Tsai faces choppy China waters after Taiwan election landslide

Emphatic victory underlines growing sense of identity on island that China has vowed to take back by force if necessary.

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    Tsai Ing-wen was returned for a second term with a landslide in a repudiation of mainland China [How Hwee Young/EPA]
    Tsai Ing-wen was returned for a second term with a landslide in a repudiation of mainland China [How Hwee Young/EPA]

    Taipei, Taiwan - Electoral politics in Taiwan have long reverberated across the narrow body of water that is perhaps one of the world's greatest political and ideological divides.

    On Saturday, Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected as Taiwan's president with 57 percent of the vote, an all-time high. Nearly three in four of the 19-million-strong electorate cast a ballot.

    Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) managed to hold on to its majority in the 113-seat legislature as well, giving Tsai free rein to push on with her agenda in her final four-year term beginning May 20.

    For most observers, both in Taiwan and abroad, the outcome was just as predicted, and the US secretary of state hailed the election as proof that Taiwan "is a force for good". 

    Across the strait, however, Beijing took it as a punch to the stomach.

    State news media blamed "anti-China political forces" for Tsai's re-election, calling her victory a threat to the "peaceful development of cross-strait relations". 

    Ever since the Nationalists lost the civil war to the Communists in 1949 and retreated to Taiwan as the Republic of China, Beijing has regarded the island as a renegade province that would eventually return to the fold.

    'Dried mango' 

    Over the years, the China-friendly Nationalists have come to be seen more as partners by the Communist rulers on the mainland, while the homegrown DPP has become a pro-independence foe.

    China Taiwan
    China's President Xi Jinping put pressure on Tsai from the time she was elected in 2016 and in a New Year's address in 2019 unveiled a 'one country, two systems' approach for reunification that worried people in Taiwan, especially when protests in Hong Kong started in June [File: Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via Reuters]

    Soon after Tsai was first elected in 2016 - even though she maintained the status quo had not changed -China began putting the squeeze on Taiwan. Mainland Chinese tourists were barred from travelling across the strait, and its diplomatic allies pressured to switch allegiance from Taiwan to the People's Republic of China. Tsai called it "dollar diplomacy".

    Barely a year ago in a New Year's address to the Taiwanese, China's President Xi Jinping unveiled his plan to introduce the "one country, two systems" concept for the island, modelled on the framework under which British colonial Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

    Xi's proclamation helped change the electoral dynamics - and put the focus on Taiwan's survival. "Dried mango", a homophonic wordplay which belied the heaviness of "the fear of losing one's nation" soon caught on, especially among young voters.

    And then, in June, protests broke out in Hong Kong, shaking many people in Taiwan.

    "It's very real, as Beijing's design for Taiwan is very clear," Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong-based veteran China watcher, observing the elections in Taipei, told Al Jazeera.

    "Yet, Tsai persuasively used Hong Kong in her campaign, telling her voters Taiwan's democracy is what the Hong Kong protesters are fighting for."

    'Safeguard Taiwan'

    Even if Beijing harboured any hope, this election represented the resolute renunciation of "one country, two systems," even by Tsai's main rival Han Kuo-yu of the Nationalist Party.

    Campaigning on his common-man appeal with a touch of Trump, Han damaged his image early on by appearing to close to Communist Chinese officials and later by supporting Hong Kong's crackdown on protesters.

    But he soon made an about-face: "One country, two systems" in Taiwan would be possible only "over my dead body". 

    Han lost big, even in his base in the southern industrial city of Kaohsiung, where he was elected mayor in late 2018.

    Taiwan election
    Supporters of Han Kuo-yu, candidate for the China-friendly Nationalist Party. Han eventually distanced himself from China during the campaign [Ng Han Guan/AP Photo]

    Elections began in Taiwan only in 1996, and dictatorship remains etched in most voters' living memories with martial law under the Nationalists ending only in 1987. 

    The loosening of the Nationalists' grip has given way to a flowering of a vibrant, anything-goes political culture with nearly 300 parties - from granddads to YouTubers. Nearly 20 parties contested this election.

    Electioneering is characteristically bombastic and rambunctious. Candidates staged "momentum building" rallies to fire up crowds.

    At Tsai's rally on the eve of election day, millions of supporters swarmed the boulevard outside the Presidential Hall Plaza, chanting "cold garlic" (a near homophone of "get elected").

    But in the sea of lime green flags (the party's colour), a few black banners stood out.

    "Hope the lessons Hong Kongers learned through blood and tears tell your conscience to safeguard Taiwan," read one.

    As the crowds teemed, cries of solidarity rang out: "Taiwan, Add Oil! Hong Kong, Add Oil!"

    Balancing act

    The Taiwanese have followed the half-year of protests in Hong Kong with intense interest.

    "The recent chaos in Hong Kong was a clear reaffirmation to the Taiwanese that unification on Beijing's terms - and it will always be on Beijing's terms - would come with undeniable costs to its political freedoms," J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

    "The Taiwanese do not need Hong Kong to know that, but developments there have certainly underscored the effects of subsuming one's sovereignty into central rule in Beijing."

    Taiwan election
    Tsai's supporters made no secret of their opposition to China [Ritchie B Tongo/EPA]

    Political pundits differ as to what extent Tsai benefitted from Hong Kong's ongoing strife in reversing her party's fortunes after a stinging defeat in the 2018 local elections. But all agreed Hong Kong has emerged as the new challenge in cross-strait relations.

    At least hundreds, if not thousands, of Hong Kong protesters have sought refuge on the island, where a network of support has sprung up mostly on the strength of civil society. Tsai has repeatedly said she will not push refugee legislation to help handle the exodus.

    But with her re-election, the pressure on her administration is expected to mount, not least because there appears to be little chance that Beijing will back down over Hong Kong.

    If Tsai does not act, she risks losing her base. 

    "This will hurt the reputation of the DPP and the youth vote," said Lev Nachman, a political science PhD candidate at the University of California Irvine specialising in social movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

    But if she does do something to help the Hong Kong exiles, she risks fanning Chinese anger.

    "If Beijing began to regard Taiwan as a springboard from which Hong Kong activists seek to 'destabilise' the [city] or China proper, Beijing could, in turn, decide to retaliate against Taiwan, a turn of events which would undermine Taiwan's national security," said Cole.

    One thing is certain in Tsai's second term: The newfound solidarity between Hong Kong and Taiwan will mean rougher waves in already choppy political waters.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News