Taiwan’s Presidential Election — A Referendum on the CCP?

By Simone Gao

Narration: Weeks before the presidential election, Taiwan’s public opinion is settling in favor of the incumbent president.

Tsai Ing-wen: Here, I would like to reiterate that Taiwan will never accept “one country, two systems.”

Narration: Tsai polled at low teens 12 months ago. What changed since then?

Joey Siu: None of the promises made by the Chinese Communist Party could be trusted. I mean, Hong Kong is a very good example.

Taiwanese: I really think democracy is hard to come by! The recent events really make us feel it’s precarious.

Simone Gao: Do you think this election will be a referendum on the Chinese Communist Party?

Ted Yoho: I think it will be, and I think it will be a strong referendum.

Host: Welcome to Zooming In, I am Simone Gao. On January 11, 23 million Taiwanese people will elect their next president and a new Legislative Yuan, which is one of the five branches of government in Taiwan. Against the backdrop of a grand conflict between China and the U.S., Taiwan’s choice will decide their relations with the two most powerful countries in the world. The stakes are also high for America and China. To the United States, Taiwan is an ally, a strategic partner and a friend that America once betrayed. To the Chinese Communist Party, reunification with Taiwan is a promise, a manifestation of the Party’s power and part of the so-called Chinese Dream. What will the upcoming presidential election in Taiwan bring to all parties concerned? Let’s explore in today’s episode of Zooming In.

Part 1:  A Good Hand Ruined for the KMT

Narration: At 8:45 p.m. on November 24, 2018, while votes were still being counted, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s candidate, Chen Qimai, appeared in his campaign headquarters to concede to his Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) opponent Han Kuo-yu. He was 10,000 votes behind Han, and his hopes for victory were dashed. Chen’s loss ended the DPP’s 20-year reign in Taiwan’s second largest city: Kaohsiung.

Kaohsiung was not the only disappointment for the DPP on that day when over 11,000 local officials were being elected in Taiwan. The DPP lost seven of the thirteen cities and counties it previously held. The 2018 election is largely viewed as a referendum on President Tsai Ing-wen, whose core policies in agriculture, energy, labor law, tourism, and social issues were not well received by the Taiwanese. Tsai resigned as the party chairwoman after the defeat. Han, the newly elected Kaohsiung mayor, on the other hand, was nominated by the KMT as their presidential candidate for 2020. At the time, he had a double-digit lead over Tsai in the polls.

Host: Now it is two weeks from the election, and things have taken a drastic turn. President Tsai’s approval rating is at 53%; whereas, Mayor Han’s approval rating is only at 15%. What happened during the past 12 months?

Narration: On January 2, 2019, two months after the big 2018 victory for the KMT, in a national speech about Taiwan, the Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping reiterated China’s insistence on the “One China” policy and a “one country, two systems” solution to Taiwan.

Xi Jinping: Over the past 70 years, in the spirit of seeking common ground while shelving differences, we have worked to ensure that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one China on the basis of “One-China” policy. We’ve worked together for the “1992 Consensus” on national reunification.

The basic principle of peaceful reunification and “one country, two systems” were established. Furthermore, we formed the basic strategy of upholding “one country, two systems” and promoting national reunification.

Narration: President Tsai responded immediately with a firm objection.

Tsai Ing-wen: First of all, I must solemnly point out that we have never accepted the “1992 Consensus.” The fundamental reason is that the “1992 Consensus,” as defined by the Beijing authorities, is the same as the “One-China” policy, “one country, two systems.” Today, the remarks of leaders in Beijing confirmed our doubts. Here, I would like to reiterate that Taiwan will never accept “one country, two systems.” The overwhelming majority of public opinion in Taiwan also firmly opposes “one country, two systems,” which is the “Taiwan consensus.”

