China’s Crackdown on Hong Kong Paved the Way for Taiwan President’s Re-Election

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) coasted to victory on January 11. The DPP secured 57.1% of the votes to the Kuomintang’s (KMT’s) 38.6%. Tsai’s win was remarkable because just one year earlier, her approval rating had fallen to 24%. ALEC CEO, Lisa B. Nelson sent a letter to Ambassador Stanley Kao, Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) congratulating President Tsai on her reelection.

How did President Tsai manage such a rapid political recovery? Many analysts point to China’s crackdown on Hong Kong for the answer.

Tsai’s DPP has long favored greater independence from China, despite Beijing’s threats to unify Taiwan with the Mainland by force. Tsai’s 2016 foreign policy presidential campaign platform was moderate, eschewing formal declarations of independence in favor of keeping the peace with China. As her term progressed, her pro-independence base’s dissatisfaction with Tsai’s cross-Strait moderation grew. The Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation found in 2017 a 58% disapproval rating of the president’s handling of China. This percentage included both those who wanted Taiwan to adopt a stronger stance toward China and those who favored greater accommodation.

Adding to her political challenges, Tsai failed to deliver on some domestic promises, including labor and health care reforms, and her administration’s cuts to public pensions were deeply unpopular. With each disappointment, Tsai’s approval rating plummeted, culminating in huge DPP losses in the 2018 midterm elections.

In his 2019 New Year’s speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that unification is “an inevitable requirement for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” and that Beijing “reserves the option of taking all necessary measures” against foreign forces that interfere with a peaceful unification. A few months after President Xi’s address, China’s interference in Hong Kong’s political affairs, followed by a forceful reaction to democratic protesters in the former British colony, deepened Taiwanese mistrust of their cross-Strait neighbor. Beijing also proposed amendments to Hong Kong’s extradition laws, enabling mainland China to extradite Hong Kong citizens, subjecting them to the Chinese criminal justice system. As ALEC Senior Director of International Relations and Federalism observed, “Consistent adherence to rule of law has helped make Hong Kong a global commercial center … China’s interference in Hong Kong’s political system places this coveted status at risk.”

Pro-democracy protests began in June 2019 and continue today (see Hong Kong: Courageous Protests in Defense of Freedom to learn more about the continuing democracy movement there). The brutality used by the Communist Party of China (CPC) to suppress the rebellion in Hong Kong alarmed the people of Taiwan, leading to an uptick in support for President Tsai, which encouraged her to strengthen her rhetoric about China. By contrast, her opponent’s Beijing-friendly speeches seemed increasingly unmoored to geostrategic reality as the protests in Hong Kong continued – clearly China’s “one country, two systems” was not working in Hong Kong and would not work in Taiwan.

Tsai also got an indirect boost from a disinformation campaign launched against her by suspected Chinese hackers – and Taiwan’s robust response to the attack. According to a report by the University of Gothenburg last May, more foreign government disseminated disinformation is directed at Taiwan than at any other liberal democracy. During the 2018 election cycle, China allegedly disseminated misinformation, attempted to influence the electorate using Taiwanese media outlets, and even illegally funded Beijing-friendly candidates.

There had been some efforts to combat these hackers in 2018, but they were broadly unsuccessful. Beijing may have accelerated their disinformation campaign in the 2020 election, in part, to distract from the Hong Kong protests. However, thanks to enhanced Taiwanese capabilities to identify disinformation and hold disseminators accountable – such as the Anti-Infiltration Act – the effect of Chinese meddling in the election was mitigated. China’s blatant intrusion into Taiwan’s elections, combined with Tsai’s clear-eyed vision of the potential dangers the Mainland posed to Taiwan’s democratic processes, contributed to her popularity.

With DPP support for Hong Kong’s protestors and the Taiwanese concern over China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, Tsai handily won reelection and the  DPP a legislative majority. In her acceptance speech, President Tsai reiterated her commitment to peace and democracy and challenged Beijing to do the same.

“Today, I want to once again call upon the Beijing authorities to remind them that peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue are the key to positive cross-strait interactions and long-term stable development. These four words are also the only path to bringing together and benefiting both our two peoples.”

Although Tsai’s government strives for peace and does not wish to provoke China, there is a sense that Taiwan must deter increased Chinese military activity in the Taiwan Strait. According to Ambassador Kao, “we have to equip ourselves with sufficient defense capabilities to deter any sort of aggression or hostile military actions. That is our priority.”

Amidst Chinese interference and aggression from Beijing, Tsai’s electoral victory represents a win for democracy. As President Tsai observed, “The results of this election carry added significance… They have shown that when our sovereignty is threatened the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even more loudly back.”

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