TOUGH OBSTACLES AHEAD FOR PRESIDENT TSAI FOLLOWING LANDSLIDE VICTORY
Tsai Ing-Wen, head of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was reelected as president on January 11 in a landslide victory shaping the future of the island nation. Her votes surpassed the 8 million mark in the final stage of counting for the first time in the history of Taiwan’s presidential elections. While fireworks crackled in the public square in front of DPP headquarters, I had an opportunity to witness first-hand the exhilaration of Tsai’s supporters as they roared in delight.
As Tsai (63) emerged victorious, the real loser was another leading actor in the election—Chinese President Xi Jinping (66).
What Taiwan just witnessed was an effective “referendum on China.” The percentage of votes Tsai won (57.13%) meant a stern “no” to the “one nation, two systems” scheme China has sought to impose on Taiwan and a reflection of the strong sense of solidarity Taiwanese share with Hong Kongers, whose campaigns for democracy Beijing has violently suppressed.
In a victory speech begun shortly after 9:30 p.m., Tsai hailed the significance of the race which had attracted more international attention than any of the past presidential elections in Taiwan. Wearing a rare big smile, she noted: “These election results carried an added significance. They show that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, we Taiwanese will shout back our determination to remain free ever more loudly.” Her smile—one of satisfaction with having scored an overwhelmingly victory over “big China”—set the crowd laughing uproariously.
Tsai soon regained her calm expression and reminded China that the DPP stands firm on Taiwan’s sovereignty but that it also looks forward to a healthy exchange with the mainland. Although Beijing has persistently attempted to force a “one country, two systems” scheme under strong pressure and utterly unacceptable terms, Taiwan has rejected it, steadfastly pointing to its four keys to stability: peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue. Tsai also stressed that, with a popularly elected government and the power of its democracy, Taiwan will not bow to any pressure or threats from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), warning Beijing to come to grips with this reality in its future dealings with Taipei.
She also brought up Hong Kong, where young men and women have have been shedding tears of sorrow and the blood of anger as they fight for democracy. Tears began to roll down the cheeks of no small number of men and women in the crowd. A frail senior woman near me shouted at the top of her voice: “Ke You, Hong Kong! (“Hang in there, Hong Kong!”) Ke you, Hong Kong!” Similar cries broke out here and there at once, echoing among the crowd.
The scene keenly reminded me that the feeling of rejection of the CCP’s rule and suppression on the part of Hong Kongers has indeed been the driving force for many of Tsai’s supporters. The harsh confrontation between Beijing and Hong Kong, as well as Xi himself and the people of Hong Kong, made Tsai the victor.
Can Taiwan Safeguard National Unity?
Tsai received the largest votes in the history of Taiwan’s presidential elections—more than 8.17 million votes—as a large number of young men and women saw the possible fate of their nation in the example of Hong Kong. They wisely judged it would be Tsai, opposed to the “one nation, two systems,” who would defend Taiwan’s sovereignty—not Han Kuo-yu, the Beijing-friendly mayor of Kaohsiung with the opposition Kuomintang party (KMT).
Given previous Taiwanese voting behavior, however, Tsai has a tough assignment ahead of her: Before last June, when the unrest in Hong Kong started, Tsai’s approval rating had been so low she was given only a very slim chance to win.
In the jointly-held elections for the 113-seat legislative yuan this time, the DPP retained a crucial majority of 61 seats, securely controlling the administrative and legislative branches of government. But the KMT put up a good fight in terms of votes. A top official of a pro-DPP think thank told me:
“The KMT clearly collected more votes than in 2016. In the presidential election, it garnered 5.52 million—an increase of 1.71 million over 2016. In the legislative elections based on proportional representation, the KMT also polled more votes than in 2016, accounting for 33.3% of the total votes—only slightly less than the DPP’s 33.8%. All told, the legislative elections were a level race. Tsai collected 18% more votes than Han in the presidential election, but her overwhelming majority failed to translate into party votes, as her party ended up collecting only 5% more votes.”
