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In Taiwan's upset election, a complicated message for Beijing

Why We Wrote This

Some say midterm elections that sharply boosted the China-friendly KMT party give China confidence ahead of a 2020 presidential poll. But others paint a much more nuanced picture.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Nationalist Kuomintang Party mayoral candidate Han Kuo-yu celebrates after winning in local elections, in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, on Nov. 24.

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When officials from Taiwan’s China-friendly Kuomintang party are sworn in on Dec. 25, they will dominate Taiwan's political landscape and administer local government for 80 percent of its population. It's a stunning rebuke to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which seeks to distance itself from China, and good news for Beijing, which expects the election upset to boost its reach in Taiwan's domestic affairs. But with presidential polls looming in a year, the outcome has rattled some observers. They see Taiwan as easy prey to Chinese influence. While Taiwan is a vibrant democracy, it may also be vulnerable. Taiwan and US officials warn of Beijing’s support for pro-China forces through economic incentives, and its more subtle interference in spreading false reports and stirring dissent online. Others argue, however, that the results spoke mainly to a lack of confidence in President Tsai Ing-wen and her deeply unpopular administration. And one analyst notes that Taiwan has been included in Washington's new Asia strategy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” That's an explicit recognition, she says, of Taiwan's strategic value in protecting open societies, and presents new opportunities for it to work with like-minded democracies. 

When Han Kuo-yu is sworn in later this month as the new mayor of Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second-largest city, he will be the first politician from the China-friendly Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) to govern the municipality in 20 years. His victory was the single biggest upset in last week’s midterm elections on the island, sending a message to Beijing and beyond that Taiwan may have lurched closer to China.

As the historic cradle of “green” politics that champions Taiwan's independence, Kaohsiung was considered “deep green,” a prize many assumed the KMT could not win back. The sprawling industrial metropolis of 3 million people lies less than 200 miles from the Chinese mainland and had been ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The city was believed to be safe from poaching since its population is known for pride in their native Taiwanese identity and contempt for Chinese military coercion.

But Kaohsiung turned on the DPP. Island-wide, DPP control over the nation's 22 local government posts dropped from 13 to only six, a devastating defeat for the governing party. When officials from the KMT are sworn in on Dec. 25, they will dominate Taiwan's domestic political landscape and administer local government for 80 percent of its population. Beijing expects this will boost its reach into Taiwan's domestic affairs and frustrate the central government, which seeks to distance itself from China and reduce economic dependence on the mainland.

The poll results leave some observers rattled. They see Taiwan as easy prey to Chinese influence. Others point out, however, that China was not on the agenda in these local contests, which were mainly a vote of no-confidence in the DPP's President Tsai Ying-wen and her deeply unpopular administration. With 14 months to go before the presidential election, relations with the United States are strong and the government has some time to address popular frustration with its aloof and technocratic leadership style.  

Vibrant but vulnerable      

Yet while Taiwan is East Asia's most vibrant democracy, it may also be its most vulnerable. Beijing is determined to compel Taiwan to accept its claim over the island and its 24 million people. In relentless efforts to win hearts and minds, analysts say Beijing exercises a combination of “hard power” in the form of military intimidation and economic pressures and, most recently, “sharp power” consisting of disinformation campaigns and the manipulation of corporate interests, civil society, and the news media in cyber space and beyond.

All those tactics were at play in the November elections, say observers, and are likely to emerge more decisively in the presidential campaign next year. As an example for other contenders, what set Han's campaign apart were his populist appeals to revive a city seen to be in decline and his enthusiasm for more trade and investment from across the Taiwan Strait. Indeed, the day after his election victory, he announced support for the notion of  “one China” that includes Taiwan, promptly winning praise from Chinese officials in Beijing and almost certainly triggering a surge of Chinese tourists and trade to boost the local economy.

As they look ahead to the January 2020 polls, Taiwan and US government officials warn that Beijing is engaged in a comprehensive campaign of disinformation and meddling in news and social media. Direct support for pro-China forces in the form of economic incentives and more subtle interference in spreading false reports and stirring dissent through digital means are a lethal combination for Taiwan, says Lai I-chung at Taiwan Thinktank, an independent policy research group in Taipei. “These arguably present the most serious challenge facing us,” Mr. Lai told a meeting of experts seeking greater collaboration between Taiwan and the US on countering China information warfare operations.  

Taiwan is on the front line of urging more active measures to protect democratic institutions and public discourse across East Asia. “It's difficult to wage a fight between an open society committed to free speech and a state-run disinformation campaign with vast resources,” Shihoko Goto of the Woodrow Wilson Center told the meeting, which was co-sponsored by the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington.

As the island prepares for the pivotal presidential and legislative contest, relations with its only true ally, the US, have rarely been more promising. The Taipei government enjoys trust in Washington for its firm but low-key rhetoric on China and for readiness to partner in security dialogues and other initiatives. This has opened the door to broader range of strategic cooperation than was imaginable a few years ago.

For the first time since the US broke diplomatic relations in 1979, Taiwan has been included in Washington's new Asia strategy of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” This is a major breakthrough from the Trump administration, says Shirley Kan, former Asian security specialist at the Congressional Research Service.  With the backing of senior US cabinet officials and strong bipartisan support in the US Congress, she said the explicit recognition of Taiwan's strategic value in countering China's behavior and protecting open societies and free markets in the region presents new opportunities for working together with like-minded democracies, including Japan.

So the picture for Beijing may be mixed.

“This election gave Beijing confidence,” says Li Fan of the World and China Institute in Beijing, who observed the polls in late November. “They believe their policies are working.” 

But others say not so fast. Taiwan's voters are quick to assert control over government when they are unhappy with its direction. “We are fearless,” says Kuo Yujen of National Sun Yat-sen University in Kaohsiung. “We put everything on the table every time we go to the polls.”

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