As Taiwan’s Election Nears, A Sense of Foreboding Grips Voters from Different Camps

On the evening of December 29, at a rally in front of Democratic Progressive Party headquarters in Taipei, hundreds of people are shouting in unison. They support Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic People’s Party (DPP) candidate in Taiwan’s January 11 presidential elections, but they are shouting another politician’s name, with an anxiety that was not there in the last election four years ago, when Tsai was first elected. Their voices rise above the sound of the rain, repeating over and over: “PROTECT THE PARLIAMENT! SAFEGUARD TAIWAN! . . . OUT WITH WU SZ-HUAI!”

Wu Sz-huai is a retired lieutenant general and one of the legislator-at-large nominees for the rival Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT). To understand why he causes such angst, it is worth remembering that Taiwan’s elections tend to focus on its survival as a country. The vast majority of the 23 million people of the self-governed island, located just over a hundred miles from China’s southern coast, prefer to maintain the status quo: functioning independently of China, which claims Taiwan as its territory, without declaring independence. The KMT, which formed a rump regime on Taiwan after losing a civil war to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949, favors closer relations with China. The DPP has a clause supporting independence in its charter. On January 11, the island will go to the polls to pick a new legislature and a president from the DPP or the KMT. A third presidential candidate from a small party, James Soong, is running for the sixth time, but his chances are minimal.

Wu Sz-huai, the controversial KMT legislator-at-large nominee and target of the DPP rally’s ire, is likely to be assigned a seat in its parliament, the Legislative Yuan. (Most of Taiwan’s legislators are voted in directly, as representatives of a particular district. But there are 34 legislators-at-large, too. In addition to ticking a box for president and legislator, voters will tick a third box for party. Based on the proportion of votes they win in that third category, political parties will share out the 34 seats reserved for legislators-at-large.) And Wu has sailed uncomfortably close to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He has appeared on Chinese television, advising the People’s Liberation Army on how “our troops”—implying that Taiwan and the PRC share armed forces—could match U.S. capabilities in the Middle East. More provokingly, to many people in Taiwan, he led a delegation of fellow retired Taiwanese military leaders to Beijing in 2016, where they listened to Chinese President Xi Jinping speak of the “sacred duty” of reunification, and stood for the Chinese national anthem.



What’s Next for Taiwan?

Brian Hioe, Evan Dawley & more
On January 11, Taiwanese will go to the polls. Their election pits the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors greater distance from Beijing, against Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomingtang,...

As a legislator, Wu could, in theory, be assigned to a committee charged with national defense policy. But it is the prospect he represents—of a party in government some of whose members appear ready to surrender sovereignty—that has contributed to a new, intensified atmosphere of dread among DPP supporters. Some speak ruefully of “dried mango strips” (mangguogan), instead of saying it straight: wangguogan, a feeling that the nation is doomed. Specifically, DPP voters tell me, they fear becoming “the next Hong Kong,” a fear that has been exacerbated by bloodchilling videos of what appear to be dead Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters spreading on Taiwan’s social media. Tsai herself has pointed to a speech delivered by Xi Jinping in early 2019, in which he said, “We make no promise to renounce the use of force [to unify Taiwan with mainland China] and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.” In the same speech, he urged Taiwanese to accept “peaceful reunification” under the same one country, two systems arrangement that now governs Hong Kong. It was not a new sentiment from PRC leaders, but combined with the news from Hong Kong, voters seemed to perceive it as more ominous. “This could be Taiwan’s last election,” one young man at the rally says, when I ask him what will happen if the KMT wins.

In a televised presidential debate earlier the same day, KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu accused Tsai Ing-wen of making cynical use of the events in Hong Kong. “The people of Hong Kong are bleeding, and you use it as a blood transfusion for your campaign!” he shouted. Han is running as the “common people president,” and emphasizes his humble roots. His campaign memoir describes his childhood in a juancun, or military-dependents’ village, designated for lower-ranking KMT officials and soldiers’ families, and his rough youth as a ruffian too distracted by a female classmate “with gorgeous legs” to study. Unlike Tsai, who speaks carefully and without inflection, as if reading an uninteresting script, Han is animated, pounding the podium, punctuating his remarks with, “My God!” He accused Tsai of being a prompter-reader. “Tsai Ing-wen is not a very interesting person,” Tsai retorted, near the end of the debate. “I can’t get all worked up and shout, or get choked up at a moment’s notice.” She returned to her theme: “I will not let Taiwan become the next Hong Kong.”

Tsai has not said exactly what she will do to avoid this fate. But as president, she has boosted the national defense budget to record levels and overseen progress in the development of Taiwan’s first domestically-produced submarines (expected in 2024) and advanced jet trainers. Debating Han, she spoke of the importance of national defense capabilities and strong relationships with other countries. For his part, Han said little about the mainland government or how his presidency would change relations with it, except that he values peace. He pivoted instead to his main point: He cares for the people. Han pointed out that all of Taiwan’s elected presidents have been lawyers and graduates of the nation’s best university, all disappointing. “You cannot face the people courageously,” he scolds Tsai, “. . . you’re further and further away from them.”

