4 December 2019
On 11 January 2020, Taiwan will hold elections that pit the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which favours independence from China, against the Opposition, Kuomintang, which favours closer ties to Beijing.
As usual, China has made its preference clear. Last month, on the day President Tsai Ing-wen announced that her running mate was William Lai, a well-known supporter of independence, China sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait.
In recent months, Australia’s worries about Chinese interference have deepened. But in Taiwan, China has been engaging in an all-out assault on democracy for years. In 1996, China fired missiles off Taiwan’s coast in the weeks before the island’s first direct presidential election – a crude attempt to warn voters about the risks of backing pro-independence candidates. In the lead-up to this election, China has been accused of spreading disinformation on social media, placing news stories in Taiwanese media and conducting cyberattacks targeting the government.
The Opposition candidate is Han Kuo-yu, who is against independence and has called for closer economic ties to China. Han rose to prominence after his surprising victory in a mayoral election last year in Kaohsiung, a city of 2.8 million people. According to a report in Foreign Policy in June, Han won with the assistance of a social media campaign orchestrated by Beijing. Two weeks ago, The Age reported on an alleged Chinese spy who defected to Australia and claimed to have helped funnel $US2.8 million into Han’s mayoral race. In response, Han said he would drop out of the presidential race if his campaign was shown to have taken money from Beijing.
When China interferes in Australian politics, its main aim seems to be to influence, from afar, outcomes on trade, foreign policy and diplomacy. In Taiwan, China is seeking to change the character of the island, which it sees as a breakaway province.
In a speech in January of this year, Xi Jinping said China’s aim was “complete unification” with Taiwan, and threatened to use “all necessary means” to prevent the island from asserting independence. Despite Taiwan’s entrenched democracy and effective autonomy, it has never formally declared independence. An opinion poll in January found that 60 per cent of people in Taiwan would oppose independence if it triggered a Chinese attack. The poll found 48 per cent of people believe unification is the more likely eventual outcome, and 30 per cent thought independence was more likely.
But China’s efforts to interfere in the coming election have caused widespread anger and appear to have increased support for both independence and President Tsai. Until recently, Tsai was under domestic pressure due to unpopular changes to pensions and labour laws. But recent polls – which tend to be particularly unreliable in Taiwan – have shown her to be comfortably ahead.
Another factor helping Tsai is Hong Kong. In his January speech, Xi promised to pursue a Hong Kong–style “one country, two systems” approach to Taiwan. Tsai immediately rejected this, and gained support as the Hong Kong protests descended into chaos. A popular refrain in Taiwan is “Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow”. Even Han has rejected “one country, two systems”, saying he would only accept it “over my dead body” – though he was accused of doing so belatedly.
Tsai has insisted she does not support a unilateral declaration of independence. But she may seek greater economic separation from the mainland and is more likely to deepen ties with Washington. The situation is delicate. Elections in Taiwan shape the island’s relations with China, and therefore affect regional, and global, stability.
China’s interference in Taiwan is heavy-handed and difficult to counteract. The main instrument of resistance is Taiwan’s 23.5 million residents, who, unlike China’s 1.4 billion, will soon decide on its president and legislators, until the next election, in 2024.