Last weekend, the people of Taiwan overwhelmingly voted to renew the mandate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and President Tsai Ing-wen for another four years, in an election that saw the incumbent win more votes than any other presidential candidate in Taiwan’s history.
On Saturday 11 January, Ms Tsai secured just over 57% of the ballot – a record 8.2m votes – well ahead of her rival Han Kuo-yu from the pro-China opposition party Kuomintang (KMT). She strongly opposes closer ties with China, with Mr Han suggesting they would bring economic benefits.
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan, an island home to twenty-three million people, since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. It says Taiwan must eventually be reunited with China, by force if necessary, yet Ms Tsai made it clear in her victory speech that China should abandon its threat to take back the island by force.
She told a news conference: “Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our free democratic way of life and how much we cherish our nation.”
“We hope China can thoroughly understand the opinion and will expressed by Taiwanese people in this election and review their current policies,” she continued.
Beijing and Taipei sharply disagree on the island’s status. China asserts that there is only “one China” and that Taiwan is an inalienable part of it. Beijing says Taiwan is bound by an understanding reached in 1992 between representatives of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT, then ruling Taiwan.
Referred to as the 1992 Consensus, it states that there is only “one China” but allows for differing interpretations, by which both Beijing and Taipei agree that Taiwan belongs to China, while the two still disagree on which entity is China’s legitimate governing body. The tacit agreement underlying the 1992 Consensus is that Taiwan will not seek independence.
Taiwan’s KMT still accepts the consensus as a starting point for future negotiations with the CCP. However, Ms Tsai has rejected the consensus. In a January 2019 speech, she declared the “one country, two systems” framework advanced by Beijing unacceptable. Her rejection of the consensus, along with that of other leading voices in the governing DPP, leaves open the possibility of future Taiwanese independence.
Tsai’s landslide electoral victory after a campaign that leaned heavily on Hong Kong as a cautionary tale for Taiwan has thus been seen as a strong rebuke of Beijing’s “One China” principle – Taiwanese crowded the streets after the election, holding up five fingers for the five demands Hong Kongers have called for in recent mass protests. Her re-election was also embarrassing for China, where state media has spent most of the past year isolating Taiwan on the diplomatic stage, deriding Tsai and highlighting the popularity of her opponent Han Kuo-yu.
Beijing has, therefore, tried to downplay the election results and has reached for the usual scapegoats to explain how its preferred candidate lost. State news agency Xinhua, for example, accused Tsai of using “dirty tactics” including vote-buying, misinformation campaigns online, and intimidation to garner votes, calling the overall operation “green terror” in reference to the color representing Tsai’s camp. It also blamed “dark forces” for the result, without elaborating.
However, had the Chinese Communist Party not turned up the pressure on Taiwan, had its approach to the crisis in Hong Kong been subtler, the path to victory for the candidate it wanted so much to thwart may have been much less certain.
Despite her large domestic support, Tsai will find it difficult to stand up to Beijing which has repeatedly said that it will bring Taiwan under its authority by any means necessary and analysts believe Chinese leader Xi Jinping aims to achieve that by 2049, the deadline for the country to achieve its “great rejuvenation”.
Earlier this week, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivered a stern warning when he said Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland was “inevitable” and anyone who attempted to split the country would “stink for 10,000 years”, an idiom to mean someone will go down in infamy.
Yet China’s bullying is not new to Ms Tsai. Since her first election in 2016, relations have been especially icy and Beijing has refused to deal directly with her on the grounds that she has not, like her predecessor, accepted the 1992 consensus. Now that Tsai and her party have been re-elected, relations are likely to remain on hold for another four years yet her experience and courage may just be what the Taiwanese people need.