2020 is the year of elections. One of the most pivotal elections will take place on January 11, when Taiwan will have its general election, and the Taiwanese will cast votes for president, vice president, and their legislature. This election is pivotal, as it will take place as the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is ongoing, and the election outcome will have a profound effect on foreign policy strategies and relationships between Washington, Beijing, and Taipei throughout 2020 and beyond.
Leading the poll is Taiwan’s fourth democratically elected and first female president, Tsai Ing-wen. Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) aspires for the eventual independence of Taiwan, an idea long abhorred by Beijing authorities. The relationship between Taipei and Beijing has chilled since her election.
Her main opponent is Han Kuo-yu of the opposition Kuomingtan (KMT), also known as the Nationalist Party. He favors an eventual reunification with mainland China, so it’s not difficult to see why Beijing favors Han.
It seemed that Beijing was likely to get its wish when Tsia entered 2019 with an approval rating in the low 20s, after her pro-independent Democratic Progress Party suffered a huge defeat in the 2018 local elections. She was forced to resign from DPP’s chair position. Very few had expected Tsai to seek her party’s presidential nomination at the start of 2019. However, a recent poll shows that Tsai retains at least a 20-point lead over Han.
The Taiwanese Are Watching Hong Kong
There are three contributing factors to Tsai’s drastic rebound within a year. The first is Hong Kong. In one of his speeches in January, 2019, Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping emphasized that Taiwan “must and will be” unified with China, and that the “one country, two systems” model seen in Hong Kong and Macau is the only peaceful means to “accommodate Taiwan’s reality and safeguard the interests and benefits of Taiwan compatriots.” Xi backed his “peace” offering with a warning, stating that any declaration of independence would cause military attack from the mainland.
Tsai rebuked Xi’s insistence of imposing the “one country, two systems” model on Taiwan. She pointed to the Hong Kongers’ deteriorating political freedom and judicial independence as evidence that such model has been a failure and would destroy the Taiwan’s democracy. More and more Taiwanese came to agree with Tsai after witnessing Hong Kongers’ more than six-month-long pro-democracy protests, Hong Kong police’s brutal attacks against protestors, and Hong Kong authorities’ complete kowtowing to Beijing.
Taiwan’s human rights organizations, as well as other civic groups, have gone to Hong Kong to support the pro-democracy movement. Some of Hong Kong’s well-known political dissidents of Beijing, including Lam Wing-Kee, a book seller who was illegally abducted by Beijing in 2015 for trumped up charges, moved to Taiwan because they no longer felt safe in Hong Kong. Throughout Hong Kong’s struggle for freedom and liberty, Taiwan has had front-row seats.
Tsai seized the opportunity and expressed to her countrymen, “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 took a further step to nominate a fellow pro-independence politician, William Lai, as her running mate.
Each time Beijing has issued a stern demand calling for Hong Kong authorities to crack down on Hong Kong rioters, each time an image of Hong Kong police indiscriminately attacking unarmed protestors, first aid volunteers, and journalists has gone viral, Tsai’s approval rating jumps up as more Taiwanese join her in rejecting the “one country, two systems” model, which they view as a trap rather than a solution. They appreciate a candidate who isn’t afraid of standing up to China to preserve Taiwan’s hard-won democracy.
The Trade War Has Benefitted Taiwan
The second contributory factor to Tsai’s rising popularity is the U.S-China trade war. The rising tension, created by more than 20 months of trade war between the world’s two largest economies, has generated a great deal of uncertainty in global economy. Manufacturers have been shifting production out of China to avoid the 25 percent U.S. tariffs imposed on many Chinese goods. According to The Wall Street Journal, Taiwan is one of the biggest beneficiaries of this global supply chain shift.
Some global manufacturers, including the largest Taiwanese firms that moved productions to mainland China in the past three decades, chose to relocate to Taiwan in light of the trade war because of its highly educated yet affordable labor force, a free market economy, a stable democracy, and the enforcement of the rule of law.
Even though the United States and China reached a Phase I trade deal in late 2019, these manufacturers do not plan to move back to China. Consequently, Taiwan saw an increase in foreign direct investment, and experienced strong economic growth in 2019, better than some of its neighboring countries such as Singapore and South Korea. A strong economy always bodes well for an incumbent.
