Nothing but China really matters in Taiwan elections

With Xi focused on reunification, Beijing is trying aggressively to influence results

Taiwan Election Moving ahead: Posters of candidates in the Taiwanese elections pasted on a bus in Taipei | AP

Vincent Chiang, 58, a marine officer-turned tour guide, has not explored the unique abundance of mighty mountains and pristine beaches dotting Taiwan’s coastline. Instead, he puts his visitors on a musical bus that plays Enigma’s ‘Return to Innocence’ (based on a native Taiwanese chant), taking them to ultra urban destinations like Taipei 101 that light up the island’s skyline and produce as many microchips that can power every iPad, iPhone and MacBook in the world.

Taiwan’s elections can be a case study of how campaigns in technologically advanced countries have moved to online spaces where mass propaganda of warring political parties can shape voters’ choices.
Most of the people in Taiwan came directly from China in 1949. So, the relationship has never been cut off. - Huang Yi-teng, director general, KMT’s Evaluation and Discipline Committee.

The joyride is broken intermittently with Vincent pointing towards a big map inside the bus. “Even though Taiwan is full of mountains and beaches, those were out of bounds for a long, long time under martial law,” he said. “A lot of people of my generation can neither swim nor go hiking even today. Isn’t it ridiculous?”

As a boy growing up in Tainan, the oldest city on the island, Vincent promised family elders that he would neither swim nor hike lest he is mistaken for a dissident trying to flee. He kept his promise, but some others did not. In 1979, Justin Yifu Lin, who was doing his mandatory military service on Kinmen island, just off the mainland, dived into the sea and dramatically swam 2,000 metres to reach China. He wanted to escape the oppressive Kuomintang (KMT) regime founded by Chiang Kai-shek who retreated to Taiwan after his army’s defeat in the Chinese civil war in 1949. Building a new life in Beijing, Lin grew to become a chief economist at the World Bank. His story of defection continues to be a living example of the deep cross-strait divide and the claim of the islanders that China and Taiwan don’t belong to each other.

Lin can never return to Taiwan after he openly defected to the “enemy”. The Taiwanese defence ministry opts for a court martial and even death penalty for such acts. Taiwan remained under martial law for over three decades, the longest in the world (after Syria) under the KMT regime, till 1986. The period is known as the ‘White Terror’ with mass arrests, human rights violations and tales of suppression. Freedom came only in 1996 when Taiwan had its first democratic elections to make Lee Teng-hui, the first president to be born in Taiwan and the first to be directly elected. The people of Taiwan called him Mr Democracy. Since then, political choices of the islanders oscillate between two distinct identities―mainlanders and native Taiwanese.

On January 13, when Taiwan elects its new president and parliament amid rising threats about unification, the choice of the people will once again determine whether Taiwan can remain independent of Xi Jinping’s China. Identity remains an important issue in these elections, a three-cornered contest between the two established political parties―the Democratic Progressive Party and the KMT―and a new entrant, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).

TAIWAN-POLITICS-VOTE The DPP’s presidential candidate Lai Ching-te (in PIC) has put defence preparedness on top of his list of priorities | AFP

“Dissimilar degrees of attachment to the island exists even today,” said Mumin Chen, a professor at the National Chung Hsing University in Taiwan, who now works at the Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre in New Delhi. “Earlier China wanted to earn the goodwill of the people of Taiwan. That is why it had a policy of appeasement when the KMT was in power between 2008 and 2016. But things have changed as the Chinese government under Xi feels that unification is a goal to achieve as soon as possible. China is losing patience and this has changed the nature of the relationship.”

Since a majority of Taiwan’s residents now consider themselves Taiwanese instead of Chinese, it becomes critical for the island to find a better way to coexist peacefully with China. “The DPP does not want a war with China, but it is keen to prepare itself to defend against any aggression. It feels that regional security and stability is its responsibility,” said Chen. “The party wants the global community to recognise Taiwan as an independent and a sovereign country.’’

Taiwan Election KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih (taking the selfie), a burly ex-police officer who serves as mayor of New Taipei City, has opposed the idea of increasing mandatory military service, saying war mongering can be dangerous | AP

The election campaign reflects the mood of the people. The islanders want to build their own submarines to defend against any military action that can take them back to Gestapo-style rule. Placards and billboards showing young Taiwanese on submarines have flooded the DPP campaign, creating a buzz in physical and online space.

