On Saturday, Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive party (DPP), won re-election in a landslide victory that dealt a decisive blow to Beijing’s aggressive efforts to dictate Taiwanese politics.
The first thing to note about Tsai’s victory is that it had a lot to do with the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong. At the beginning of 2019, Tsai had an approval rating in the low 20s. The pro-reunification Nationalist Party (KMT) had won 2018’s local elections, handing the DPP a huge defeat on the strength of voters’ economic concerns. Many Taiwanese weren’t pleased with an economy slowed by Beijing’s coercive measures. China’s autocratic head of state, Xi Jinping, sees Tsai’s pro-independence political stand as the ultimate threat to his aim of reunification with Taiwan and had decided to use China’s economic power to teach her a lesson. Beijing had issued a travel ban in 2018 forbidding mainland tourists from traveling to the island. Since tourism is one of the biggest industries in Taiwan, the ban was projected to result in 700,000 fewer mainland tourists in just six months, costing Taiwan a staggering $900.5 million. Voters backed the KMT later the same year, and Tsai was forced to resign from her position as DPP chair. With a dangerously low approval rating and no political momentum to speak of, Tsai looked to be as good as dead politically this time last year.
Then, a few months later, protests erupted in Hong Kong. For years, Beijing has pointed to Hong Kong as a “successful” example of the “One Country, Two Systems” framework and tried to persuade Taiwan to embrace the same model as the only peaceful means of reunification with the mainland. But when millions of Hong Kongers began to protest a Beijing-backed extradition bill that would have intruded on Hong Kong’s judicial independence and Hong Kongers’ political freedom, the reverberations were felt in Taiwan. Authorities botched their handling of the initial protests, allowing them to evolve into a pro-democracy movement. Protesters began to demand universal suffrage and other reforms. Hong Kong police’s brutal attacks against protesters and city officials’ complete capitulation to Beijing did not go unnoticed by Taiwanese voters.
Seizing on the resulting fears that reunification would turn Taiwan into another Hong Kong, Tsai framed her reelection as the only way to preserve and protect Taiwan’s hard-won democracy. “As long as I am here, I will stand firm to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty. As long as I am here, you would not have to fear, because we will not become another Hong Kong,” she promised, and voters responded. One voter who traveled back to Taiwan to cast her vote told a South China Morning Post reporter, “It is pathetic to see Hong Kong losing its freedoms and democracy. It reminds me that I have to cherish my vote, and safeguard democracy in Taiwan.” She’s not alone. Thousands of overseas Taiwanese who made the trip to Taiwan to cast their votes last weekend shared her concerns and helped propel Tsai to victory: In the end, the incumbent collected 57 percent of the ballots cast, or 8.17 million votes, a record in Taiwan’s history, while Beijing’s preferred candidate, the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu, took only 39 percent. (A third-party candidate took the rest.)
The second thing to note about Tsai’s landslide is that it provides further evidence of the failure of Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan. Beijing regards Taiwan as a province and has been trying to reassert control over the island since 1949. Before Taiwan held its first democratic election in 1996, Beijing viewed the election as a significant step toward Taiwanese independence and threatened to use force to stop it. Its People’s Liberation Army fired missiles at the island as a warning. The election only went ahead after the U.S. intervened to safeguard it. After that, Beijing tried to win Taiwan over by deepening economic ties with the island. According to a Rand Corporation report, Beijing has openly proclaimed that the goals of this approach include encouraging “peaceful reunification” and “using business to pressure politicians.”
Xi continues to use this “carrot and stick” approach to Taiwan today, in increasingly desperate attempts to secure reunification as a key part of his political legacy. While building economic ties with Taiwan, Beijing has engaged in relentless efforts to isolate the island from the rest of the world. During Tsai’s first term, seven small nations cut their diplomatic ties with Taiwan after Beijing lured them away with economic incentives. In late November 2019, Wang “William” Liqiang, a self-identified Chinese spy who is currently seeking political asylum in Australia, claimed that he was personally involved in China’s efforts to meddle in Taiwan’s 2018 election by “creating more than 20 media and internet companies to launch ‘targeted attacks,’ and spending roughly $200 million over an unspecified period to invest in television stations in Taiwan.” Wang also alleged that he’d funneled $2.8 million on behalf of Beijing to help the KMT’s Han, a favorite of Beijing for his pro-reunification stance, win the 2018 Kaohsiung mayoral election.
The ruling DPP took Wang’s allegations seriously and pushed through an anti-infiltration law to counter Beijing’s political meddling. KMT’s Han denied that he’d received any financial assistance from Beijing, but Wang’s allegations cast a long shadow on his effort to unseat Tsai that he couldn’t shake off. Many voters worried that a vote for Han would allow Beijing to wield more power to suppress Taiwan’s democracy. Some even said that a vote for Han would be a vote for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
In the run-up to Saturday’s vote, Xi unveiled a wide range of measures to “further promote economic and cultural exchanges and cooperation between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.” Shortly after announcing these measures, with under two weeks to go before the election, he sent a new Chinese aircraft carrier to sail through the Taiwan Strait in hopes of intimidating voters inclined to back Tsai, and of warning Tsai that Beijing would attack if she took steps to declare Taiwan’s independence should she win.
Despite China’s repeated military and economic threats and its efforts to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world, Taiwanese handed Tsai a huge victory and dealt a serious blow to Xi’s dreams of reunification. On Saturday, China’s aggressive stance toward Taiwan was proven a failure.
The third thing to note about Saturday’s result is that Chinese culture and democracy are in no way inherently incompatible. This may seem to be an odd point to Westerners, but Beijing has long insisted democracy is a Western political model that can’t be translated to Chinese culture. PRC officials argued that Chinese people could only enjoy peace, prosperity, and stability by accepting the Communist Party’s authoritarian rule. But in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, that has been revealed as a lie. South China Morning Post reports that some mainland Chinese, defying Beijing’s travel ban, traveled to Taiwan last week to witness history. One of them said she was envious of Taiwanese getting to vote for their leaders directly, something that has never happened in Communist China. Contra the party line, Chinese people, like everyone else on this planet, crave the right to self-determination, to chart their own destiny and choose their own form of government.
Upon winning her election, Tsai called on Beijing to join her to “construct sustainable and healthy ways of engagement,” in a sign that she is willing to talk as long as Beijing respects Taiwan’s sovereignty and freedoms. Given that Beijing’s policies have failed spectacularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Xi would do well to listen to what she has to say.