BY ANASTASIA CHOO
Taiwanese voters re-elected incumbent president Tsai Ing-Wen in a landslide election on Saturday 11th January which translates as a sharp rebuke to Beijing and its attempts to intimidate Taiwan into China’s fold.
Tsai won over 8 million votes, or 57% of the vote share, leading her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to a crushing victory with a landslide in presidential and legislative elections. There are two people Tsai should thank above all others: Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive Carrie Lam and China’s President Xi Jinping.
A little more than a year ago, the prospect of Tsai’s re-election seemed unlikely after her DPP Party faced a trouncing in the November 2018 mid-term election. The result forced Tsai to resign as party chair as the DPP lost control of a number of key cities and districts. Tsai was polling at around 30% while her China friendly and main opponent, Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-Yu, was sitting above 50%.
President Xi Jinping must have been rubbing his hands with glee, as China had done all it could to put pressure on Tsai since she took office in 2016. In the hope of seeing her become Taiwan’s first one-term president, Beijing had poached Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, increased military exercises near its borders and pressured companies to list the self-ruled democracy as a part of China on their websites.
A one-time Japanese colony, Taiwan was taken over by the Republic of China’s KMT-led government in 1945 as it fled the Communists amid civil war, however, it has never been under the control of the Chinese Communist Party. For decades, China’s ruling Communist Party has hoped that tightening economic ties with the “Province of Taiwan” would convince the Taiwanese that they would be better off as part of the People’s Republic.
The Chinese Communist Party’s official line has been that it is progressing towards peaceful reunification and that the pro-independence agenda of Tsai’s DPP Party is losing support in Taiwan. Tsai has always been regarded with suspicion by Beijing as her DPP Party does not recognise the 1992 Consensus on One China. Beijing broke off ties with Taipei when she was first elected and attempted to strangle Taiwan’s economy through coercive measures, including limiting the number of Chinese tourists allowed to travel to the island.
In Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on the 40th anniversary of a key cross-strait policy statement, President Xi Jinping described reunification with Taiwan as unavoidable, warning that independence for the island would bring “profound disaster.” He warned that Beijing reserved the right to use military force to bring Taiwan into the fold and added that the issue like Hong Kong was an internal one:
“China must and will be united, which is an inevitable requirement for the historical rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the new era,”
“Taiwan’s unification with China is inevitable,”
“We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means,”
China would respect the Taiwanese people’s religious and legal freedoms in a unified “one country, two systems” framework, Mr. Xi said. But he warned that the profound political differences between Taiwan, a vibrant democracy, and China, a highly authoritarian government, were no excuse to reject unification.
Tsai gave a stern response to Xi’s threat of military action, rejected his proposed peaceful offer of “one country, two systems” and reminded Xi that he needed to respect the commitment of 23 million Taiwanese to freedom and democracy.
Against the backdrop of Xi’s military threats, Tsai successfully re-framed the 2020 election as a vote to save Taiwan from being annexed by China and islanders from losing their ability to identify themselves as Taiwanese. It was the emergence of Taiwan’s relationship with China as the central issue in this campaign that allowed Tsai to revive her flagging fortunes.
Tsai’s popularity began to surge around mid-June last year when nearby Hong Kong descended into political chaos under the inept Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s most despised Chief Executive since reunification with China. Lam was the leader who single-handedly caused the city’s worst political disaster ever with her now withdrawn Extradition Bill, resulting in deaths, injuries, nearly 7000 arrests, hatred between the public and the police, and a deeply polarised society.
The Taiwanese watched events unfold in Hong Kong with horror as Beijing responded to the protests with force and violence, shattering any belief that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model by which Hong Kong is governed could be used to incorporate Taiwan into the Chinese state as Xi had proposed.
Lam’s failure to read the will of the people of Hong Kong turned into political capital for Tsai, in Taiwan. Tsai ran her election campaign centred around sovereignty and democracy, she was able to highlight that “one country, two systems” had clearly failed; and that Hong Kong far from being a model for Taiwan represented a dire warning. Her messaging played on Taiwanese fears of being absorbed into an increasingly totalitarian People’s Republic of China:
“Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan” was Tsai’s warning to the Taiwanese people, as she contrasted her tough stance to her opponent Han’s appeasement of Beijing.
“The young people of Hong Kong have demonstrated with their lives, blood and tears that the One Country, Two Systems framework does not work,” said Tsai at her final campaign rally.
“Tomorrow will be our turn to show the people of Hong Kong that the values of freedom and democracy will conquer all difficulties.”
“Choosing Tsai Ing-wen… means we choose our future and choose to stand with democracy and stand with freedom,” Tsai told reporters the day before the country went to the polls.
Tsai has consistently supported the Hong Kong Protests even allowing protesters fleeing Hong Kong to extend their temporary stays in Taiwan, even though local law does not allow them to apply for asylum. The Taiwanese showed their support for Hong Kong at Tsai’s rally by chanting slogans including “restore Hong Kong, revolution of our times.”
The Hong Kong protests and China’s growing threats against both Taiwan and Hong Kong compelled many Taiwanese abroad to return home to vote with one of the highest voter turnouts since 2008, of 74.9%. China’s past four years of ramped-up economic, military and diplomatic pressure on the self-ruled island failed to scare voters into supporting Tsai’s opposition. Xi’s strong-arm tactics backfired, voters flocked to Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party fuelled in part by China’s hard-line response to months of huge and violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
The electorate went for a president who was steadfast in her support of the Hong Kong protests and in her rejection of closer ties with China at the expense of Taiwan’s freedom, unlike Tsai’s opponent Han Kuo-Yu of the KMT Party, who pushed for closer ties, even though China cut off ties with Taipei in 2016.
Therefore, Tsai should thank China’s President Xi Jinping and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam for her victory, as the Hong Kong governments unresponsiveness to protest demands, aggressive policing tarnished the “one country, two systems” model China had hoped Taiwan could accept.
The Chinese Communist Party would do well to reflect on the election result in Taiwan and recent District Councillor elections in Hong Kong whereby voters overwhelmingly rejected Carrie Lam’s pro-establishment allies and delivered an unprecedented landslide for Pro-Democracy candidates; a powerful show of solidarity with the city’s protest movement and rebuke to the government and CCP over its handling of the crisis.
Both Taiwan and Hong Kong illustrate that democratic societies are hard to control with an authoritarian mind-set, Beijing needs to rethink its strategy.