“Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our free democratic way of life and how much we cherish our nation,” Tsai said in her victory speech, as she warned China to stay out of the island’s affairs: “I also hope that the Beijing authorities understand that democratic Taiwan, and our democratically elected government, will not concede to threats and intimidation.”
China always hangs over Taiwan’s elections. Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, was established in 1949 when the Chinese nationalists fled after the Communist Party took control in mainland China. It wasn’t always a democracy; Taiwan was ruled by one party (the Kuomintang) until democratic reforms took hold in the 1980s, and it’s had direct presidential elections since 1996.
When it comes to mainland China and Taiwan, as Vox’s Jennifer Williams has explained:
The two territories have been governed separately ever since, with both governments claiming to be the legitimate representative of “One China” — that is, China and Taiwan.”
Most countries, including the US, only have formal diplomatic relations with mainland China and don’t officially recognize the government in Taiwan …
Just a handful of countries have formal ties with Taiwan, but its democratic rule and de facto independence remain a sore spot for Beijing, which wants to exert its influence there and, ultimately, bring the island back under its control.
And during this year’s elections, Beijing has been even harder to ignore. Chinese President Xi Jinping has been explicit that he wants to reunify Taiwan and mainland China, and he appears willing to use force to do so. That could establish a “one country, two systems” setup that currently governs its relationship with Hong Kong. For many Taiwanese, six months of massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have shown just what a bad deal that would be, and in Saturday’s election, they signaled they want a leader who will fight efforts to bring Taiwan under Beijing’s rule.
“I want to once again call upon Beijing authorities to remind them that peace, clarity, democracy and dialogue are key to positive cross-strait interactions and long-term development,” Tsai said Saturday. “Peace means that China must abandon threats of force against Taiwan.”
How China — and Hong Kong — play into Taiwan’s elections
Tsai, the incumbent Taiwanese president, is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors an independent Taiwan. She was first elected in 2016, along with a majority in Taiwan’s legislature, the Legislative Yuan.
Her tenure faced some troubles early on. In 2018, the DPP suffered big defeats in local elections, which were seen as a rebuke of her leadership. Tsai was forced to resign as leader of the party, and the calls quickly began for her not to seek reelection in 2020.
But Tsai’s candidacy surged in recent months, and her tough line against China and unequivocal embrace of the protesters in Hong Kong likely has a lot to do with it. Many Taiwanese who worry about Chinese encroachment see Tsai (who also has cultivated pretty strong ties with the US) as the better candidate to protect Taiwan from Beijing’s heavy hand. This is especially true of Taiwan’s younger voters, who’ve grown up with Taiwan as a democracy.
Tsai played this up as a campaign issue, too, including running ads that compare normal daily life in Taiwan with the unrest in Hong Kong.
“Part of it [is an] effort by Tsai and by her party to show that she is the one that can protect Taiwan’s sovereignty and security,” Bonnie Glaser, the China Power Project director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told me.
She added that the Hong Kong protests wouldn’t be as large an issue if there wasn’t an upcoming election, mostly because “people in Taiwan don’t look to Hong Kong as their future. They never have.”
In other words, even voters who may see the benefit in closer ties between Taiwan and China never envisioned Taiwan becoming a vassal state, even before the protests.
This still created a problem for Tsai’s opponent, Han Kuo-yu, who represents the Kuomintang Party (KMT). Han favors closer ties economic and cultural ties with Beijing, seeing a tighter relationship with the mainland as better securing Taiwan’s economy in the long term.
To be clear, Han himself opposes a Hong Kong model for Taiwan. He has explicitly said Taiwan would enter a “one country, two systems” arrangement with China “over my dead body.”
But Han, who won a key mayoral election in a DPP stronghold in 2018, has since struggled because he’s still seen as being too friendly toward Beijing at a time when the Hong Kong protests make that position look a lot less tenable.
Han was also implicated in a scandal this fall, when a man who claimed to be a Chinese intelligence operative told Australian authorities that Beijing had been meddling in elections in Hong Kong and Taiwan, including by spreading disinformation. This alleged operative also claimed that he had poured about $2 million directly into Han’s 2018 mayoral campaign, which Han has denied.
Beijing preferred Han over Tsai (there’s one other candidate running, but these are the main two) and that’s also increased popular skepticism of him. And there’s little doubt that China again tried to interfere in Taiwan’s vote, using tools to spread fake news and disinformation.
China has moved in more direct ways to put pressure on Tsai, including conducting military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. The question is whether such pressure will intensify now that Tsai has won reelection.
At present, it’s not yet clear if Tsai will come to office with a resounding mandate. Though she staked out a large lead in the polls, the results in the Legislative Yuan could be a little more interesting. If Tsai’s party retains its majority, that will go a long way to determining how effective she can be in implementing her agenda — and would undoubtedly be a blow to Beijing.
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