If Tsai Ing-wen wins Taiwan election, she can thank China for it

Taiwanese are looking at how the candidates are reacting to China.

Kayla Wong| December 31, 02:40 AM

If approval ratings are anything to go by, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen looks set to win the presidential election on Jan. 11, 2020.

Leading the polls

Tsai currently leads her closest Kuomintang (KMT) rival, Han Kuo-yu, by at least 30 percentage points, according to a Taiwan News report that cited results of a telephone poll released by the Cross-Strait Policy Association on Dec. 17.

The result was collected from a total of 1,074 respondents.

Stunning defeat in 2018 local elections

Consider just how far Tsai has come.

In November 2018, she was forced to step down as the chair of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), following her pro-independence party's stunning electoral defeat.

Now, one year on, she is experiencing a major turnaround.

The future of her political career had appeared to hang in the balance, as the party lost seven out of 13 cities and counties.

This included losing its traditional stronghold of Kaohsiung to KMT in the local elections.

Xi's ramping up of reunification rhetoric aids Tsai

Tsai has constantly warned of the danger posed to Taiwan by China.

She has also pushed strongly for Taiwan to be less economically dependent on China.

Following Chinese President Xi Jinping's 2019 New Year's speech, in which he urged Taiwan to reunite with mainland China, Tsai saw a revival in her popularity after she reiterated that Taiwan's sovereignty will never be compromised.

Tsai's ratings improved after she pushed back against Xi

In fact, Xi's push for the self-ruled island to rejoin the mainland fold has helped Tsai gain momentum after the DPP's crushing defeat.

According to poll results from a telephone survey published on Jan. 21 by the Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation, 34.5 percent of the 1,000 respondents expressed their support for Tsai, which was an increase of 10 percentage points since the conclusion of the November elections, AP News reported.

Fan Shih-ping, a political science professor at Taiwan Normal University, told South China Morning Post that Xi's Taiwan rhetoric has helped her bounce back, as "voters admired her courage in safeguarding Taiwan's sovereignty".

Beijing's interference in upcoming election not helping

Tsai's increasing popularity has also been arguably boosted by reports that Beijing has been meddling in Taiwan's election.

Such allegations are strengthened by the testimony of self-proclaimed Chinese defector Wang Liqiang, who claimed he was ordered by Beijing to meddle in Taiwan's election in favour of the KMT.

Firm support for pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong helped Tsai

But perhaps the seven-month protests in Hong Kong has helped contribute the most to the revival in Tsai's popularity.

Her show of solidarity with the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has helped improve her approval ratings among certain groups of Taiwanese who commiserate with the protesters, or who might be fearful of Beijing's encroachment on their way of life and civil liberties.

The 2014 Occupy Central movement has also previously invoked fears among the wary Taiwanese, even leading some to say "Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan".

Taiwan looking at Hong Kong closely

The protests in Hong Kong also serve as a valuable lesson for those opposed to reunification with mainland China, reminding them of what would happen should the island come under China's control.

Detractors of the "one country, two systems" arrangement said its failure means it should never be replicated in Taiwan.

To counter this narrative, the Chinese Communist Party has strongly pushed for the framework to be used for the "wayward province" to return to the "motherland's" embrace.

For some Taiwanese, the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government's handling of the protests might have also strengthened anti-Beijing sentiment, and pushed them towards parties deemed to have taken a sterner stance towards Beijing.

Voters perceive Tsai's policies differently now

Therefore, while Tsai's policies of rejecting China were questioned by many before the November 2018 elections for either being too distant from China to develop strong economic ties, or being too soft in standing up to Beijing's military and diplomatic pressure, voters can be said to be more accepting of her policies following Xi stepping up the Taiwan rhetoric.

Speaking to Nikkei Asian Review, Sean King, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs, went as far as saying that "Xi, and underling Carrie Lam, have effectively gifted Tsai a comeback from the would be political dead".

KMT's Beijing-friendly stance

In contrast, critics have denounced the KMT's friendlier stance towards Beijing, saying Han would be unable to defend Taiwan's interests sufficiently in the face of increasing pressure from Beijing.

Han, whose dramatic rise into a political star was termed the "Han Wave", has advocated closer ties with China, but rejects the "pro-China" label he said the DPP was to be blamed for.

However, when asked which country poses the greatest threat to Taiwan, during the presidential debate on Sunday, Dec. 29, Han avoided answering the question directly.

He said the question revealed the reporter was "trapped by ideology", Taiwan News reported.

Cross-strait relations an issue this election

Cross-strait relations had taken centre stage at the presidential debate, with both Han and Tsai taking pot shots at each other for their cross-strait policy.

While Tsai questioned Han's endorsement of a statement by a pro-unification civil group, Han responded by claiming she acknowledged Taiwan was part of China during her time as a minister at the Mainland Affairs Council in the 2000s.

Han also said the best president for Taiwan would be one that does not allow wars to happen, adding that he would improve the island's defence by building "smart" and "small but agile" armed forces.

Tsai then responded by saying the territory under her would always be ready for any attack or invasion attempt.

Since Tsai took office in 2016, and refused to reaffirm the one-China principle, Beijing has suspended official exchanges and talks with Taiwan.

Cross-strait issue a focus in past elections too

This is not the first time the cross-strait issue has featured heavily in an election.

Tsai's landslide victory in 2016 was largely seen as riding on voters' disapproval of the KMT's pro-China policies then, in addition to disappointment with the economy under former president Ma Ying-jeou.

Approval ratings might not be reliable

However, while poll results indicate a Tsai victory so far, they might be distorted, for Han had told his supporters to tell pollsters they support Tsai instead.

He wrote in a Facebook post published on Nov. 29 that this is so that they can "keep the DPP happy until Jan. 10".

But barring a hiccup or surprise event, Tsai looks set to win re-election in January 2020.

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Top image adapted via Han Kuo-yu's & Tsai Ing-wen's Facebook