During a country’s election cycle, citizens are asked to make monumental decisions over which people and policies should govern their nation and dictate their livelihoods. In an era marred by a slowing global economy and escalating geopolitical tensions—within just the first week of the new decade, conflict between the US and Iran sparked real concerns over the possibility of World War III—it is human nature to seek to preserve the status quo in hopes of achieving stability and certainty; to prioritise achieving economic prosperity before taking an idealistic gamble on seemingly far-fetched hopes and aspirations.
While all eyes will be fixed on the US presidential election later in the year, perhaps no other major election will epitomise the almost-dichotomous choice between idealism and economic and/or political pragmatism that voters often face more than the Taiwanese elections, which took place at the beginning of this month.
The small island nation of Taiwan is often understood only in relation to China—as its estranged neighbour, one of its many unresolved territorial disputes, as its dependent trade partner. An outcome largely of China’s own doing, Beijing has, in recent years, strategically taken steps towards excluding Taiwan from international affairs, and attempted to extirpate its diplomatic allies (only 15 small countries currently recognise Taiwan’s independence) through demanding conformity from the international community to its vision of Chinese reunification, or else. China’s presence casts a long and indelible shadow over Taiwan, whose invention of bubble tea might be better known in popular culture than its economic activity or political clout.
It is therefore unsurprising that many people took little cognisance of, or only vaguely observed, the Taiwanese elections. However, as unassuming as Taiwan’s reputation might seem, the message that the results from its recent election sent was quite the opposite: President Tsai Ing-Wen, incumbent of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won in a landslide victory by garnering 57.1 per cent of the popular vote, while Han Kuo-yu, opposition leader of the pro-Beijing Kuomintang party received 38 per cent—a stark and unambiguous repudiation of China and its desire for reunification under the “one country, two systems” policy.
Victorious—incumbent Tsai Ing-Wen has prevailed over pro-Beijing competitor Han Kuo-yu after a campaign reaffirming her resolve to maintain Taiwan’s sovereignty, above all else. (Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu)
The consequential result is particularly impressive considering the DPP’s underwhelming performance in Taiwan’s local elections in 2018, when it managed to win only 6 out of 22 mayoral districts (compared to the Kuomintang’s 15 wins).
Right after the DPP’s loss in 2018, Yao Chia-wen, a senior advisor to Tsai, had stated that while it was a “tragic defeat for the DPP”, it did not amount to “support for the Kuomintang from the people. This is the people’s disappointment in the DPP”. Time has proven that 2018 might have indeed been just a mere aberration—in 2020, with the impact and memory of many unpopular pension reform policies (which were suspected to have contributed to the DPP’s defeat in the prior election) largely dissipated, citizens entered the polling booths to vote in an election largely centred on the contentious issue of China.
And from an economic perspective, the people of Taiwan had every reason to elect Han. On the 40th anniversary of issuing Message to Compatriots in Taiwan, a key Taiwanese policy statement, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised that peaceful reunification would allow Taiwan to achieve “lasting peace” and that “people will enjoy good and prosperous lives”; “with the great motherland’s support, Taiwan compatriots’ welfare will be even better, their development space will be even greater”. Indeed, Taiwan’s vulnerable economy has been beset by mediocre growth and falling wages. Despite attempts at diversification, China remains as Taiwan’s largest trade partner by a long mile, accounting for nearly 30% of Taiwan’s total export market. Additionally, eight of Taiwan’s top ten revenue generators (all of which specialise in electronics manufacturing or assembly) are involved in cross-strait commerce. As a worst-case scenario, upsetting China could mean mainland partners terminate their contracts with these manufacturers in retaliation. Chinese nationals also comprise about half of all tourists in Taiwan, so if China were to cut off individual tourism to Taiwan, this could spell disaster for those that rely on its tourism, hospitality and retail industry.
From a political and security perspective, the people of Taiwan also seemingly had every reason to elect Han. In recent years, China has extended its sphere political influence rapidly through its Belt and Road initiative, and now boasts a military more than ten times larger than Taiwan’s own. Disconcertingly, reports indicate that China currently has hundreds of ballistic missiles permanently pointed in Taiwan’s general direction. In the same 2018 address, Xi Jinping reaffirmed that China would “make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means” in its pursuit of reunification; in response, Han Kuo-yu promised to achieve China-Taiwan rapprochement during his nomination speech.
Despite attempts at diversification, Taiwan’s exports are still undeniably reliant on China’s market. (Photo: EPA)
Yet, against what one might deem economic or political pragmatism, and, ostensibly, against their own immediate interests, the people of Taiwan voted in favour of Tsai—in favour of Taiwanese autonomy. Moreover, their actions and conduct evinced that they cast their votes not with trepidation, but with immense conviction—voter turnout was as high as 74 per cent. Citizens appeared to go out of their way to exercise their democratic freedoms; local media coverage even showed one man from Tainan sail his boat 100 kilometres inland to his nearest polling station in Penghu. And with no absentee voting allowed, thousands of Taiwanese expats even made the effort to fly back to their home to participate (the number of overseas Taiwanese who registered to vote in 2020 was twice as more than in the presidential 2016 elections). Perhaps their impassioned zeal can also be attributed to the momentum from the protests in Hong Kong—a premonition, of sorts, of what a “one country two systems” policy may entail. Or, perhaps the increasingly coercive tactics China uses to limit Taiwan’s presence in international affairs served also the very catalyst to unite its people.
Voters can be fickle, critical and temperamental. An election campaign appealing to their economic or political interests is effective in signalling the pragmatic course of action to be undertaken; the seduction of certainty and reassurance is often hard to overcome. However, sometimes, a bold message which calls to their higher desires, those that they may dare not pursue otherwise, can prevail no matter the inconvenience. In this election, Tsai Ing-Wen’s message resonated with the populace, and the DPP’s resurgence will undoubtedly cause China much chagrin. Now that Taiwan has made its move, the ball is in China’s corner to respond—and the world would do well to watch.
Words by Christine Chen