Narration: 81% of Taiwan agreed with President Tsai on the “one country, two systems” issue. Five months later, major protests against an extradition law broke out in Hong Kong. The law, if enacted, would allow the extradition of people in Hong Kong to Mainland China, where they would be subject to arbitrary detention, unfair trials, and torture under China’s judicial system. The extradition law is viewed by the people of Hong Kong as a flagrant trampling on “one country, two systems.”

The protests have lasted 6 months and are still ongoing, while the Hong Kong government, under pressure from the CCP, denied the Hongkongers’ “five demands.” Police have exerted brutal violence on the demonstrators.

Taiwan has been watching closely what’s happening in Hong Kong.

Mayor Han is also against One Country, Two Systems. But he supports the “1992 Consensus” that claims that there is only One China.

Han Kuo-Yu: Shall we strongly support the “1992 Consensus”, one China with respective interpretations ?

Narration: As to Hong Kong, Han once said he was not clear about the situation in Hong Kong. He also visited the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong, a move not popular with the people of Taiwan. Han’s Party, the Chinese Nationalist Party KMTp is considered to be pro-Beijing in general.

On June 23, 2019, tens of thousands of Taiwanese gathered in the rain in front of the Presidential compound to protest the so -called “red media” in Taiwan.

Taiwanese: Reject the communist-aligned media and protect Taiwan’s democracy!

Narration: “Red media” refers to media that have close ties or are owned by Beijing.

Taiwanese: I really think democracy is hard to come by! The recent events really make us feel it’s precarious. I hope my children will have the freedom to think in the future.

If you don’t support it now, no one will dare to stand up in the future. Fake news can easily mislead the public. We must resist these fake news outlets, especially the communist news from the other side.

Narration: Yao Liming, President of Taiwan Congressional Observation Foundation: “The red regime wants to eliminate all colors, only the red media. If the people it supports really hold the power in the central government, what we lose, most likely, is our freedom from fear forever.”

Host: How has this series of events shifted public opinion in Taiwan? I spoke with Assistant Professor Shen Boyang from National Taipei University.

Ms. Gao: The KMT had a huge win in the 2018 local elections and President Tsai’s approval rating dropped to as low as 10-15%. Now things have taken a drastic turn. What happened?

Shen Boyang: Many people thought that The Anti-Extradition movement was the main reason for Tsai Ing-wen’s  rise in the polls. But if we look at the numbers, Tsai’s rise began from January or February for a very simple reason- Xi Jinping’s speech on “One Country,Two Systems” , and as a result there were sayings that the DPP picked up a gun on FB. Xi’s speech aroused the consciousness of Sovereignty among the Taiwanese people and Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement following that was the last straw, which confirmed the threat from China and boosted Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity.

Ms. Gao: How big of a factor is Hong Kong?

Mr. Shen: The institute of sociology in Academia Sinica has been conducting a continuous survey on the China factor. In 2018, when asked whether national sovereignty or economic development is more important, 50% Taiwanese chose economy, while only 30% chose sovereignty. However, by 2019, 60% chose sovereignty whereas 30% chose economy. This big reversal came in May. At that time, the Hong Kong protests hadn’t taken place yet, so the Taiwanese’ consciousness of sovereignty had risen before that. In the first half of the year, Media’s extensive coverage of the CCP’s usage of the United Front work and information war against Taiwan contributed greatly to the awakening of the Taiwanese people. After the Hong Kong protests, they were re-assured those reports were true. It turns out China really does this. “One country, two systems” is a scam. So after the outbreak of Hong Kong protests, the whole nation takes sovereignty much more seriously.

Ms. Gao: Do you think the 2020 Taiwan election will be a referendum on the Communist Party? In other words, the decisive issue in this election will be whether the Taiwanese want to be pro-communist or anti-communist.

Mr. Shen: I think this is a decisive issue.

Bumper: Coming up, could Beijing’s reunification strategy backfire?