Listening to them, it is hard to pick out the differences in policy on China. Han says that he will not accept one country, two systems either. (“Over my dead body,” he has put it repeatedly.) The most striking difference between them is one of style: Tsai is a traditional, if awkward, politician, and Han a charismatic populist. It’s a difference that is reflected even in their approach to polling. The DPP points to polls that say Tsai will win in a landslide. Han encourages his supporters to lie to pollsters and say they are supporting Tsai, implying that the complacent DPP will get a shock on election night.

This election creates a sense of whiplash in the viewer, of shuttling between two completely different styles and world-views. The two parties seem to be talking past each other. For the DPP, the main issue is China and how best to protect Taiwan from it—as one of Tsai’s campaign ads puts it, the choice between democracy and dictatorship. The KMT candidate has made his personality the theme of his campaign, and wields it to portray himself as an answer to the island’s economic woes. He says that he is the candidate who understands “suffering people,” and that the cause of that suffering is simple: elite “fat cats” in government. His rhetoric has a familiar populist tinge and it has drawn support from voters who, like their brethren elsewhere in the democratic world, feel economically strained and marginalized. The deepening divisions in Taiwanese society between classes and generations is a problem that will challenge Taiwan and its democracy regardless of who wins. A divided society, as the U.S. is learning, is one more easily manipulated by outside forces.

* * *

On the first day of the new year, I go to see Han at a national-flag-raising ceremony in the city of Tainan, about 200 miles south of Taipei. “109 years ago today, founding father Sun Yat-sen established the first democratic republic in Asia,” a local city councilor tells the crowd assembled in Tainan Park. “We deeply love this land, and would never sell it out.” I have been to several Han rallies and there are certain things about this one that are typical: the great numbers of middle-aged and elderly, particularly associations of retired military and police (Han has railed against the pension reforms Tsai’s government passed, which cut the pensions of retired military and civil servants); the way people paint the Republic of China flag on their faces and wave it in the air and salute it; and remarks that the younger generations have abandoned what makes the country great, that they are no longer trained in traditional Confucian values like filial piety and kindness, that they support independence because they don’t understand what’s possible, and that they support gay marriage. Of the farmers, taxi drivers, and elderly people huddling under banners for retired military or police associations, many of the Han supporters I have met feel left behind by Taiwan’s growing economy. Lin Thung-hong, a professor at Academia Sinica, says that the swing voters who powered Han’s rise to office of Kaohsiung mayor in 2018 were largely unemployed, non-technical workers, and self-employed, and some of them were pro-DPP in their leanings. When I ask people why they are voting for Han, they often say, “The DPP is corrupt.”

Han knows how to articulate this resentment in a way that gives his supporters a target for anger. Sometimes he appears to be channeling it to dark places, with derogatory comments about women, Southeast Asian workers, and the media, but mostly he talks about the haves and the have-nots. He once told supporters at a rally that DPP politicians, including Tsai, are “pale-skinned and fat,” while he himself is “dark and thin.” “Who do you think,” he asked, “understands the suffering people better?”

When Han finally arrives at the rally in Tainan, a local city councilor introduces him: “So many of Taiwan’s 23 million people have been suffering . . . we’ve been waiting for one person!” Han Kuo-yu, the crowd shouts. “. . . One person!” Han Kuo-yu! Beaming warmth, his voice strained with emotion, and sometimes breaking into snatches of song, Han has charisma. People respond to both his style and his promise that their troubles can be easily solved. His diagnosis of Taiwan’s problems—the slow wage growth, tense relations with China, and invisibility to much of the world—is simple: “The problem is how it’s governed!” he says. There isn’t any reason why Taiwan, “which has great advantages,” should not be doing extremely well.



Becoming Taiwanese

Evan Dawley
Havard University Press: What does it mean to be Taiwanese? This question sits at the heart of Taiwan’s modern history and its place in the world. In contrast to the prevailing scholarly focus on Taiwan after 1987, Becoming Taiwanese examines the important first era in the history of Taiwanese identity construction during the early 20th century, in the place that served as the crucible for the formation of new identities: the northern port city of Jilong (Keelung).Part colonial urban social history, part exploration of the relationship between modern ethnicity and nationalism, Becoming Taiwanese offers new insights into ethnic identity formation. Evan Dawley examines how people from China’s southeastern coast became rooted in Taiwan; how the transfer to Japanese colonial rule established new contexts and relationships that promoted the formation of distinct urban, ethnic, and national identities; and how the so-called retrocession to China replicated earlier patterns and reinforced those same identities. Becoming Taiwanese is based on original research in Taiwan and Japan, and focuses on the settings and practices of social organizations, religion, and social welfare, as well as the local elites who served as community gatekeepers.

