At a time when democratic forces around the world are facing challenges from strong men and wannabe dictators, Tsai’s defeat of Han, a populist who relied on lies and vulgarity to gin up support, was a welcome sign. Tsai’s success at countering Beijing’s attempts to interfere with the vote sent a strong message to other authoritarian regimes trying to spread distrust in democracy.
Taiwan rarely gets much international attention. Many Americans don’t realize that this island of 23 million people is no longer a dictatorship run by the family of its old ruler, Chiang Kai-shek, who fled mainland China in 1949 after his Nationalist Party lost a civil war to the Communists. In reality, after a series of political reforms that began in the 1980s, Taiwan today has one of the most vibrant democracies not just in Asia but in the world — with one of the freest media industries in Asia. Last year, Taiwan became the first in the region to legalize same-sex marriage. Its health-care system is the envy of the world.
But Taiwan has a problem: China. The Chinese Communist Party claims that Taiwan is part of China and, ever since 2012, with the rise of President Xi Jinping, it has carried out a campaign of pressure and intimidation against the island. Xi has warned that the issue of Taiwan’s unification with China cannot be passed “from generation to generation" and has directed the People’s Liberation Army to draw up plans for an invasion.
China has also redoubled efforts to isolate Taiwan diplomatically — cowing nations around the world to break ties with Taiwan and recognize Beijing’s claimChina has also sought to punish the island economically by, for example, forbidding individual tourist travel by Chinese citizens this year.
Against this backdrop, Tsai’s victory constituted a profound rejection of China and its aspirations to win control of Taiwan.
China’s ham-handed handling of months-long pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong virtually guaranteed Tsai’s victory. In fact, Beijing’s unwillingness to agree to democratic reforms in Hong Kong probably saved Tsai’s political career. A year ago, Tsai had resigned as chairman of her political party, the Democratic Progressive Party, after her party had fared horribly in local elections. Her polling numbers were in the single digits and old allies urged her not to run for reelection.
But the violent crackdown against Hong Kong’s demonstrations, coupled with the failure of either the Hong Kong government or its masters in Beijing to compromise with the protesters, alarmed voters in Taiwan who came out in droves over the weekend to vote for Tsai. Her campaign made liberal use of the Hong Kong protests, arguing in a very effective campaign video that China’s “one country, two systems” model for Hong Kong would mean “nothing more than dictatorship” for Taiwan.
China’s efforts to funnel money into the electoral process and influence Taiwan’s media were also met with a strong response. In the run-up to the vote, Taiwan’s parliament passed a law to counter interference from the mainland.
As could be expected, there was no sign in Beijing of any acknowledgement of defeat. A commentary by the state-run Xinhua News Agency called the election result “a temporary counter-current.” But all signs point to the fact that the counter-current is permanent; fewer people in Taiwan have any interest whatsoever in uniting with China, thanks to the hard-line policies of the Beijing regime.
Xinhua claimed that “anti-China political forces in the West openly intervened in Taiwan’s elections and supported Tsai” — part of a Communist Party tactic to blame its political failures on the West.
In an editorial Monday, the state-run Global Times in Beijing called for a “crack down” on Taiwan, including “imposing military pressure.”
It’s clear that going forward, despite democracy’s victory over the weekend, it will remain difficult sledding for Tsai and Taiwan.