Tsai Ing-wen has won reelection as President of Taiwan on Saturday night by a landslide, defeating the populist challenge of her pro-China opponent in a campaign dominated by how to handle growing pressure from Beijing.
As of 8:30 p.m. local time, with the vote still being tallied, she had received a record 7.7 million votes. Han Kuo-yu, of the Kuomintang Party (KMT), had received about 5.2 million votes at that time, according to Bloomberg. Han told supporters Saturday that he called Tsai to congratulate her on her victory, the Associated Press reported.
It’s uncertain what Tsai’s victory means for cross-Strait ties. The self-governing island of 23 million—the world’s 21st biggest economy and an influential technology hub—is an unofficial U.S. ally and a potential flashpoint amid deteriorating relations between Beijing and Washington.
In an exclusive interview with TIME during the campaign, Tsai acknowledges that cross relations with China “have evolved into a regional and even a global issue” given Beijing’s “political expansionist ambitions.”
Tsai, a 63-year-old former lawyer and academic, is mistrusted by China’s ruling Communist Party, which considers Taiwan a wayward province to be politically reunited—by force if necessary. The sweet potato-shaped island has governed itself since effectively splitting from the mainland in 1949 following China’s civil war.
Although ties between the estranged neighbors have warmed over the past few decades, China has dialed up diplomatic and economic pressure since Tsai first came to power in 2016, as her Democratic Progressive Party (DDP) refuses to acknowledge that Taiwan and the mainland belong to “One China,” as the rival Nationalist Party maintains.
Over Tsai’s first term, China persuaded seven diplomatic allies of Taipei to instead recognize Beijing, so that only 15 remain today. In August, it also banned independent Chinese travelers from visiting Taiwan—a significant income stream for the vital tourism industry.
China’s strongman President Xi Jinping has called political reunification—an idea opposed by some 80% of Taiwan citizens—“the great trend of history,” and senior Chinese officials have threatened “reunifying Taiwan by force” with greater urgency over recent months.
As such, Tsai’s election triumph doesn’t solve the issue of Beijing’s aggression. Nevertheless, Tsai expressed confidence that despite dwindling official recognition on the world stage, support for Taiwan’s de facto independence remains robust.
“If a free, democratic Taiwan that stands for universal values were to face aggression from China, I feel sure that countries around would be highly concerned and hope very much that Taiwan gets the assistance it needs,” she told TIME in Taipei’s Presidential office building.
“I think the small and medium size countries in the region would also think that if it is Taiwan today, it might be them tomorrow.”
However, despite tightened economic screws, tourist arrivals actually grew 7% last year to a record 11.8 million — a sign that Tsai’s policy of prioritizing ties with other Asian nations maybe bearing fruit. Growth has also exceeded exceptions; in November, the government boosted its 2020 forecast from 2.58 to 2.72%. In addition, the Taiwanese dollar is currently at an 18-month high, 2019 was the best year for Taiwanese stocks in a decade and government bond yields are near all-time lows.
This no doubt helped propel Tsai’s resurgence after mid-term doldrums that saw her popularity slip to 30 points behind her Nationalist rival at one stage. This slide owed a lot to drastic and fiercely unpopular reforms of Taiwan’s generous state pension system, which led to disastrous local elections for her DPP in 2018.
Regarding the pension reform, “it was not something that we could avoid just because it was controversial,” presidential spokesman Alex Huang told TIME during the campaign, emphasizing how close the situation had come to catastrophe. “For any country, if the domestic pension system goes bankrupt it would have a bad effect on the entire country and economy, and you wouldn’t have seen the foreign investment we have been seeing in Taiwan.”
Aside from an economic bounce, Tsai also benefited from the turmoil embroiling Hong Kong, where for six months pro-democracy protesters have agitated for greater democracy. Last January, Jinping proposed the same system of semi-autonomy—known as “One Country, Two System”—that governs the former British colony as a possible route of reunification for Taiwan.
Tsai was swift to rebuff that suggestion—a decision vindicated by the tear gas and rubber bullets that have since engulfed the banking and trading entrepôt, boosting her popularity especially amongst younger Taiwanese.
For Shelley Rigger, an East Asia expert at Davidson College in North Carolina and author of Why Taiwan Matters, the Hong Kong protests reminded Taiwan voters, “We can’t be too complacent, and we don’t want to get back to a situation where our leaders are unwilling to stand up to Beijing.”
Tsai also had to fend off a deluge of fake news stories and misogynistic attacks—claiming that an unmarried, childless woman couldn’t possibly care about the next generation—during the campaign. Her administration and independent analysts maintain they stem from the Beijing authorities, though they deny any such interference.
—With reporting by Gladys Tsai/Taipei