Presidential election in taiwan: a clear message to beijing

President Tsai Ing-Wen, who is critical of China, wins by a clear margin. Younger people in particular voted for her – also because of the situation in Hong Kong.

Remains in office: election winner Tsai Ing-Wen Photo: ap

At nine o’clock in the evening local time, President Tsai Ing-Wen appears before the international press. Even though the vote count is still in full swing at this point, the 63-year-old’s clear election victory is already clear. Nevertheless, the progressive politician chooses a cautious tone. On the substance, however, she is clear: "The election result shows that we Taiwanese reject the ‘one country, two systems’ principle of China’s head of state Xi Jinping. I hope that the Beijing government understands that we will not cave in to threats and intimidation."

Just a stone’s throw away, 31-year-old engineer Willy Liu waits for the first speech from the president, who was hoisted into her second term in Saturday’s election with about 57 percent. "The result is a victory for the entire republic. We want a person at our helm who will make it clear to the world that we are our own country – and not part of China," he said.

Outside the main opposition Kuomintang Party building, whose top candidate Han Kuo-Yu took an outright defeat with 38 percent of the vote, the mood is somber. "Even though I supported Han, I can still accept the decision. Taiwan is just a democratic country," says 30-year-old Wei Shen, a young man with a long rocker mane, baseball cap and canned beer.

He voted for the conservative because he is not a conventional politician from the establishment, but a man of the people. Wei Shen describes himself as a member of the working class who barely makes ends meet with his job at a supermarket checkout: Wages in Taiwan are low, he says, while rents are on the rise.

Standing up to Beijing

Instead of economic problems, however, relations with the People’s Republic of China dominated the agenda in the presidential elections. President Tsai stands for a self-confident course that stands up to Beijing’s intimidation. The Kuomintang, on the other hand, wants to improve relations with its big neighbor – mainly for the sake of the economy.

In previous elections, Beijing has not infrequently used military or rhetorical threats to intimidate the Taiwanese. This year, the Communist Party has been conspicuously silent. Critics claim, however, that influence is merely more subtle in the Internet age.

"Launching misinformation is cheaper than launching military attacks. It’s a pure cost-benefit calculation," says 70-year-old Su Tzen-Ping. The onetime journalist sits in the offices of Taiwan’s Fact Checking Center, a handful of employees closely monitoring social media this evening in front of lunch boxes and bubble tea. The NGO’s mission it to combat rampant fake news.

Since Thursday, alleged news has been circulating that a virus that recently broke out in China has now spread to Taiwan – a malicious hoax apparently designed to discourage people from voting. Mr. Su is sure that parts of such manipulation attempts originate from the big neighboring state: "China is exploiting democracy in Taiwan for their purposes to influence the opinion of the population here".

Obviously, this has not succeeded. Apart from the results, the presidential election in Taiwan is first and foremost a victory for democracy: More than two-thirds of all eligible voters cast their ballots this Saturday.

Long queues had already formed in front of the Ximen Elementary School in downtown Taipei on Saturday morning. For most Taiwanese, this year’s election holds a very special meaning. "If I don’t vote this time, I may not be able to vote at all in the future," says 37-year-old businesswoman Tsai Wan-Jen, who describes herself as a swing voter. She is most concerned about the growing political pressure from Beijing.

The pragmatism of the elderly

Still, many older Taiwanese in particular want a pragmatic rapprochement with China. "Somehow we have to cooperate with each other," says Chen Shih-Hong, a 50-year-old cab driver, for example. Since the leftist president Tsai Ing-Wen has been in office, hardly any tourists from mainland China have come to Taipei. For Mr. Chen, this means a third less income and longer working days to make ends meet. That is why he is voting for the Kuomintang candidate Han.

This is another ironic twist of fate: in the 1940s, the Kuomintang fought the Red Army for the supremacy of the People’s Republic. After the ignominious defeat, its general Chiang Kai-Shek fled to Taiwan, where he transplanted the "Republic of China" known as Taiwan onto the island of Taiwan. Seventy years later, the once hostile factions seem closer than ever.

The social rifts in Taiwan are generational: most elders emphasize the cultural and historical similarities to China. "We and China are the same people. We should maintain harmony and not provoke each other," says, for example, an elderly gentleman at the latest Kuomintang election event in Taipei.

Worried look to Hong Kong

For 37-year-old fashion designer Aurora Lee, however, the autocratically ruled neighboring country is purely a foreign country; she does not feel a common bond. "The bloody protests in Hong Kong were a key moment for us. We had to decide which side we were on," she says. Taiwan must never become dependent on China, she says, or it would meet the same fate as the former British colony of Hong Kong.

That’s also the belief of a Hong Kong activist, completely masked in black, who traveled to Taipei for the election. "Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan" is written on the white banner he carries in front of him at President Tsai’s final election rally on Friday evening. "Whatever the outcome, Taiwanese are free to choose whatever they want – unlike us in Hong Kong," he says. A crowd of passersby spontaneously forms, shouting cheering chants of solidarity in time to the Taipei night sky.

But for both Hong Kong and Taiwan, strained relations with China continue to grow uncomfortable. "I believe that pressure from Beijing will increase in the future," says newly elected President Tsai Ing-Wen on election night: "However, I urge the government in Beijing to respect the democratic will of Taiwanese people."

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