Image Courtesy: Al Jazeera
In defiance of warnings from China, William Lai Ching-te, a member of Taiwan's governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), emerged victorious in the recent presidential election. Despite Beijing's assertion that the DPP does not reflect the mainstream public opinion on the island, Lai's election has transpired, prompting China to maintain its claim over Taiwan as part of its territory. Beijing further contends that the electoral outcome "will not impede the inevitable trend of China's reunification." Hou Yu-ih, the candidate from the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) party, secured 33.49% of the votes, while Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) received 26.45%. With over 14 million participants, the voter turnout surpassed 71%. The spirited electoral campaign not only highlighted Taiwan's vibrant democratic principles but also delved into crucial livelihood issues and the challenging dilemma of managing relations with its powerful and assertive one-party state neighbour, China, led by Xi Jinping.
In the aftermath of Taiwan's election outcome, a representative from China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasised the “enduring reality” that, irrespective of developments within Taiwan, the fundamental truth remains unchanged – there is only one China globally, and Taiwan is an integral part of it.
The spokesperson reiterated the importance of the One-China principle as a steadfast foundation for maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. Confident in the international community's commitment to the one-China principle, the spokesperson expressed expectations for continued understanding and support for China's steadfast opposition to 'Taiwan independence' separatist activities, while actively working towards national reunification. Prior to this statement, a spokesperson for China's Taiwan Affairs Office had earlier asserted that the election result does not align with the mainstream perspective on the island.
Taiwan and it’s primary goal:
With a focus on capturing the youth vote, political parties and candidates have redirected their campaigns toward addressing pressing domestic concerns such as affordable child-rearing and housing. As the island democracy of 23.5 million people contemplates its next leader, the contest between the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) advocating for independence and the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) framing the choice as "war and peace" or "democracy and autocracy" adds a geopolitical dimension. However, amidst the rallies and fervent campaign activities, voters increasingly emphasised domestic issues like wages and housing, reflecting a nuanced electoral landscape where the future of Taiwan's relations with the mainland is just one aspect of the decision-making process. The possibility of a war with China looms large in voters' minds, with nearly half expressing concern about such an outcome in the next five years, according to a survey by Commonwealth, a Taiwanese business magazine.
A notable shift among young voters was evident, as recent polls indicated a growing support for third-party candidate Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Former Taipei mayor Ko, positioning himself as a "pragmatic" choice, stands out for his less ideological approach compared to the candidates from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Kuomintang party (KMT). Incumbent DPP vice president Lai Ching-te pledges to follow Tsai’s policy and asserts Taiwan's independence from Beijing. KMT's New Taipei Mayor Hou Yu-ih frames the election as a decisive choice between "war and peace," stressing his party's role in reducing the risk of conflict with China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory. The nuanced dynamics reflect a departure from past voting patterns, hinting at a more complex political landscape in Taiwan's electoral choices.
China’s tactics against Taiwan Pre-Election
Panic swept Taiwan as mobile phone users received an alert urging them to "be aware for your safety" amid Beijing's launch of a satellite over its southern airspace. The satellite, Einstein Probe, was successfully launched from China's Xichang Satellite Launch Centre. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu clarified the alert, linking it to a pattern of "grey zone" activities by Beijing aimed at intimidating Taiwan. In the lead-up to elections, China heightened its military presence, deploying spy balloons, termed as a new form of grey zone harassment by Taiwan. Despite Taiwan's claims, China dismissed allegations of interference, accusing Taiwan of attempting to "manipulate the election."
Propaganda and Disinformation tactics
Online contents are rife with theories about the DPP and President Tsai Ing-wen, including baseless claims about the US and Taiwan establishing biolabs to target Chinese individuals. Additionally, fake polls circulated in local media, purportedly showing the KMT candidate leading the DPP, aiming to confuse voters. A November (2023) rumour falsely suggested that DPP's vice-presidential candidate, Hsiao Bi-khim, and former top representative in Washington, is a US citizen. Some disinformation alleges that Taiwan receives "poisonous" US-imported pork. While not all connected to Chinese authorities, many instances are attributed to Chinese-linked agents. Experts note China's extensive efforts to propagate a narrative that the US won't support or may abandon Taiwan during a conflict, using not just conspiracy theories but also highlighting news portraying the US negatively. For example, when TSMC expanded in the US, China framed it as American coercion, depleting Taiwan's resources—a tactic considered successful by some disinformation experts.
Taiwan's intelligence community issued a warning about China's efforts to influence the upcoming election through disinformation, military manoeuvres, and economic operations. The objective is to bolster opposition candidates favouring closer ties with Beijing. Taiwan identifies China's cognitive warfare operations, involving the dissemination of disinformation and amplification of China-friendly candidates' talking points, as particularly sophisticated. Tactics include content farms, fake social media accounts, collaboration with private companies to mimic genuine news websites, extracting favourable soundbites from Taiwanese television for social media videos, and alleged covert funding for local news outlets reporting on livelihood issues while occasionally casting doubts on Beijing-unfavourable candidates.
