A big win for Tsai Ing-wen and Taiwanese identity

Foreign Affairs

Photo credit: SupChina illustration by Derek Zheng

“Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) will be reelected as Taiwan’s president with ‘an overwhelming majority,’” we predicted in our latest Red Paper. Indeed, Tsai won by a landslide on Saturday, beating her primary challenger, Kaohsiung mayor Han Kuo-yu (韩国瑜 Hán Guóyú), by 2.7 million votes (57.1 to 38.6 percent). The 8.2 million votes Tsai received was the most ever in the island’s seven direct presidential elections.

In an election widely seen as a referendum on Taiwan’s identity and the island’s relationship with mainland China, nearly 75 percent of eligible voters (14.5 million) cast ballots. Tsai addressed Beijing directly in her acceptance speech, saying she hopes “that the Beijing authorities understand that democratic Taiwan, and our democratically elected government, will not concede to threats and intimidation.”

Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu, who advocated closer relations with the People’s Republic of China, was considered a favorite as recently as six months ago, and looked like a shoo-in after Tsai and her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suffered sweeping losses during the 2018 midterms. But the tide turned with Beijing’s increasing belligerence toward Taiwan and renewed insistence on “one country, two systems” as a model for reunification, which Tsai and a majority of Taiwan citizens vehemently reject. When the Hong Kong protests broke out over the summer, Tsai was quick to voice her support for the protesters. In framing the elections as a vote about China, she tapped into her supporters’ fears of mainland encroachment, particularly among the island’s young voters, who voted for her in droves.

All 113 seats in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan were also up for grabs on Saturday. The DPP lost seven seats but retained its majority, securing 61 seats against the KMT’s 38. Here’s a handy graphic on Ketagalan Media.

Beijing reacted to the election results with characteristic saltiness, accusing Tsai and her party of “dirty tactics such as cheating, repression and intimidation to get votes, fully exposing their selfish, greedy and evil nature” (Xinhua: English, Chinese). Nationalistic rag Global Times quoted a research fellow in Shanghai as accusing Tsai of appealing to emotions: “Young people, who are usually a little sensitive on the economy, are easily instigated. As a result, the DPP gained historical support of the Taiwan youth.”

What will Beijing do next?

Kharis Templeman of the Project on Taiwan in the Indo-Pacific at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University says the election results “present Beijing with a hard choice: double down, recalibrate, or fundamentally reassess its Taiwan policy.”

Beijing is unlikely to reconsider its aggressive approach to Taiwan. “I thoroughly expect that the conversation right now in Beijing is about turning the screws even more,” Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Reuters.