Last week, Taiwan’s incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen recorded a landslide victory. Tsai won the second term with 57% of the popular vote. Tsai won with 8.2 million votes, 1.3 million more than in 2016, the last election. Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 61 of the 113 seats. Tsai’s rival Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT) racked up 39% of the popular vote. The KMT won 38 seats in the unicameral parliament.
In the middle of last year, Tsai had been practically written off, with a severe setback in the local elections. In fact, Tsai’s nomination for re-election in 2020 was doubtful. Instead, Han Kuo-yu who had won the mayoral elections in Kaohsiung was feted, riding the “Han” wave. How did Tsai upend the soothsayers?
China factor: Hong Kong
The answer to Tsai’s spectacular landslide victory lies across the straits from Taiwan—in China.
It would not entirely be an exaggeration to say that Tsai’s political star ascended with China’s serial descent into mis-steps in Hong Kong. For Taiwan, the China-Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) under the rubric of “One Country, Two Systems” is a closely watched model-in-progress. It is a model that China hopes will coax self-governing Taiwan—a country of 23 million back to the fold of the “motherland”.
That could be China’s wishful thinking. For China, 2019 unraveled with Hong Kong wracked by anti-China protests. One in seven in Hong Kong protested, uniting as one voice against an extradition bill whereby Hong Kongers could be sent to China for trial. The protests were interpreted as proof of failure, pitting the odds for a China-Taiwan reconciliation and rapprochement lower than before.
Taiwan’s older generation, the generation that went into exile in Taiwan after the civil war on the mainland (1949) has given way to a younger demographic profile (the median age is 40.9 years). Though not entirely China’s fault, Hong Kong has lost its legendary shine. Not only is Hong Kong’s economy floundering, but there have been unexpected glitches in the Mass Transit Railway (MTR). Tourism is struggling to stay afloat. Larger underlying issues such as the lack of universal suffrage, China’s political interference, the question of Hong Kong identity, Hong Kong being tailed into the Greater Bay Area (Guangdong-Macau-Hong Kong) and fears of
Hong Kong’s coming economic eclipse by Shenzhen, long swept under the carpet, are out at the forefront.
There have been allegations of China’s ‘black hand’ in Hong Kong too. Though China says quite the opposite, pinning the blame on western media’s ‘black hand’, allegations of ‘thugs for hire’ (Hong Kong triads) who attacked protestors, fake news, Chinese-media narrative and not least, Hong Kong police-force that seemed to be more on China’s side than the people of Hong Kong have turned the tide against China in Hong Kong—and by default, across the straits in Taiwan.
China factor: political optics
Tsai’s spectacular landslide victory can also be attributed to the political dispensation and optics of the two major political parties—the DPP and the KMT, especially their thinking on cross-strait relations.
For China, re-unification with Taiwan is of primacy. But the wind in Taiwan is of a complicated kind. The DPP has been widely viewed as openly wary of China and is independence-leaning. In comparison, the KMT, the nationalist party—the party that took the decision of coming to exile, is pragmatic. The KMT supports ‘one China’, but the interpretation is quite different from China’s. In recent years, the KMT has chosen to build economic and political bridges with China. The KMT’s stance can be explained in terms of seeking to boost Taiwan’s economic opportunities. China is Taiwan’s largest trade partner.
China Factor: campaign trail
The China factor echoed and reverberated through the campaign trail too. Tsai chose to ignore China’s ‘one China’ principle. Instead, Tsai chose to interpret the implications of Hong Kong for Taiwan. To reinforce the same, Tsai pitched herself as the candidate that would not buckle under China’s pressure—military or economic. Tsai also chose to frame Taiwan’s democracy as the model for Hong Kong—contrary to China’s ‘one-China’ model for Taiwan.
This stance helped Tsai, whose popularity partly stems from the passage of Taiwan’s same-sex marriage law, the first in Asia, in May 2019. Economically, in the face of trade war, Taiwan reaped the fallout of “trade diversion effects” which worked in Tsai’s favour. Global supply chains moved to Taiwan because of Taiwan’s mature technology industry. This in turn, unleashed a spillover effect in real estate and hospitality. Taiwan posted a 2.9% growth in the GDP in the third quarter of 2019.
In comparison, Tsai’s opponent Han “the commoner president” as he called himself, supported the broad rubric of ‘one China’ (but not ‘one country, two systems’ per se, this subject to dialogue) as core of cross-strait relations. Han sought to hitch Taiwan’s economic star to China. “The 21st century belongs to China,” said Han famously.
Han sought to replicate the populism that worked in his favour in the 2018 local (mayoral) election in Kaohsiung. This backfired. Given Hong Kong’s loss of identity and lack of suffrage, the China lodestar was at its unattractive best. Han’s populism backfired too, as local media unearthed stories that showed that Han was not the neighbor next door, but lived in a cushy neighbourhood, drove an expensive car and engaged in speculative real estate.
What made Han’s case worse were allegations that emanated from a Chinese spy Wang “William” Liqiang which surfaced in Australia. Wang, who has hogged headlines in Australia since last year indicated in a report to the Australian Intelligence Service Organisation (ASIO) that China had infiltrated media, grassroots organisations and temples to influence the elections in Han’s favour. One organisation in Kaohsiung “Wecare Kaohsiung” held a rally with demonstrators holding placards that said “Dismiss pro-communist mayor”. As these allegations swirled, news site Formosa (My-formosa.com) said that those who distrusted Han grew from 27% (in Feb 2019) to 57% (in Nov.2019). China responded saying that Wang was a fraudster, a fugitive on the run, convicted in 2016. The KMT and Han have denied the allegations.
Landslide for Tsai
The above were some of the factors that swayed the electorate. In her victory speech, Tsai noted that “peace, parity, democracy and dialogue” were the keys to stability with China. Xinhua has reported that Beijing was still ready to work with compatriots in Taiwan to “advance the process toward peaceful re-unification of the motherland”. But to China’s chagrin, 60 countries including the US, Japan and the UK have congratulated Tsai.
Reflecting the mood in the country, in interview with the BBC Tsai said “We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China, Taiwan.” Clearly, Taiwan’s electorate have spoken—not just on Hong Kong but also on China, and going forward, their own future.
The writer is Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.