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Signal to China

Voters fearful of Beijing’s growing authoritarianism reelect Taiwan’s president

Signal to China

Tsai Ing-wen waves after addressing supporters following her reelection as President of Taiwan. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

At Nanmen Elementary School in Taipei, young and old lined up Saturday to cast their ballots inside classrooms with ID cards and personalized chops (or stamps) in hand. Outside in the schoolyard, 62-year-old Chiu Yueh-fang and her two daughters sat on a bench waiting for her husband to finish voting. They voted for incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen because they believed she would protect Taiwan from China’s encroachment. 

“We are at a crossroads in terms of Taiwan’s freedom, human rights, and the protection of our country’s sovereignty,” Chiu said. “Voting is a people’s revolution: We don’t use weapons, we don’t bleed, and we don’t give up our lives, but we use appropriate democratic mechanisms to bring about change and ensure Taiwan’s safety.”

After polls closed at 4 p.m., it quickly became clear that like Chiu, Taiwanese citizens had turned out in record numbers to reelect Tsai, rejecting Beijing’s overtures to pull Taiwan under its control. 

Kenneth Hu

Voters show up at the Nanmen Elementary School polling place Saturday in Taipei. (Kenneth Hu)

Pointing to protests in nearby Hong Kong, more than 8 million voters—57 percent of the turnout—chose Tsai, who has long been critical of China’s growing authoritarianism. Opposition Kuomintang (KMT) candidate Han Kuo-yu won 38.6 percent, while third-party candidate James Soong Chu-yu won 4.2 percent. Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also kept control of the legislature.

Ng Han Guan/AP

Nationalist or KMT party candidate Han Kuo-yu stands on stage as he concedes defeat. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

“With each presidential election, Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our democratic way of life,” Tsai said in her victory speech. “We must work to keep our country safe and defend our sovereignty.”

Although Taiwan has a separate government, judiciary, military, and currency from China, Beijing maintains Taiwan is part of its territory and has long threatened force to unify the island with the mainland. Taiwan’s two main political parties disagree on how it should respond to Beijing’s aggression: The KMT advocates a closer economic relationship with China, and the DPP leans more toward Taiwan independence.

Though Tsai had been leading in recent weeks’ polls, a little over a year ago it seemed unlikely Tsai would win. The DPP lost control of major cities in 2018 elections, including longtime stronghold Kaohsiung, where voters elected Han as mayor. After the crushing defeat, Tsai resigned as party chair.

Yet in the past year, Beijing’s hardening approach to Taiwan, as well as the Hong Kong protests, helped Tsai become a champion for Taiwan’s sovereignty and democracy. When Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a New Year’s speech in 2019 insisting that Taiwan would be unified with China through a “one country, two systems” policy like Hong Kong, Tsai rejected the idea.

Tsai’s support for the Hong Kong protests also boosted her appeal. Scenes of young people facing off against well-armed police for a chance to vote have shown Taiwanese, especially the younger generation, what could happen to Taiwan should it accept “one country, two systems.” Lisa Chen, 28, is studying in New Mexico to be a nutritionist. But she flew back to Taipei to vote for Tsai because of what she saw happening in Hong Kong. 

Angela Lu Fulton

Lisa Chen (Angela Lu Fulton)

“It helped me understand that I don’t want to be a Chinese citizen,” Chen said. “I like how it is now with our rights and policies. … [Hong Kong] helps us see the reality of what will happen if we give up our identity.”

She said Tsai is the best candidate to protect Taiwan because of her strong statements against China and her close relationship with the United States. Chen and other young voters I interviewed all said about 80 to 90 percent of their friends were voting for Tsai.

“Tsai has capitalized on this,” said Russell Hsiao, the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Global Taiwan Institute. “She has taken a strong stance against Beijing, which has resulted in a greater confidence in her ability to lead in troubling times.”

Han had focused his campaign on improving Taiwan’s economy through a closer relationship with China and positioned himself as a populist outsider. He won Kaohsiung’s mayoral race with promises to “Make Kaohsiung Great Again,” but he upset many when he quickly set his sights on a presidential run. Han is currently taking a three-month break from his mayoral duties. In December, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to recall him as mayor.

Another blow to the KMT campaign was its decision to stack its list of at-large legislative seats with pro-unification candidates, Hsiao said. The party also faced internal divisions between Han and establishment members. 

Kenneth Hu

Nora Chu, left (Kenneth Hu)

Back at Nanmen Elementary School, 78-year-old Nora Chu had flown back to Taipei from New York to vote for Han because of her displeasure with the current president. “I don’t want Taiwan to go to war with China, and I want people to get a better life,” Chu said. “I like that Han is very down to earth, unlike past politicians, so I want to give him a try.”

Outside the voting booth, a group of Hong Kong observers had gathered to watch Taiwan’s democratic process in action. Andrew To, who has long been involved in Hong Kong’s democracy movement, said it was touching to see how Hong Kong and Taiwan were on the same course as they face a common enemy in the Chinese Communist Party. 

Kenneth Hu

Andrew To (Kenneth Hu)

“How Taiwan votes will affect Hong Kong and how China treats Hong Kong,” To said. “If the DPP wins, then it signals that ‘one country, two systems’ is a total failure.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.