Mar 20, 2020

Taiwan: A Maturing Liberal Democracy

Taiwan’s 2020 presidential elections highlighted the growing maturity of its democracy and its people’s willingness to uphold liberal democratic values. According to Anne Hsiao’s analysis, the election of President Tsai Ing-wen was not only a show-down between her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and her rival’s Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT), but more generally a statement of Taiwanese voters’ preferred relationship with China. Tsai’s pro-independence stance led Beijing to intensify its pressure on Taipei after her first election in 2016. Her opposition to the “one country, two systems” model aided her with many supporters on the island. Similarly, she has been very outspoken on the Hong Kong crisis, showing solidarity with protesters and criticizing China’s violations of their rights. January’s election polls indicate that Taiwanese voters approve of Tsai’s calls for China to realize Taiwan’s independence and to engage with each other on a peaceful and equal footing. While, Beijing is clearly dissatisfied about the results and continues to exercise pressure, Taiwan has shown its maturing democratic system.


On 11 January 2020, Taiwan, officially calls itself Republic of China or ROC (Taiwan), held a general election for the island’s 15th President and Vice President, as well as all 113 members of the 10th Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s Parliament.

In the 2020 Presidential election, the incumbent Ing-wen Tsai of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) earned 8.17 million votes, a major win over her two opponents – Han Kuo-yu representing the Chinese Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) and James Soong from the People First Party, and a record high in history since Taiwan began to elect its President through universal suffrage in 1996.

Tsai’s party, the DPP, also retains a significant majority of 61 out of 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan.


Early Setbacks for Tsai’s Re-election

President Tsai’s journey to re-election was not smooth sailing during the early stage. After she first took office on 20 May 2016, relationship between Beijing and Taipei soon fell into to a new low because Tsai rejected the China’s demand to recognise the so-called "1992 consensus". Out of dissatisfaction, Beijing suspended governmental contacts with Taipei, and intensified its efforts to sabotage Taiwan’s diplomatic relations. From December 2016, a total of 7 countries have switched diplomatic ties to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with only 15 diplomatic allies by October 2019. In addition, China has adopted tougher political rhetoric and military pressures towards Taiwan.

Domestically, Tsai’s approval rating declined quickly due to the stalemate across the Taiwan Strait, stagnant economy, as well as a series of reform and policy controversies. Her growing unpopularity led to an astounding defeat for the DPP in Taiwan’s mid-term local elections held on 24th November 2018. Tsai resigned immediately after as Chairperson of the party. Her chance of being elected for a second term became uncertain for a while, as her leadership and nomination within the DPP faced serious challenges. Other inroads include the dramatic rise of Han Kuo-yu, who won the 2018 mayoral election for KMT in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city and traditionally a DPP stronghold. During the mayoral election campaign, Han promised to stand with the “ordinary people”, as well as provide a better relationship with China and economic prosperity for Kaohsiung. He became a national phenomenon and presidential hopeful for many KMT and pro-China supporters to displace Tsai Ing-wen in 2020.

Tsai and her party’s defeat in the mid-term local elections had also been interpreted as Beijing’s growing readiness and capabilities to manipulate and interfere in Taiwan’s democracy.


China’s “One Country, Two Systems” Flops and Tsai’s Comeback

Although mainland China and Taiwan have been under separate rule across the Taiwan Strait since 1949, Beijing continues to see the island as an integral part of its territory. Under Xi Jinping, China doesn’t just make sure that Taiwan does not pursue de jure independence, but it has been more proactively promoting unification. On 2 January 2019, Xi delivered a speech to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the issuing of a Message to Compatriots in Taiwan. In that speech, he said that the long-standing differences across the Taiwan Strait “cannot be dragged from generation to generation”, and called upon Taiwan to join efforts in completing the “historic task” of peaceful “national reunification” that can be best implemented under the “one country, two systems” formula. However, he warned that China does not rule out the option to use force against the interference of external forces and Taiwan-independence separatism. Shortly after, Ms. Tsai responded in a steadfast fashion that “Taiwan will never accept 'one country, two systems'. The vast majority of Taiwanese public opinion also resolutely opposes 'one country, two systems', and this is also the 'Taiwan consensus'." She then introduced Guidelines to counter "one country, two systems” and China’s attempts to further eroding Taiwan’s democracy, freedom and sovereignty. Subsequent polls showed that Tsai’s stance and her approach toward the “one country, two systems” were widely supported by the Taiwan population.

The Hong Kong protests, since June 2019, further boosted Tsai’s rating. The protests began as a demonstration in Hong Kong to halt a draft bill that could allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China in the future. Opposition to the bill feared that this could further undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy under “one country, two systems”. The standoff between the protesters and the Hong Kong government who introduced the bill escalated into months of violent confrontations. Concerns with the implications the extradition bill could have for Taiwan also drew demonstrations on the island to support Hong Kong’s protests and against China’s influence operations against Taiwan. From very early on, Tsai Ing-wen has been consistent in criticising the bill and how the crisis in Hong Kong proved the failing of China’s “one country, two systems”, and expressing empathy and support for the protest campaigns in Hong Kong, unlike most of her presidential rivals. This helped her greatly, not only in terms of turning her poll ratings upwards and securing her party nomination, but also consolidating her image in the run-up to the election day as the leader that could better defend Taiwan’s sovereignty and liberal democratic system under the shadow of China.


A Stronger Democratic Taiwan Identity

Despite an eventful and tumultuous process, Taiwan’s general election in January 2020 ended in a peaceful and orderly manner. This shows growing maturity in Taiwan’s democracy, and a shared commitment of its people to uphold liberal democratic values. As many Hong Kong citizens joined in celebrating Tsai Ing-wen's election win, they also saw Taiwan as an aspiration for Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom. Moreover, the record high number of ballots cast for Tsai should send a sober message to Beijing – namely, the vast majority of the Taiwanese people do not resonate with an allusive “1992 consensus”, which Beijing increasingly uses as a political tool to pressure and divide Taiwan. Further still, they oppose unification by threat or force, or to have imposed upon them any alternative political formula that would divest the independence, civil liberty and democracy Taiwan has been savouring for decades. For this reason, despite the concerns for better wages and economic life, the voters, many under 45 years of age, are willing to take another chance with the president who has not been in Beijing’s favor, yet who asks Beijing to face the reality of the existence of ROC Taiwan and enter into talks on an equal footing, and who promises to defend Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty, democracy and freedom. It remains to be seen how China will conduct its relations with Taiwan in the next 4 years of Tsai’s second and final term.