On January 11, Taiwan held its presidential elections in which the incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the nationalist Democratic Progressive Party, was re-elected. Tsai’s win against her opponent Han Kuo-yu, a member of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party was predicted, given the circumstances of Beijing’s pressure campaign and the stakes involving the one-China unification policy. What was not expected, however, was the magnitude of her landslide victory: with about 8.2 million votes behind her, Ms. Tsai received the most significant number of votes for a candidate since 1996. As China is attempting to widen its influence abroad, this election showed the world that the Taiwanese people reject the idea of reunification with their mainland counterparts.
Up until recently, it was predicted that Ms. Tsai would not have had an easy time securing the presidency after her party suffered many humiliating defeats in local elections in 2018. However, focusing her campaign on defending Taiwan’s democracy from China’s authoritarian rule, she seems to have bounced back stronger than ever. Many say that the ongoing Hong Kong protests may have had a hand in helping her campaign as the protests show another city trying to untangle itself from Chinese jurisdiction.
On the other side of the election was Mr. Han, the recently elected mayor of Kaohsiung who based his campaign on the message of opening Taiwanese relations with China. Widely known for his fiery rhetoric, appeal to nostalgia, and ability to electrify crowds, he was once seen as a formidable opponent for Ms. Tsai. However, his campaign faltered as he backed himself into a corner defending China’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Furthermore, he lacked support from a divided Kuomintang party: while the Democratic Progressive Party has been wholeheartedly behind Ms. Tsai, the KMT party was not fully unified as there were divides between the elites and supporters of Mr. Han.
The United States’ souring relationship with Beijing also affected this election. For one, the trade war between the two nations encouraged many businesses to relocate from China, increasing the reshoring of investment in Taiwan. In addition, the rivalry between the two superpowers has pushed the US to increasingly favor Taiwan, exemplified when the US promised Taiwan $2 billion of US arms. The United States’ favoritism with Taiwan has shown them that they have a real opportunity to distance themselves from China by embracing the US. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even publicly congratulated Ms. Tsai on her election, stating, “Taiwan once again demonstrates the strength of its robust democratic system.”
Leading up to the election, Beijing attempted to win over Taiwanese voters through various economic incentives. For example, they offered many scholarships and other treatments to many young Taiwanese people; however, according to the election, this effort proved itself to be fruitless as many still voted for Ms. Tsai. Besides giving incentives to the Taiwanese people to vote for Mr. Han, they also executed a pressure campaign by driving carriers through the Taiwanese strait, having military drills near Taiwan, and by waging a disinformation campaign against Tsai. At the end of the day, Beijing’s efforts to intimidate or incentivize Taiwan could not distract from the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. The protests showed the Taiwanese first-hand evidence of the flaws in Beijing’s idea and implementation of the “one country, two systems” policy. Although China has repeatedly offered their hand to Taiwan with the promise of a “one country, two systems” policy, this election shows that the Taiwanese people have soundly rejected such a proposal, preferring to stay independent. Yet, the results of this election do not guarantee a smooth-sailing future for Taiwan. China is expected to step up its pressure campaign and will not give up on having Taiwan under its direct influence — President Xi Jinping has even said that Chinese unification with Taiwan is “inevitable.” But in the meantime, Taiwan has told China very publicly what they think: stay away.