“With Xi stating that resolving the Taiwan issue is an important goal, no matter which party is elected, it must face China’s powerful combination of military and political oppression,” said Shen Ming-sheh, acting deputy CEO of Taiwan’s Institute for National Defence and Security Research. “There must be sufficient high tech weapons and joint combat capabilities. If the number of submarines can be increased, it will be of great help in countering the blockade [of the Taiwan Strait].’’ Currently, Taiwan has a fleet of four submarines―two of them built in the 1980s by the Netherlands and two World War II vintage ones from the US. It is now building a series of indigenous submarines.

TAIWAN-ELECTION/ISSUES What is novel about Taiwan’s polls this time is the presence of the new party, the TPP, launched four years ago by Ko Wen-je (IN PIC), a doctor who served as mayor of Taipei from 2014 to 2022 | Reuters

The DPP’s presidential candidate Lai Ching-te (also known as William Lai) has put defence preparedness on top of his list of priorities. The party is banking on the United States to augment Taiwan’s military prowess. The US has supplied at least 66 F-16Vs and is expected to send more advanced training fighter jets and 108 M1A2 tanks as part of an extensive military modernisation drive against the backdrop of the looming Chinese invasion.

There is a growing realisation that Taiwan’s own forces need to be combat ready, not just in sheer skill, but also in size. “If China invades on a large scale, it may mobilise three lakh to four lakh soldiers. Taiwan’s current military strength is insufficient, so the number of standing and reserve troops must be increased,” said Shen.

24-Election-campaign-in-full-swing Festival of democracy: Election campaign in full swing by supporters of the Taiwan People’s Party | Namrata Biji Ahuja

Military conscription is the key to Taiwan’s security and survival and it has become an important electoral issue. Lai wants to increase the mandatory military service from four months to a year. But the KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih, a burly ex-police officer who serves as mayor of New Taipei City, has opposed the idea, saying war mongering can be dangerous. “We speak the same language and share the same history. Most of the people in Taiwan came directly from China in 1949. So, the relationship has never been cut off,” said Huang Yi-teng, director general of the KMT’s Evaluation and Discipline Committee. “The two areas are one cultural region in many ways.”

If the KMT takes pride in its leaders having “good neighbourly ties’’ with China that can benefit the people of Taiwan, the DPP boasts a winning combination of Lai for president and former de facto ambassador to the US, Hsiao Bi-khim, as his second-in-command. Hsiao is popularly known as the “cat warrior’’ who can counter China’s “wolf-warrior’’ diplomacy, with her delicate balancing act. “William is a heavyweight in Taiwan politics who rose from the ranks, while Hsiao was a diplomat in the US with a rooftop view. After her US posting, she returned to work at the grassroots level to build herself up in Taiwan politics,” said Andrea Yang, deputy secretary general of the DPP. Hsiao, who is a cat lover, is said to have mastered her political strategy by watching her four favourite feline pets. “They tread softly, but they are able to find the right positions of defence,’’ she was quoted as saying.

25-Huang-Yi-teng Huang Yi-teng

Huang said Taiwan’s historic relationship with the US had been beneficial, but also pointed towards the shift of power from the US to China. “The Americans are getting weaker and China has become more powerful. It is not a threat, but an opportunity for Taiwan,” he said. “We are neighbours, we ought to talk.” But Yang said China’s rise, which was not peaceful, was a threat not only to Taiwan, but to the entire Indo-Pacific region. “We need to continue to deter it,” she said.

The need for stability is driving the polls, and the next president’s primary task would be to maintain Taiwan’s tenuous “status quo’’ as much as possible. The islanders are in no mood to cut themselves off from the rest of the world by incurring China’s wrath. The memory of former US speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022, which provoked China to send its warships and fighter jets across the strait, is still fresh. Though Lai and Hsiao are pragmatic leaders, they are seen as more pro-independence than incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen. This can be a trump card for China as it may find an excuse to ratchet up tensions if the DPP wins again. The worry within the DPP camp is that even if it wins the presidential elections, the KMT may get a majority in parliament, making it difficult to execute its flagship defence projects. The psychological warfare by China has impacted DPP’s political fortunes. While the party won a thumping majority in 2020, the KMT is giving it a tight fight this time. Both parties are wooing the diaspora voters as well, sending delegations to foreign countries with significant Taiwanese population.