These numbers imply two points: 1) Tsai’s historic landslide was thanks significantly to the presence of China as the villain; and 2) the domestic policies of Tsai and the DPP have not necessarily won the approval of a cross section of Taiwanese society beyond the commonly perceived threats of the CCP. It behooves the Tsai administration to cope effectively with this challenge in order to maintain its power base.
Li Ming Jun, Deputy Director of the Taiwan National Security Institute, explained:
“DPP supporters traditionally have been farmers and workers. Under President Tsai the party has implemented progressive policies based on liberal principles with urban elites in mind. Same-sex marriage is a typical example. It is one thing to recognize same-sex marriage as an idea, but Tsai has gone to the extreme of making Taiwan the first country in Asia to legalize it, revising the law in order to allow it. Same-sex marriage may be acceptable in a big city like Taipei, but is strongly opposed in rural areas in the south. The Presbyterian Church, which initially backed the DPP, has gone into opposition.”
At a time when unity among Taiwanese is desperately called for, can Tsai be trusted to maintain it? As a liberal-oriented former professor of international economics with policies often top heavy with academic ideas, will her appeal continue to be broad enough? Will this turn out to be the Achilles heel for her administration going forward? We must keep an eye on this.
Li explained what Beijing’s stance toward Taipei would be like now that it has been given a humiliating slap in the face by the DPP’s resounding victory:
“If the KMT had won, China would have started to try and implement more hardline measures to get the KMT to follow its directives in accomplishing its objectives. With the DPP in power again, however, I don’t think Beijing will try to pursue such a policy, at least on the surface.”
Hard-Pressed China Aggressively Making Pass at Japan
The CCP plays hard ball with the obsequious and the weak but assumes a low profile with those who refute it. In 2016, when Tsai scored an overwhelming victory against the KMT, Beijing maintained a benign wait-and-see posture toward Taipei. But in November 2018, when the party was beaten badly in the elections for heads of local governments, China blatantly hardened its policies toward Taiwan across the board.
This was manifested in Xi Jinping’s January 2, 2019 address on Taiwan: “The people of Taiwan must accept peaceful reunification with the mainland under ‘one country, two systems’ as an inevitability… Beijing still reserves the right to use force to achieve this aim.”
Tsai quickly retorted that Taiwan “will never accept ‘one country, two systems,” which increased her approval rating by 7 points. And yet, the CCP kept pursuing a variety of means to intimidate Taiwan, such as sailing a Chinese carrier in the Taiwan Straits and driving island nations in the South Pacific, including the Solomon Islands, to sever diplomatic relations with Taipei.
“China has basically handled these nations in the same manner it does Japan,” explains Li. “If China senses the other side is in a stronger position, it assumes a docile posture just to mark time. But its true intentions remain unchanged. As far as China is concerned, there is absolutely no relationship between its intended actions and outward appearances.”
After Shinzo Abe returned as prime minister to form his second administration in December 2012, China continued to take hardline measures against Japan. But Abe steadfastly refused to budge, insisting that he saw “no need for a summit with Xi as long as China attaches conditions.” Abe kept winning elections. Eventually, Xi agreed to a summit without conditions.
With China hard-pressed in its trade war with the US making overtures to Japan, now is the time for Japan to examine what China is really up to. China’s posture toward Japan has been hardly friendly in view of a heap of problems Beijing has created, such as the persistent objections to visits to Yasukuni Shrine by our leaders; chronic violations of the Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands by coastguard ships; stalled joint exploration of undersea gas and oil fields in the East China Sea; and detention of Japanese nationals in China on dubious charges. The Chinese are scheming to improve their image by changing only the veneer of their actions, but their true colors remain clear.
Tsai seldom allows herself a smile despite the excitement of her landslide, presumably because she is anticipating a long and hard battle ahead, well aware of the essence of authoritarian communist China. She has requested the US to provide additional weaponry and military technology, demonstrating Taiwan’s resolve to enhance its defense capabilities. A splendid move, indeed. Japan must offer maximum assistance to help Taiwan and its democracy to score a victory in its fight to retain sovereignty. After all, Taiwan’s battle is Japan’s battle as well. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column #885 in the January 23 issue of The Weekly Shincho)