The economic growth in Taiwan is especially impressive, given the travel ban Beijing had issued last summer, which forbid all individual mainland tourists from traveling to the island. Since tourism is one of the biggest industries in Taiwan, this travel ban was projected to result in 700,000 fewer mainland tourists in just six months, and cost Taiwan a staggering $900.5 million.
Beijing took this measure as an overt attempt to extract enough economic distress to either force Tsai back to the negotiation table under Beijing’s terms, or cost her re-election. However, Taiwan’s government officials reported that Taiwan still received a record number of tourists in 2019, despite falling numbers of tourists from mainland China. China’s economic intimation was a clear failure.
Disclosures that China Meddles in Taiwan’s Elections
The third contributing factor to Tsai’s rising popularity is the recent revelation from Wang “William” Liqiang, a self-identified Chinese spy who is currently seeking political asylum in Australia. Wang disclosed that he was personally involved in meddling with Taiwan’s 2018 election through “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 funneled $2.8 million on behalf of Beijing to help secure Han Kuo-yu of the KMT party, who’s favored by Beijing for his pro-reunification stance, to win the race of Kaohsiung mayoral election in 2018, on which the opposing DPP party has had a stronghold for more than two decades.
While Taiwanese authorities are well aware that Beijing has a long history of meddling with Taiwan’s politics, Wang’s confession revealed further proof that Taiwan must take Beijing’s political interference seriously. Taipei was already previously suspicious of the Democratic Progressive Party’s landslide loss in local elections in 2018, and now, Tsai’s administration believes Beijing’s interference is responsible for their big loss.
Russell Hsiao, executive director of the Global Taiwan Institute, a Washington-based think tank, confirmed that “there have already been a number of high-profile disclosures made by intelligence sources in Taipei and by US officials in the last year (2018), that have pointed to Beijing’s ongoing activities on this front as well as its intent to interfere in Taiwan’s political process.”
KMT’s Han is currently challenging Tsai for the presidential race. Han has denied ever receiving any donations from Beijing. However, he acknowledges that it was no secret that Beijing “had been trying to influence Taiwan’s elections for years.” The “spygate” has cast a long shadow over his candidacy, which explains why he is trailing Tsai in the polls.
China Doubles Down on Pressure Tactics
Beijing regards Taiwan as a province, and has been aggressively pushing for reunification under Xi. Sensing that Han may lose the presidential election in the near future, Beijing resorted to another round of its “carrot and stick” approach.
On one hand, China announced ”a package of incentives in a bid to further open Chinese markets access to Taiwanese companies…also offered to help train Taiwanese athletes in China, among other moves aimed at showing that mainland Chinese and Taiwanese were treated equally.” On the other hand, Beijing sent its new aircraft carrier to sail through the Taiwan strait right after Christmas. Such a show of force is sending an unmistakable message to intimidate the Taiwanese to not vote for Tsai, and to warn Tsai that Beijing will attack if she takes steps to declare Taiwan’s independence should she win the election.
For the Taiwanese, reelecting Tsai will exemplify their determination to chart their own destiny as a democracy, and the refusal to be intimidated by the authoritarian Beijing. The upcoming election is important not only to the Taiwanese, but to individuals all over the world who aspire for freedom and liberty.
Beijing has long insisted that the Chinese people may only enjoy stability and prosperity under the Communist Party’s totalitarian rule. Taiwan, which has been self-governing since 1949 with a standing army, free elections, and thriving economy, is living and breathing proof that discredits Beijing’s claim. This island of 24 million people is the world’s 22nd-largest economy, and the United States’ 11th-largest trading partner.
As Christian Whiton, a former U.S. diplomat, wrote in The National Interest, Taiwan “represents the future everyone should want for China—a future that would be marked by collaboration rather than confrontation with America and the rest of the free world.” Taiwan’s strategic location in the South China Sea, the most contested water in the world, also means that a secured and free Taiwan is the best asset a free world could hope for in its strategic competition with an ever-more assertive China, who seeks to break the liberal world order and turn the South China Sea into its own lake. We should all pay attention to Taiwan’s upcoming election, and pray that liberty and democracy win.