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China looms over Taiwan election

William Yang Taipei
January 11, 2020

As Taiwan selects a new leader, questions over Taiwanese sovereignty and the self-ruled island's relationship with Beijing dominate political discussions in the capital, Taipei. William Yang reports.

From left to right, Democratic Progressive Party's, or DPP, Tsai Ing-wen, People First Party's James Soong, And KMT or Nationalist Party's Han Kuo-yu pose for a photograph at the start of their first televised policy address in Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday, December 18, 2019
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Central Election Commission

China looms large in Taiwan poll

Taiwanese are voting on Saturday as the island's future and its relationship with mainland China reach a critical juncture.

Voters know the election results could have a significant impact on the future of democracy in Taiwan.

At the center of the election race are two candidates and parties that present different visions for Taiwan's future. Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have focused the campaign on safeguarding Taiwan's sovereignty and its democratic way of life. Her opponent, Han Kuo-yu, is the populist mayor of the port city of Kaohsiung from the opposition Kuomintang party (KMT). Han promises to strengthen Taiwan's security and improve the economy by building a better relationship with Beijing.

Read more: Taiwan: Rival protesters rally ahead of January polls

Since Tsai was elected in 2016, China has taken a more assertive stance toward Taiwan. Beijing has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, and it has repeatedly threatened military action if leaders in Tapei move towards independence from the mainland.

China has also excluded Taiwan from several international forums while poaching several diplomatic allies from Taiwan over the last four years.

However, Tsai does not seem to be giving in to growing aggression from Beijing. In the only televised presidential debate last month, Tsai called China the biggest threat to Taiwan. And in her New Year's speech, Tsai vowed to reject Beijing's "one country, two systems" framework for eventual Taiwanese unification with the mainland.

Hong Kong's example for Taiwan

"Taiwan's sovereignty has been the fundamental issue during every presidential election since 1996," said Kharis Templeman, program manager of the Taiwan Democracy and Security Project at Stanford University in the US.

However, Templeman told DW that the ongoing protests in Hong Kong have made the sovereignty question even more salient than in past.

"Hong Kong people have showed us that 'one country, two systems' is definitely not feasible," President Tsai said. "Under 'one country, two systems,' the situation continues to deteriorate in Hong Kong. The credibility … has been sullied by the [Beijing] government's abuse of power."

Read more:  Are Hong Kong protests a warning for Taiwan?

Since Hong Kong was handed over to Beijing from British rule in 1997, it has existed under the "one country two systems" framework, which recognizes the territory as part of China, albeit with a governance system that provides partial economic and civil liberties.

The pro-democracy protests have put the system to the test, and experts say that Hong Kong serves as a vivid example of what unification with the authoritarian system on the mainland really looks like.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping has said the "one country, two systems" framework is the ideal way to unite mainland China with Taiwan, Taiwanese people have been warily following the developments in Hong Kong.

Austin Wang, a Taiwanese political expert currently at the University of Nevada in the US, said the pro-democracy protests have lowered the number of Taiwanese who would prefer unification with mainland China. Almost a year ago, it seemed likely that Tsai would become the first one-term president in Taiwan's history, but her approval rating has been boosted significantly since protests broke out in Hong Kong.

"The Hong Kong protest makes Tsai's arguments about the sovereignty issue more convincing," Taiwanese political scientist Yen Wei-Ting told DW, adding that Tsai positions herself as the best candidate to protect Taiwan's sovereignty.

China's influence campaign

As the election draws near, there have been many reports of Beijing-based online disinformation campaigns targeting Taiwanese voters. It wouldn't be the first time. During local elections in November 2018, Taiwan saw a surge of online disinformation and fake news.

"The Chinese Communist Party focused on spreading disinformation on Facebook during the last local election," said Puma Shen, an assistant professor at National Taipei University, who specializes in Chinese disinformation campaigns against Taiwan.

"However, since Facebook has started to crack down on disinformation from China, many fan pages and private groups used for such purposes have since been suspended."

To fight disinformation ahead of the election, Facebook shut down dozens of pages, and opened a "war room" in its Taipei office on January 1. The war room will allow experts from Facebook to be in close contact with Taiwan's Central Election Commission, law enforcement authorities and campaign headquarters of all three presidential candidates.

Despite these widespread measures, Shen points out that China's disinformation strategy has also evolved, with Beijing shifting focus to YouTube and the popular messaging app Line.

Read more: Taiwan: Law passed to quell China's influence ahead of elections

Populism in Taiwan

Similar to recent elections in the West, Taiwan's poll is being imbued with populist rhetoric.

Yen Wei-Ting, the co-founder of a well-known politics blog in Taiwan who currently teaches government in the US, said the rise of populism in Taiwan is a new element in this year's election.

"Han Kuo-yu is dragging the whole election into populist rhetoric," Yen told DW. "Han's attack on the media during the presidential debate reflects the populist nature of his campaign strategy."

Although experts may be suspicious of Han's populist strategy, his supporters said sincerity and his connection to common people are his biggest strengths.

"Han is very genuine and he always thinks about the common people," said a young female supporter at a recent Han campaign rally in his home city Kaohsiung, in southern Taiwan.

"Taiwan's economy continues to suffer from protectionism, but I think Han can boost the economy by improving our relationship with China. We don't have to be enemies with Beijing," she said.

Regardless of the outcome, China will be closely watching the 2020 election in Taiwan.

"If the ruling DPP wins both the presidency and the legislature, China has to adjust its cross-strait relationship," said political analyst Austin Wang.

"But if the opposition KMT wins either of the two, China may view it as a victory, and further apply its sharp-power strategy to more countries in East Asia."