Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen waves to her supporters as she celebrates after winning the presidential elections in Taipei, Taiwan, 11 January 2020. EPA/How Hwee Young

Opinion – Taiwan’s election results and its implications for Beijing-Taipei relations

The landslide victory of Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the bitter defeat of Han Kuo-yu’s Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan’s presidential election on January 11 has significant implications for Beijing-Taipei relations in the coming years.

First, while Tsai’s DPP got 8.1 million votes (57 percent of the total votes), Han’s KMT merely acquired 5.5 million votes (38.6 percent of the total votes), pointing to a very solid power base of the DPP versus the rapid decline of the KMT.

Alarmingly, Han lost 280,000 votes in the city of Kaohsiung, as he had secured 892,545 votes in the mayoral election in 2018. But Han only got 610,896 votes in Kaohsiung on January 11, meaning that the loss of 280,000 voters’ support showed the dissatisfaction of many Kaohsiung residents toward his decision to run for the presidential election.

Perhaps the KMT made a strategic error in its entire presidential campaign, but the party had no choice because neither businessman Terry Guo nor any other party heavyweight carried the political charisma to appeal for populist support.

Han was and is a populist, but he himself cannot rescue the irreversible decline of the KMT.Second, the main factor contributing to the DPP victory was the Hong Kong protests from June to December 2019.

Thanks to the political mess in Hong Kong, the DPP has succeeded in playing the Hong Kong card to rally many Taiwanese voters, especially the youth who see the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” as a signal for Taiwan’s declining freedoms and curtailed democracy.

As such, many young people did and do strongly support the DPP. Some Hong Kong people visited Taiwan to observe the presidential election on January 11, including some newly elected district council members.

The pro-Beijing mass media in Hong Kong quickly labelled some of them politically “undesirable” elements who support the DPP. Yet, many Hong Kong people see Taiwanese democracy as a dream to which they aspire, but Taiwan’s democracy remains a utopian goal that cannot be realized in the constrained political context of Hong Kong.

Third, the KMT is in danger of becoming a permanent opposition in Taiwan’s politics, not only in the coming four years, but also perhaps in the medium term if the party cannot find a new leader as populist as Han.

Han’s defeat in this presidential election brings him to a political crossroads, because if the impeachment of his mayoral position is successful, his political career will encounter a crisis, even though some Taiwanese suggest that Han would be able to run for the KMT party chairman position.

The crux of the problem is that the post-Ma Ying-jeou KMT has witnessed a continual decline without any effective organization to compete effectively with the DPP. Han is a charismatic leader, but he lacked an effective KMT organization to steer him to a victorious path in the presidential election.

Party chairman Wu Den-yih resigned immediately after the electoral debacle. His problematic leadership marred the process of selecting the KMT presidential candidate through the primary elections.

The tensions between Wu’s party centre and Han’s local branch illustrated one key problem of KMT’s organization: the party oligarchs at the centre have been traditionally powerful, whereas the party branches have remained politically marginalized.

As a local party politician rising up to the top as a presidential candidate, Han broke a new record in KMT history, but his experiences demonstrated the decay of the KMT party centre. This party centre will need renewal, reform and rejuvenation. Eric Chu would perhaps take over from the party chairmanship.

Yet, Chu lacked charisma as he had been bitterly defeated in the last presidential election. Unless Eric Chu becomes a skillful, impartial and effective organizer, the KMT centre and its entire party machinery will likely encounter the perennial crises of leadership, organization and factionalism.

The decline of the KMT means that Beijing is losing a real ally in the policy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) toward the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. Traditionally, the KMT has been more vulnerable to the PRC’s united front work.

Before the presidential election, the DPP put forward the anti-infiltration bill to target at the Taiwanese friends of the PRC, especially the KMT leaders. The smooth passage of the bill in the Legislative Yuan did not meet a strong response from the KMT.

Nor did Han’s campaign team skillfully use the anti-infiltration legislation to mobilize the public fear of the DPP. The new law would likely generate tremendous political struggle in Taiwan’s politics in the years to come.

Fourth, once the PRC ally, namely KMT, has become a relatively weak political force in Taiwan’s politics, Beijing-Taipei relations are bound to be more conflict-ridden in the coming four years.