Taiwan’s elections can be a case study of how campaigns in technologically advanced countries have moved to online spaces where mass propaganda of warring political parties can shape voters’ choices. “China is using TikTok to spread fake news and influence voters. We believe there is a cyber army behind it,” said Yang. But the KMT has a counter. “We see false information coming from many places all the time. It could come from mainland Chinese sources or our own citizens here in Taiwan,” said Chen-Dong Tso, foreign affairs adviser to the KMT presidential candidate.

But there is more to this than meets the eye. Lieutenant General Rajesh Pant (retd), former national cyber security coordinator to the Indian government who recently joined experts from the US and Taiwan in a trilateral initiative to deal with cyberattacks on democratic systems, said democracies in the Indo-Pacific region needed to effectively counter Chinese propaganda, manipulation of public opinion and disinformation, besides dealing with threats to critical infrastructure from cyber armies. This becomes particularly important in the run-up to the general elections in India and the US this year, he said.

What is novel about Taiwan’s polls this time is the presence of the new party, the TPP, launched four years ago by Ko Wen-je, a doctor who served as mayor of Taipei from 2014 to 2022. The fatigue with the two-party system is quite evident, and Ko is seen as a dark horse who is ambitious and opportunistic. “The TPP has beaten even the KMT in online campaign. Ko is trying to offer the best of both worlds and young voters are watching his online campaign without blinking,” said Rohan, who works at an Indian restaurant in Taipei.

Tien-sze Fang, deputy director of the Centre for India studies at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, however, said that the position of Ko’s party was highly uncertain. “While advocating closer ties across the strait, he also mentions about adhering to the DPP’s policies, making his stand hard to predict,” said Fang. The KMT and the TPP might join forces to defeat the DPP, but both have refrained from revealing their cards.

“Transparency and fight against corruption are the key issues this time. The ruling party is [swamped by] corruption scandals and fake news. I am not saying that the TPP can wipe out corruption, but it will bring checks and balances. Ko is stressing on integrity to save democracy,” said Rong-I Arthur Hong, Ko’s adviser on security and defence issues.

China’s influence on Taiwan’s polls can be gauged from the fact that Terry Gou, the billionaire founder of the tech giant Foxconn, withdrew from the presidential race after initially opting to run. With entrenched business interests in China, Gou developed cold feet at the last moment. Beijing also sent tax authorities after him when he talked about his independent business policy. Others say he withdrew after failing to bring the KMT and the TPP together. Meanwhile, the KMT and the TPP have not ruled out a post-poll alliance to form the first coalition government in Taiwan’s history in case they can defeat the DPP.

China, meanwhile, seems to be going ahead with its plan to ratchet up tensions in the Indo-Pacific. After breaching the median line in the Taiwan Strait a hundredth time, it is picking up fights in the Philippine Sea as well. Recently, Chinese soldiers used water cannons on Philippine boats, prompting Manila to ask for F-16 fighter jets from the US.

Raoul Manuel, a young parliamentarian from the Philippines, said the Chinese presence had strengthened in the South China sea and its ships were blocking the movement of his country’s ships. “It has been established that the West Philippine Sea belongs to the Philippines and we have the right to sail our ships in our area,” he said. “China is even calling the Philippines an aggressor, when it is the other way around. The strategy of the Philippines is to address these concerns by implementing the Hague tribunal’s South China Sea ruling (which found that Chinese claims in the region lacked legal foundation) and the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”

Seventy per cent of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the waterways around Taiwan. India, which has a border dispute with China, has military and geostrategic interests in deterring the dragon, making Taiwan its natural ally. “A threat to Taiwan means a threat to the entire Indo-Pacific, because it will have a ripple effect,” said Namrata Hasija, research fellow at the Centre for China Analysis and Strategy, New Delhi. “If China invades Taiwan, two things will happen. First, it will be able to break this first island chain, and it is not going to stop there. If the US supremacy no longer exists, it will give China direct access to all its Pacific bases. It can aim for the East China Sea, then India, and then the whole region is Beijing’s.’’

It sounds a far-fetched proposition, but it remains a looming danger, nonetheless. Fang said upholding democracy in Taiwan would contribute to the formation of an ideal alliance between like-minded democracies such as Japan, India and Taiwan against any potential regional dominance from authoritarian regimes. “Economically, the partnership can help build a more resilient supply chain,” he said.

The democratisation story of any country is an example for the global community. More so, when it is the only Chinese-speaking democracy in the world bold enough to reject communist dictatorship.