Yuan.
Few would have expected these results less than a year ago. In November 2018, Tsai and the DPP suffered massive defeats in the midterm elections as domestic issues like necessary, but ill-received pension reforms and wage stagnation led to a decline in her popularity. In fact, in the months leading up to the election, Tsai’s opponent Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT) had a 20-point lead over her in the polls.
A number of factors, however, led to a striking reversal in Tsai’s election prospects. Since her rise to power in 2016, the People’s Republic of China has taken an increasingly hawkish and antagonistic approach toward Tsai and her government. Beijing has blocked Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and forums, reduced Taiwan’s international presence by limiting its diplomatic allies, terminated formal communications with the island and restricted the number of mainland tourists permitted to visit. The People’s Liberation Army has also increased its military presence near the island, twice sailing its newest aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait during this year’s election cycle.
There were also concerns the Chinese would attempt to influence the outcome of the election through online disinformation campaigns. Just months before the vote, a Chinese defector named Wang Liqiang revealed he helped fund pro-Beijing candidates in Taiwan and launch social media attacks with guidance from Chinese intelligence. Such revelations heightened fears among Taiwanese that their democracy was under attack.
The ongoing protests in Hong Kong, however, may have been the most important factor in helping Tsai secure a victory that seemed almost impossible nine months earlier. Beijing’s encroachment, and subsequent heavy-handed approach in dealing with protests in the semi-autonomous region, may have heightened the mistrust and fear among Taiwanese voters, who increasingly feel China’s “one country, two systems” model may not preserve the freedom and security Beijing assures it will maintain. Tsai’s forceful rejection of the model, which she has referred to as “a failure” and “not feasible,” along with her vocal support for the protesters in Hong Kong, won her praise with young voters in Taiwan and helped her gradually win support among the larger populace. In several interviews, Tsai urged Taiwan voters to “learn a lesson” from Hong Kong, noting that if Taiwan doesn’t “insist [on maintaining Taiwan’s independence], we’ll be losing everything we have now.”
All these factors resulted in record voter turnout, with a large number of Taiwanese living abroad flying home to cast their ballots, as Taiwan does not allow absentee voting. Taiwan’s Overseas Community Affairs Council reported over 5,000 overseas Taiwanese applied to vote in the election, more than twice the number of applications received in the previous election. Like many local Taiwanese, those living abroad saw this year’s election as a referendum on the island’s future relationship with the mainland.
Tsai’s resounding victory is a stark reminder to Beijing that it must be mindful of how domestic protests, and the government’s subsequent response, can shape attitudes in areas the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) identifies as critical to its mission of territorial integrity. Outwardly, however, it seems the results of the election have not changed the CCP’s stance on Taiwan. A spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry said, “Regardless of what happens in Taiwan, the basic facts won’t change: there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China.” The state run newspaper, China Daily, took a more forceful stance, writing that Tsai should “mend her ways” by “dialing down the confrontational approach she has taken toward Beijing, [which] would not only ease the cross-Straits tensions, which have been rapidly worsening over the past couple of years, but also prevent the island being recklessly used by Washington as a pawn in its games.”
The CCP has viewed reunification of the island with the mainland as, in the words of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, the “sacred mission and lofty goal of the entire Chinese people.” With the passage of time, however, such a feat is looking increasingly difficult. A survey in April 2019 found more than 73% of respondents did not desire reunification with mainland China. More importantly, the results of the election may be an indication of the distinct rise of Taiwanese identity, especially among the island’s younger citizens. Recent surveys indicate close to 57% of the island’s citizens identify themselves as solely Taiwanese with around 37% considering themselves both Taiwanese and Chinese. Only 4% identified solely as Chinese. While there is no denying that Taiwan and China share cultural roots, the democracy and freedoms enjoyed by the Taiwanese have created a unique way of life that is distinct from those on the mainland.
Ironically, pundits argue that if the CCP had not taken such a heavy-handed approach to Taiwan and its handling of the protests in Hong Kong had been more measured, Tsai’s victory, which the CCP deeply wanted to avoid, would have been less likely. The question now is not so much whether China must change its strategy to achieve its goal of reunification – past and current election results have made that clear – but rather what its new strategy will be. Will Beijing finally thaw political and economic isolation with the island and extend formal lines of communication with Taipei? Or will it view military options and more forceful actions as its only real solution to reunification? Only time will tell.
Photo credit: https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/13/asia/taiwan-china-election-tsai-beijing-intl-hnk/index.html