Tai­wan’s pres­i­dent de­feats pro-Bei­jing ri­val in a land­slide

With eye on Hong Kong, vot­ers firmly re­ject ab­sorp­tion by China

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY ANNA FI­FIELD anna.fi­[email protected]­post.com Tif­fany Le­ung con­trib­uted to this re­port.

taipei, tai­wan — Tai­wanese vot­ers demon­strated their over­whelm­ing de­sire to dis­tance them­selves from China and to re­ject its pro­posal of liv­ing un­der a Hong Kong-style “one coun­try, two sys­tems” ar­range­ment, re­turn­ing both the pres­i­dency and the leg­is­la­ture to the in­de­pen­dence-lean­ing Demo­cratic Pro­gres­sive Party.

Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen won a re­sound­ing re­elec­tion, tak­ing 57 per­cent of the vote in a three­way race and a record 8 mil­lion votes, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­tral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion. Her party also re­tains con­trol of the Leg­isla­tive Yuan, en­abling her to press ahead with her re­form agenda and cater to the gen­er­a­tion of Tai­wanese who say they were “born in­de­pen­dent.”

The strength of Tsai’s vic­tory par­tic­u­larly un­der­scores Tai­wanese vot­ers’ an­tipa­thy to­ward China and the Com­mu­nist Party’s de­signs on ab­sorb­ing the self-ruled is­land of 23 mil­lion peo­ple.

“The re­sults of this elec­tion carry an added sig­nif­i­cance,” a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally re­strained Tsai told re­porters here af­ter her land­slide win. “They have shown that when our sovereignt­y is threat­ened, the Tai­wanese peo­ple will shout our de­ter­mi­na­tion even more loudly back.”

In­deed, the out­come is a sting­ing re­buke to the Com­mu­nist Party and its leader, Xi Jin­ping, who has re­fused to rule out try­ing to take con­trol of Tai­wan by force, and it will prob­a­bly lead to greater ag­gres­sion from Bei­jing.

China is al­ways an is­sue in Tai­wanese elec­tions, but it has been par­tic­u­larly prom­i­nent this time around be­cause of the events in Hong Kong over the past six months.

Hong Kongers, who are sup­posed to en­joy a de­gree of au­ton­omy un­der a “one coun­try, two sys­tems” frame­work agreed when the ter­ri­tory re­turned to Chi­nese con­trol in 1997, have been protest­ing re­lent­lessly against Bei­jing’s in­creas­ing ero­sion of their free­doms, to no avail.

This frame­work, though im­ple­mented in Hong Kong and Ma­cao, was de­signed with Tai­wan in mind. The Com­mu­nist Party, es­pe­cially un­der Xi’s lead­er­ship, har­bors a dream of in­cor­po­rat­ing Tai­wan into its Peo­ple’s Re­pub­lic, even though Tai­wan has never been a part of that state.

Tech­ni­cally, it has ex­isted in a kind of limbo ever since the Com­mu­nists took con­trol of China and the na­tion­al­ists from the Kuom­intang (KMT) fled to the is­land, 100 miles off China’s south­east coast, in 1949.

But in re­al­ity, it has be­come a dy­namic and plu­ral­is­tic so­ci­ety, boast­ing the world’s first trans­gen­der cabi­net min­is­ter and last year be­com­ing the first in the re­gion to le­gal­ize same-sex mar­riage, with its own sense of na­tional iden­tity.

Polls show that more than half of ci­ti­zens iden­tify only as “Tai­wanese,” con­cen­trated in the younger gen­er­a­tions, while most of the re­main­der call them­selves both Tai­wanese and Chi­nese.

“This elec­tion was about na­tional iden­tity and sovereignt­y, so it re­flects the de­mo­graph­ics of Tai­wan,” said Nathan Batto, a re­searcher at the Academia Sinica think tank in Taipei.

Through­out the cam­paign, Tsai has held up the events in Hong Kong as a har­bin­ger of what would hap­pen to Tai­wan if it were to agree to such an ar­range­ment, mo­bi­liz­ing the elec­torate with the warning: “Hong Kong to­day, Tai­wan to­mor­row.”

“We re­ject the ‘one coun­try, two sys­tems’ pro­posed by Xi Jin­ping,” Tsai told re­porters Satur­day night be­fore head­ing to a huge cel­e­bra­tion rally in cen­tral Taipei. “We value the lifestyle of democ­racy, and we de­fend our sovereignt­y.”