On January 12, Beijing immediately repeated the need for Taiwan to observe the 1992 consensus, but the problem is that, in her reelection speech on the night of January 11, Tsai Ing-wen mentioned four elements in Taipei-Beijing relations: peace, equality, democracy and dialogue.

Tsai’s remarks imply that Beijing firstly would need to reach a peaceful relationship with Taipei on the basis of political equality, instead of using the “one country, two systems.” Second, the PRC is expected to develop democracy so that political dialogue between the two Straits would begin.

These implications would surely be politically unacceptable to Beijing, for the PRC stresses the model of “one country, two systems” in Taiwan to deal with its political future. Unless PRC authorities change the terminology of their policy toward Taiwan, Beijing-Taipei relations will likely be marked by open disputes in the short run.

There are several potential scenarios for Beijing-Taipei relations in the years to come.
First, as mentioned above, a war of words may characterize Beijing-Taipei relations in the short run, with the implication that former KMT leaders, such as Lien Chan and Ma Ying-jeou, remain the middlemen that can narrow the differences between the PRC side and the DPP leadership.

Other Taiwanese politicians, like James Soong, would likely continue to be the key intermediaries between the PRC and ROC.

Second, Beijing’s partial economic boycott of Taipei would continue in the aspect of stopping the issuance of travel permits for mainland tourists to visit Taiwan. This kind of economic boycott is ironically accompanied by Beijing’s encouragement of the Taiwanese people to invest, reside and work in mainland China. The irony of Beijing’s policy illustrates its dilemma before Taiwan’s presidential election.

On the one hand, Beijing did not want to politically benefit the DPP by allowing mainland Chinese to visit Taiwan. But on the other hand, from the perspective of a united front, Beijing had to reach out to the Taiwanese by using its policy of developing the Greater Bay Area and Fujian’s incentives for the Taiwanese people. It is unlikely for Beijing to change this dialectical approach in the short run.

Yet, the DPP under Tsai Ing-wen has been developing its “Go South” policy by reducing Taiwan’s economic dependence on the Mainland. This “Go South” policy has been working well, as many Southeast Asian tourists have been visiting Taiwan in recent years.

Hence, Beijing’s policy of tightening mainlanders’ visits to Taiwan has not been working successfully. In order to achieve a breakthrough in Beijing-Taipei relations, the PRC’s think tank members on Taiwan may have to rethink their tactics and strategy.

Third, the Taiwan model of “one country, two systems” is encountering a new opposition from the DPP and its supporters. Unless the details of this Taiwan model are elaborated, and unless real incentives for Taiwan to accept the “one country, two systems” are developed more assertively and clearly, the PRC’s tendency of reiterating the “one country, two systems” principle does not help the process of achieving any breakthrough in Beijing-Taipei relations.

The New Party in Taiwan did mention one key feature of this Taiwan model, namely Taiwan’s participation in more international organization in the event of any breakthrough in Beijing-Taipei political relations.

Fourth, Beijing-Taipei relations would become so tense that military conflicts would suddenly erupt. No Chinese in the region of Greater China, and in other parts of the world, would like to envisage this scenario.

The rising Chinese military power and the frequent military accidents in Taiwan point to a phenomenon of power asymmetry in cross-strait relations, even as the US is supplying military weapons to bolster Taiwan’s defence. The balancing role of the US will remain crucial in the event of any military tensions.

Fifth, there is no choice open to Beijing except for a long wait for the KMT to return to power at least four years from now. However, as mentioned above, the KMT decline cannot be arrested at least in the short run. A longer wait on the part of Beijing may even see Taiwan drifting toward a permanent reluctance to be closer to the Mainland, economically and socially, not to mention politically.

If President Xi Jinping and his advisers cannot wait for too long, then a military option would not be excluded, from Beijing’s hardline perspective.

In short, all five scenarios point to a political impasse in Beijing-Taipei relations. It is hoped that both sides can and will manage their relations flexibly and peacefully, that the US may intervene effectively if both sides develop into more tense relations than before, that both Beijing and Taipei can reflect on their existing policy toward the other.

The politics of Beijing-Taipei relations will continue to be fluid, risky and unstable in the years to come.

MNA Political commentator