Saturday’s election victory for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was great, but the defeat for Beijing was greater, a grim lesson from the dictatorship next to it – however powerful or prosperous – has little appeal to the only part of “Greater China” that becomes a real voice about his own democratic future.
“When our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even louder,” Tsai said in her acceptance speech.
The impulse from Beijing to intimidate all challengers clearly had an adverse effect during the campaign. And yet it continues. Hours after Tsai’s victory, the Chinese state agency Xinhua accused its party, DPP, of using “dirty tactics, such as cheating.” It called her “selfish, greedy, and evil.”
During the campaign, China was accused of its own campaign of misinformation and dirty tricks in support of Tsai’s opponents.
More than eight million voters cast votes for Tsai – 57 percent of the votes – set a new record with its profit margin. Tsai’s biggest challenger, Kuomintang (KMT) leader Han Kuo-yu, won more than 2.5 million votes. His party argues for closer ties with China, especially for the economic advantage of Taiwan.
Especially for the youth, Tsai has strengthened its image as a progressive defender of liberties – strengthened by the support of its LGBT rights government last year. A careful campaign to cultivate that connection – including images of Tsai as an energetic anime character with her own game – brought a wave of voters for the first time, such as Cindy Pai.
“We are not afraid of China,” Pai said in Tsai’s victory. “Our president will protect us.”
Yet Tsai owes its success in many respects to Chinese leadership’s failure.
Just seven months ago, when Hong Kong awoke from Beijing’s efforts to control and limit democratic rights, it seemed that Tsai was on its way to defeat. Polls brought her about 15 points behind her rival, Han.
Tsai supporters applaud her during an election rally in Taipei. (Saša Petricic / CBC)
Then the voters started noticing the connection with Hong Kong.
“We saw China’s aggression,” said Gary Yen. “We saw what happened in Hong Kong, and people in Taiwan are worried whether Taiwan will be next.”
Yen is a Canadian, born in Taiwan, who flew in from Toronto because he thought it was important to support democracy here, one of the many who said they made the journey back because they felt that Taiwan was facing an existential crisis.
Relations with China dominated many discussions during the campaign, even on the street.
At a market in the technical center of Hsinchu, south of Taipei, a woman who sells pickled eggs said she is more concerned about the economy than about the Chinese threat to Taiwan. That immediately got her neighbor going and loudly argued that he was Taiwanese, not Chinese, and it was important to stand up against “bullying from China.”
The pressure from Beijing has indeed only increased since Tsai came to power.
China has long regarded Taiwan as a quirky province, eventually reunited with the mainland. In a heavy speech a year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he “will not promise not to use violence” to achieve that.
China has also imposed new economic restrictions, such as limiting tourism from the mainland. And it has convinced more countries in the Pacific, Central America and Africa to switch diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing. Only 15 countries now formally recognize Taiwan.
Another supporter of Tsai poses next to a cartoon character of her, in a photo booth on social media at her campaign office. (Saša Petricic / CBC)
According to the “one country, two systems” principle, Xi Taiwan has offered a similar status to Hong Kong in China: limited autonomy that allows the island in theory to retain part of its democratic rights.
Tsai rejected that, as did any other movement that would give Beijing direct power over Taiwan. But she has also been careful not to oppose Beijing by declaring formal independence.
With her current victory – and with so many who now see her as the island’s protector – political observers say that this could change in a second term.
The departing KMT legislator Jason Hsu said he expects Tsai to be under pressure “by shifting the envelope and demanding more Taiwan identity, or even pursuing a Taiwan independence agenda.”
That would almost certainly lead to a confrontation with Beijing, possibly in the United States. Washington is the strongest military backer and supplier of equipment in Taiwan.
Yet, J. Michael Cole claims that Taiwan has no other choice than to defend China, and that is important for the entire world. Cole is a Canadian, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute of Ottawa, who studied Taiwan and lived in Taipei for the past 14 years.
“I think if China gets what it wants about Taiwan,” he said, “it would certainly encourage the Chinese Communist Party. It won’t stop at Taiwan.”
Cole said that Western democracies should also prevent China from being intimidated beyond its borders, to show “that we are willing to do what it takes to defend ourselves”.