Han Kuo-yu, the can­di­date for the Bei­jing-friendly KMT, who ran a Trump-style cam­paign of an­gry pop­ulism, won 38.5 per­cent of the vote.

The KMT, which has tra­di­tion­ally fa­vored much closer ties with China, will have to re­flect on its losses, Batto said. “They might have to ask them­selves whether their strat­egy for deal­ing with China is still ap­pro­pri­ate and whether they were right to se­lect such a pop­ulist. They had is­sues in terms of sub­stance and pack­ag­ing.”

Even for the dy­namic democ­racy that is Tai­wan — com­plete with can­di­dates in Ja­panese anime cos­tume and a death-metal band front­man — this elec­tion was elec­tri­fied.

That was partly be­cause of the Hong Kong fac­tor but also be­cause of clear signs that China was try­ing to spread fake news through so­cial me­dia and tilt the cov­er­age in tra­di­tional me­dia with strong ties to the main­land. The dis­in­for­ma­tion con­tin­ued on elec­tion day, with mes­sages cir­cu­lat­ing on so­cial me­dia telling peo­ple not to come out to vote be­cause of the risk of a pneu­mo­ni­a­like virus from China.

Chi­nese ef­forts to muddy the wa­ters in Tai­wan were cred­ited with pro­pel­ling the KMT to a huge vic­tory in lo­cal elec­tions at the end of 2018, with vot­ers skew­ing older. But China’s ef­forts may have back­fired spec­tac­u­larly by en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to vote — and not for the KMT.

Turnout was high, at al­most 74 per­cent. Lines were so long that Tsai had to wait 20 min­utes to vote at a Taipei el­e­men­tary school, while her pre­de­ces­sor as pres­i­dent, Ma Ying-jeou, waited for 30 min­utes. Lo­cal tele­vi­sion showed one man from the out­ly­ing is­land of Tainan driv­ing his boat 60 miles to his polling sta­tion.

And be­cause there is no ab­sen­tee vot­ing in Tai­wan, over­seas Tai­wanese re­turned in droves to cast bal­lots. The num­ber of over­seas Tai­wanese who reg­is­tered to vote Satur­day was more than dou­ble the num­ber in the 2016 elec­tions.

The cau­tion­ary tale of Hong Kong en­cour­aged many young Tai­wanese to vote.

“The re­sult shows our re­sis­tance to­wards the main­land, be­cause most of us didn’t choose the KMT,” said Cindy Lin, who took the day off work to vote for Tsai and at­tend Satur­day night’s vic­tory rally. “We stand with Hong Kong. I have never thought that I was Chi­nese.”

The big ques­tion now is how China re­acts to Tsai’s vic­tory and the con­tin­ued dom­i­nance of the DPP.

Since Tsai’s elec­tion in 2016, Bei­jing has sys­tem­at­i­cally sought to iso­late and con­strain Tai­wan by peel­ing off its di­plo­matic part­ners

— only 15 small coun­tries now rec­og­nize Tai­wan — and hav­ing it shut out of in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions like the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion and cli­mate talks.

Bei­jing has also sought to hurt Tai­wan eco­nom­i­cally, most re­cently ban­ning Chi­nese tourists from trav­el­ing to the is­land in­de­pen­dently, and has pun­ished com­pa­nies that have sug­gested Tai­wan might be an in­de­pen­dent coun­try.

That strat­egy will prob­a­bly con­tinue, an­a­lysts say.

In her re­marks Satur­day night, Tsai re­peat­edly em­pha­sized her “com­mit­ment to peace­ful, sta­ble cross-strait re­la­tions” based on par­ity be­tween the two sides and di­a­logue.

There was no im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion from Bei­jing, but the Global Times news­pa­per, which of­ten re­flects the for­eign pol­icy think­ing of the Com­mu­nist Party, said Tsai’s re­elec­tion showed the need to “ex­pe­dite re­uni­fi­ca­tion.”

“The re­sult shows our re­sis­tance to­wards the main­land . . . . I have never thought that I was Chi­nese.” Cindy Lin, voter


Pres­i­dent Tsai Ing-wen waves af­ter win­ning a sec­ond term with 57 per­cent of the vote. Her party also re­tains con­trol of the Leg­isla­tive Yuan, en­abling her to press ahead with her agenda and cater to the gen­er­a­tion of Tai­wanese who say they were “born in­de­pen­dent.”

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