Han’s supporters have their own version of “the feeling that the nation is doomed.” A 70-year-old man next to me begins talking about the Anti-Infiltration Act that became law the day before. The act imposes heavy penalties for political donations on behalf of, or with the funding of, a “foreign hostile force,” generally understood to mean the mainland government. “I joined in the democratization movement [in Taiwan],” he says. “Got my head beaten bloody by police. Those days—the White Terror—are coming back. It’s the Green Terror,” he adds, invoking the color associated with pro-independence and the DPP. The White Terror was a period under authoritarian KMT rule (before Taiwan began to democratize in the late 1980s) when citizens were subject to arbitrary arrest and execution, and encouraged to report, as the saying went, “the Communist spy by your side.” The fear, as a speaker at the rally puts it, is that “anyone who goes abroad will be subject to charges of colluding with the enemy”—meaning mainland China. Han’s supporters believe that the DPP is using the specter of China and Hong Kong to scare people into voting for them. “We’re not Hong Kong,” Chi Hung-ju, a worker at Han’s campaign headquarters, told me when I visited. “We have our own flag and we have our own military. Hong Kong does not.”

But Han’s public rejection of one country, two systems notwithstanding, the PRC’s ability to influence Taiwanese society and government is evident. Hsiao-ting Lin, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, notes that China’s influence in Taiwan is growing, and that it is not just Taiwan: “As China increases its power everywhere, that kind of infiltration is happening in lots of societies, including Australia and Japan.” In Taiwan, Beijing is targeting a range of people, from temple leaders to fishermen’s associations, with monetary inducements. China’s huge market, so close by, is also a powerful draw: Han himself, as Kaohsiung mayor on a trip to sell his city’s fruit and other products, felt it necessary to meet the directors of China’s Central Liaison Offices in Hong Kong and Macau, charged with implementing one country, two systems.

Despite the reach of new laws like the Anti-Infiltration Act, influence often takes place through intermediaries and is difficult to identify or stop. And influence is even harder to trace online. Puma Shen runs DoubleThink Labs, a research outfit he has described as a “radar system” to detect false information originating in and promoted by the Chinese state. He has observed an oddly inflated number of views for pro-China YouTubers. The high number of views and comments, he explains, helps those YouTubers profit. He cannot prove that the Chinese state is behind the inflated popularity of certain Taiwanese YouTubers, but there are more obvious examples: Shen says that employees of Taiwanese marketing companies in China have shown him signed contracts between their firms and Chinese United Front organizations or local Taiwan Affairs Offices, for the promotion of pro-China narratives. These narratives are all the more convincing because they are written by Taiwanese, using the traditional Chinese characters and vocabulary with which Taiwanese readers are most familiar.

* * *

For Tsai, like all incumbents, the elections are in part a report card on her nearly four years in office. It is symptomatic of Taiwan’s polarization that what her supporters hail as her greatest successes, her detractors castigate as awful. Workers and employers criticized her administration’s labor law reforms; conservatives and religious groups marched against Asia’s first gay marriage legalization bill, which came into force in Taiwan in 2019. Relations have soured with the PRC, which cut direct lines of communication with her government, reduced the number of mainland tourists, and poached seven of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, reducing to 15 the number of countries in the world that recognize it. Tsai has also faced attacks from within her party for not being more “green,” or explicitly pro-independence. Her former premier, William Lai, who has expressed support for independence more unequivocally, challenged her in the DPP primary. (Koo Kwang-ming, former national policy adviser to President Chen Shui-bian, urged Tsai to “rest, and let a young man”—Lai is three years younger than she is—take up the work of governing.) Tsai beat the primary challenge and installed Lai as her running-mate, but there are still disappointed pro-independence Taiwanese who have said they plan not to vote for her. The very socio-economic problems that made Han’s rise possible remain: Compared to other countries, Taiwan is a highly equal society, but wage growth is slow.



Taiwan Is Losing Allies. What Should Taipei (and D.C.) Do?

Margaret Lewis, Yu-Hua Chen & more
In a single week in September, the two Pacific nations of Kiribati and the Solomon Islands both switched their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing, reducing the number of countries that still recognize Taiwan to 14 (and the Vatican)...

Actual solutions to some of these problems, unlike campaign slogans, are frustratingly piecemeal. Former student activist and one of the first openly lesbian city councilors in Taiwan Miao Po-ya talks about a few of them as we sit in her office in Taipei. To address inequality, property taxes should be raised; they are much lower than those in other countries, she says. To build back trust in media, new sources ought to make their finances transparent. “Taiwan’s like a tiny boat,” she says, “and a wrong move could flip it over. . . It doesn’t allow us to make mistakes.”

On January 2, 2020, a Black Hawk helicopter carrying senior Taiwanese military officials crashed on its way from the capital to the east coast. Eight people, including the head of Taiwan’s armed forces, died. The candidates temporarily suspended their campaigns to mourn, but were soon battling again. Han reflected that the crash appeared to be part of Taiwan’s recent “bad luck as a nation.” He asked if Taiwan was possessed by evil spirits. Tsai responded, demanding an apology for his crass use of something so painful, and for showing disrespect for the dead. Taiwan’s tiny boat continues its jerky journey, its crew still arguing, and the path away from doom unclear.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of countries that have cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan since Tsai Ing-wen was elected president. Seven countries have stopped recognizing Taiwan since Tsai was elected in 2016.