Xi Jinping Is Tsai Ing-wen’s Best Poster Boy

Taiwan’s president is getting a reelection boost from Beijing’s aggression.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen registers as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's 2020 presidential candidate in Taipei on March 21.
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen registers as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party's 2020 presidential candidate in Taipei on March 21. Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images

While much of the world’s attention was focused on the recent events in Hong Kong, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen quietly achieved another victory at home. Having trailed in the previous months, Tsai was in danger of being the first incumbent Taiwanese president since 2000 to suffer an embarrassing party primary loss.

Instead, on June 13, Tsai rolled to an 8.2-percentage-point victory over challenger William Lai, a respected independence hard-liner and former premier, to ensure that she would represent the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) again in Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election. That came with her own accidental helping hand from the mainland: the Hong Kong protests, which invigorated Taiwanese who now, like Tsai, see mostly threat rather than promise from Beijing. Fear of mainland China—as well as Tsai’s own underrated successes—may yet ensure her reelection.

But Tsai’s general election prospects are much tougher. From the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, she may have to face populist Kaohsiung Mayor Han Kuo-yu or Taiwan’s richest person, Terry Gou, whose Foxconn makes Apple’s iPhones. The KMT holds its primary by phone poll between July 5 and 15. In addition, there is the likelihood of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, a popular independent with a moderate stance toward China, throwing his hat into the ring. There is also the specter of Chinese interference and saber-rattling as the Chinese Communist Party looks to prevent Tsai from winning again.

Tsai has presided over a turbulent period for one of Asia’s freest democracies that has seen her ride out numerous storms. In the process, she has repeatedly proved her resilience, while standing up to an increasingly belligerent China and its autocratic leader, Xi Jinping.

Yet Tsai has had to endure persistently low approval ratings, a long-running face-off with Xi, and blame for a sluggish economy, an unpopular pension reform, and increasing diplomatic isolation. Last November, Tsai took a lot of blame as her party suffered devastating losses in the island-wide local elections, losing key strongholds like the southern metropolis of Kaohsiung (which the KMT’s Han won). Coming into the DPP primary, party officials were so concerned about Tsai’s chances that it was pushed back, and talks were held in a futile attempt to get Lai to reconsider.

In the DPP primary, Tsai certainly got a boost from Hong Kong’s massive million-person rally and street protests on June 9 and 12 against a much-dreaded extradition bill, which would allow anybody arrested in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China if it passes. Few Taiwanese could fail to be concerned at the sight of millions of Hong Kongers marching through the streets to vividly emphasize their distrust of China.

Tsai has long held a firm stance against China, and her actions since winning election in 2016 reflect that. From the start, she has refused to agree to the 1992 Consensus, a misleadingly named and ambiguous arrangement in which the KMT and China have differing understandings on Taiwan being part of One China. She has also firmly opposed the “one country, two systems” model, which Hong Kong is governed under and which China has proposed for Taiwan.

In contrast, Tsai’s KMT challengers have had to switch their previous China-friendly stances to follow her lead in speaking out after the Hong Kong protests. The populist Han flip-flopped dramatically to claim one country, two systems would happen “over my dead body,” despite being very pro-China and having based his mayoral campaign on boosting China ties. That Tsai didn’t need to change her message but merely reiterate it showed that she has been right all along to be wary of China.

At the beginning of this year, Tsai also enjoyed another surprise boost when Xi made a speech on Jan. 2 calling on Taiwan to accept so-called reunification or face potential invasion. The use of such blunt language, which differed from previous speeches, caused alarm in Taiwan, which Tsai countered just hours later by declaring that Taiwan would never accept reunification under the terms offered by Beijing.

In the energetic but sometimes wacky world of Taiwan politics, Tsai can seem staid and slightly uncharismatic. This contrasts sharply with colorful characters like the populist Han, who has enjoyed success with his everyman image, or Gou, the Foxconn boss, who said the goddess Matsu inspired him to run.

Han enjoyed a stunning rise after capturing Kaohsiung from the DPP last November, leading him to run for the presidency despite not even serving a year as mayor. His charisma, coupled with his popular but empty slogans and questionable actions, has led some to describe him as a Taiwanese version of U.S. President Donald Trump or Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Opponents fear his pro-China policies as well as his suspicious backing by pro-China Taiwanese media and mainland cyber teams, which was a factor in a huge rally in Taipei against so-called red media. It is clear that China likes him, as Han got to meet with Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong when he visited the city earlier this year.

Han’s flip-flop on China over the Hong Kong protests and increasing suspicions of his pro-China stance have resulted in a backlash that suggests his popularity is quickly decreasing. Han’s latest scandal was the sudden announcement of a direct ferry route between Kaohsiung and Wenzhou, China, which Taiwanese authorities quickly denounced as unauthorized.

Given that Han needs to contend with four other rivals for the KMT’s candidacy, it is not guaranteed he will come out on top. Whoever wins will have to deal with the public’s increasing wariness of China and, as Han and Gou did, play down pro-China stances and make a show of being tough.

In contrast, Tsai has refused to buckle to China. As a result, Beijing has cut off official links, reduced tourists to Taiwan, and repeatedly sailed warships and sent military aircraft on flybys near Taiwan. China has also lured several of Taiwan’s dwindling number of official allies away from recognition of the island’s independence, obstructed Taiwan from participating in international multilateral events like the World Health Assembly, and even forced foreign airlines and corporations to list Taiwan as part of China.

This has cost Tsai dearly, as many Taiwanese blamed her for the rocky ties with China, which they felt are a major reason for Taiwan’s struggling economy. One big part of Han’s mayoral campaign was to boost trade ties with China, and when he traveled to the mainland in March, he signed over $150 million in agricultural deals, though the agreements were allegedly negotiated through Chinese state enterprises.

However, Tsai has not budged from her defiant stance and, while weathering Beijing’s fury, has improved ties with the United States and overseen efforts to boost Taiwan’s military by launching projects such as the country’s first-ever indigenous submarine.

The more ordinary things Tsai has done or said may not attract headlines or win her popularity, but they are vital for Taiwan’s future. She has also overseen the reform of cushy public sector pensions that brought on protests from indignant military veterans and retired civil servants, and she has overseen the passing of Asia’s first same-sex marriage law. On the economics front, she launched the New Southbound Policy, an ambitious, wide-ranging plan to boost ties with Southeast Asia, as well as South Asia, Australia, and New Zealand, in a clear attempt to diversify Taiwan’s trade links and reduce dependence on China.

Amid the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, Tsai has also succeeded in getting Taiwanese firms to return their operations from abroad and promise at least $9.3 billion in investment. This bodes well for Taiwan’s economy in terms of jobs and productivity.

As Tsai makes another visit to the United States this week, however formidable the potential opposition she faces both at home and across the Taiwan Strait, her resilience means she can never be counted out

Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.

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