In recent months, China’s relationship with Hong Kong has been in the spotlight as a growing protest movement in Hong Kong seeks to assert the region’s autonomy from the mainland. Little attention, however, has been given to China’s attempts to pacify the independence efforts of neighbouring Taiwan.
That all changed this week. In a rebuke of mainland China’s incursions on the island’s autonomy, the Taiwanese people reelected President Tsai Ing-Wen on Saturday, a candidate who has denounced the mainland’s calls for unification.
Serving largely as a referendum on the future of Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China, the election pitted incumbent President Tsai against mayor Han Kuo-yu. President Tsai rejected a unified China and painted herself as a defender of the island’s sovereignty, while Han Kuo-yu advocated economic growth via closer ties with Beijing. Tsai denounced the prospect of a “one country, two systems” arrangement for Taiwan, and it paid off. She received 58% of the vote share with an unprecedented eight million votes.
A large part of Tsai’s success came from the youth in Taiwan. Young voters who have been watching the protests unfold in Hong Kong were drawn to Tsai’s message of independence and protecting democracy. Tsai’s rebranding through social media helped mobilize many young Taiwanese who had never voted before. These first-time voters also aided in allowing Tsai’s pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to maintain its majority in the legislature.
Xi Xinping and his government made extensive efforts to prevent Tsai from winning, from spreading misinformation about her through pro-China media outlets to apparent covert election interference activities. Xi also tried to isolate Tsai’s government by restricting tourism to the island and using military intimidation. Nonetheless, both efforts had little economic impact. Under Tsai’s rule, Taiwan’s economy grew, and misinformation circulating in the media may have further angered Taiwanese voters, who often know which outlets are under Chinese influence.
Tsai’s stance on mainland China was not the only reason for her reelection. Tsai’s handling of the economy was seen positively and Han Kuo-yu, her primary opponent, developed a bad public image after several scandals developed involving his drinking and his meetings with Communist party officials. Still, the election sent a strong message to the mainland that the Taiwanese people resoundingly reject unification as a premise, putting the two governments in a deadlock.
So what is next for the Taiwan-China relationship? It is likely China will increase pressure on the island, and some military leaders in the country recently called for aggressive assurance of unification.
Taiwan’s economy has relied on Chinese markets and factories but increasingly turns to other allies in Southeast Asia, making them more insulated from mainland economic threats. Economically, a lot will depend on the U.S.-China trade war and whether Taiwan can find other regional partners. Politically, Tsai faces an angered and emboldened mainland government determined to implement “one country, two systems,” and she will have to balance expressing support for Hong Kong to assuage her base while not provoking Xi to take drastic measures. While the election is a victory for the island’s autonomy and democracy advocates, the future is uncertain.