Apart from the above mentioned, it is a well known fact that China has been waging economic warfare against Taiwan. PRC is using economic tactics to influence Taiwanese polls, suspending tariff concessions on diverse products, including agriculture, fishery, machinery, auto parts, and textiles. This follows previous sanctions on petrochemical products and a warning of trade sanctions in December,2023. These sanctions are noteworthy due to the substantial trade ties between China and Taiwan, with Beijing being Taipei's largest trading partner, amounting to $205 billion in 2022.
Measures ranged from restricting Chinese tourists and banning imports, including pineapples, to heightened tensions in 2022 with military exercises and suspensions of additional Taiwanese food imports during Nancy Pelosi's visit. This provided significant leverage for Beijing, according to Chiu Chui-Cheng, Deputy Chair of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council.
Missiles were launched by Beijing towards the island in an attempt to deter support for a candidate advocating Taiwan's independence. However, this strategy failed, and the candidate, Lee Teng-hui, secured a landslide victory. Despite warnings from Chinese officials, outgoing Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a member of the DPP, won two consecutive terms in 2016 and 2020. News literacy experts highlight that China's cognitive warfare operations against Taiwan extend beyond election periods.
What Taiwanese youths want:
Taiwan's political landscape witnessed active campaigns tailored by parties and candidates to address youth concerns, particularly focusing on affordable child rearing and housing. Constituting one-fifth of the population, the 20 to 34 age group plays a major role in shaping electoral outcomes. Despite traditionally lower youth turnout, the 2020 elections saw an impressive participation rate exceeding 70%, crucial in securing President Tsai Ing-wen's historic second term with a record 8.17 million votes. Beyond economic challenges, youths, like 26-year-old Mr. Chang, emphasises concerns ranging from environmental protection and energy to marriage, gender equality, and lowering the legal voting age.
According to CNN, young voters perceive the ongoing debate about Taiwan's future as primarily ideological. They argued that the only practical option is to maintain the existing status quo, wherein Taiwan remains self-ruled with its ultimate status undecided. A formal declaration of independence is viewed as likely to prompt war, and there is little support for a complete transfer of power to Beijing. The predominant concerns among these young voters revolve around economic well-being, particularly issues like stagnant wages and a shortage of public housing. In 2023, Taiwan's export-dependent economy experienced its slowest growth in eight years at 1.61%, attributed to weakening global demand for technology products. Despite Taiwan's global leadership in semiconductor chips, income levels for many workers have remained stagnant for the past two decades. Official statistics show that the monthly median wage in Taiwan was $1,386 in 2022, significantly lower than other high-growth economies such as South Korea ($1,919), Hong Kong ($2,444), and Singapore ($3,776).
Certain young voters underscored the crucial task of protecting Taiwan's hard-won democracy and signalling to the global community the nation's resolve to preserve its freedoms, seeking ongoing support. Concerns intensified due to Beijing's actions in Hong Kong, raising fears that Taiwan's distinctive, democratic culture may be at risk under China's Communist leadership.
Way Ahead for Taiwan:
In the eight years since Ms. Tsai assumed the presidency, China has heightened military tensions with Taiwan, regularly testing the island's defences and challenging the previously respected median line in the strait. President Xi Jinping has explicitly stated China's willingness to use force to reunify with Taiwan if deemed necessary. Regardless of the election outcome, Beijing is expected to persist in pressuring Taiwan, possibly diversifying its tactics. This could involve increased demands, more military incursions, or attempts at engagement through economic incentives. The traditional narrative of independence versus reunification is being questioned by a focus on issues such as affordable child-rearing and housing, particularly as political parties actively target the youth vote. Despite the geopolitical dimension introduced by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates for independence, and the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) framing the choice as "war and peace" or "democracy and autocracy," voters seem increasingly inclined towards candidates addressing immediate domestic challenges.
China's actions in the lead-up to the elections reveal a multifaceted approach. From military posturing, satellite launches, and spy balloon deployments to propaganda and disinformation campaigns, Beijing is using a range of tactics to influence Taiwanese voters. Economic warfare through sanctions and trade measures further highlights China's determination to sway the electoral outcome. The use of military threats and cognitive warfare operations underscores Beijing's persistent efforts to shape Taiwan's political landscape.
The pragmatic approach of Ko, compared to the ideological stances of DPP and KMT candidates, resonates with a growing segment of the electorate. This shift, combined with China's multifaceted interference strategies, presents a dynamic picture of Taiwan's evolving political choices. The concerns of Taiwanese youths, representing a significant portion of the population, centre around economic well-being, environmental protection, and the preservation of democratic values. While the debate about Taiwan's future remains an ideological one, the practical emphasis on maintaining the status quo and addressing pressing domestic issues underscores a maturing political consciousness among the younger generation.
As Taiwan approaches its elections, the nation faces not only the challenge of navigating its complex relationship with China but also the imperative of addressing internal socio-economic issues to meet the expectations of a diverse and discerning electorate. The incoming president, to take charge on May 20, will need to navigate these complexities, not only in the face of external pressures from China but also in response to the evolving priorities of the Taiwanese people. The outcome of the election and subsequent policies will likely shape the trajectory of Taiwan's future, both domestically and in its relations with the mainland.
(Ms. Annunthra K is a research officer at C3S. The views expressed are those of the author and does not reflect the views of C3S.)