Part 2: Beijing’s Influence Campaign

Narration: On November, 2019, Australia’s 60 Minutes aired a special about Chinese defector Wang Liqiang, a self-proclaimed former Chinese spy. Wang exposed a number of the CCP’s operations in Hong Kong and Taiwan, including contributing 20 million RMB to Mayor Han Guoyu’s presidential bid through entities based in Hong Kong. Han denied the accusation and pledged he would end his campaign if he accepted even one NT dollar, Taiwan’s currency, from the CCP.

Meanwhile, social media researchers confirmed Beijing’s massive influence campaign in Taiwan. Professor Shen, among others, led investigations that connected the dots between Mayor Han’s quick rise in popularity in 2018 and help from Beijing.

Mr. Shen: The 2018 election is like this: China’s approach is to search extensively for news about Han Kuo-yu, and the way to search is site interference. First he set up a lot of websites, which contained a lot of fake news about Han Kuo-yu or the DPP (Democratic Progressive Party). He made it easy for you to see the positive news about Han Kuo-yu or the negative news about the DPP in the first two pages of Google search. They won’t do this every day. Only when many people search for a particular news item will they do it. For instance, the Kaohsiung mayor debate. Within six hours that evening, they had all China-created content on Google’s first two pages, so when you searched for Han Kuo-yu, all results were fake news about the DPP. This is also done on YouTube, where there are about 10 channels that upload a lot of biased fake news in places where Taiwanese would not be able to do this, like Russia or Greece. Through such site interference, YouTube will regard the fake news as recommended news and recommend them to more people, which is almost omnipresent. If you look at the background information of Google last year, which we have made statistics: At a certain point in time, Taiwan ranked 16th in the world in terms of the number of searches for Han Kuo-yu. That is to say, there are 15 countries in the world searching for more Han Kuo-yu news than Taiwan. This is unbelievable. Another approach, for example, there is a company in Beijing like Wuwei technology, which designed a website at that time and uploaded tens of thousands of articles, of course, all fake news or controversial information. They will also manipulate the fan pages on Facebook, put the fake news on top of Facebook, and synchronize the operation on both sides, so that the fan pages will reach more people. The names of these fan pages were initially set up in a natural way, such as Chinese chat, then changed to Han Kuo-yu’s support group, and this year to Terry Gou’s support group to create fake news. The third tactic is asking students or Taiwanese businessmen to drop a large number of fake news from Weibo or WeChat on social platforms like Line or Whatsapp, which has continued to be used this year.

Narration: The social media maneuvers are new, but it is all just a continuation of a much bigger and older effort by the CCP called reunification, which started back in 1949 when the defeated Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan. A military solution to Taiwan has always been on the table. Beijing deploys its most accurate short to medium range ballistic missiles in coastal provinces and aims them at Taiwan. Since Tsai Ing-wen’s presidency started in 2016, China has increased military patrols and live-fire exercises near the island.  While leveraging a constant military threat,  according to Professor Shen, Beijing also seeks to infiltrate every aspect of Taiwanese society.

Mr. Shen: We divided China’s impact on Taiwan into both online and offline. Online are things we just mentioned. Offline is the phenomenon of underground networks. Underground networks target mafia, palace, temple, and village heads. After being penetrated, they will be asked to release false information. This offline network approach actually began in 1949. It also penetrated very thoroughly.

Narration: Nevertheless, the bulk of Beijing’s power over Taiwan comes from the economy. Taiwan’s economic growth is heavily reliant on exports, of which 40% go to mainland China. Taiwanese companies have moved significant portions of manufacturing to the Mainland due to its cheap and abundant labor. Smartphone devices and mechanical equipment are the two major items that Taiwanese businesses manufacture in China.

The economy is of paramount importance to Taiwan. In 2008, KMT presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou had a landslide win thanks to his campaign message of strong cross-Strait economic relations that would benefit Taiwan. However, his economic policies did not deliver. Instead, over-investing in the mainland contributed to the formation of a “red supply chain” that gutted Taiwan’s own manufacturing, much like what happened in the U.S.

President Tsai, however, had a different vision. She proposed a New Southbound Policy that aims to strengthen Taiwan’s economic relations with emerging markets in Southeast Asia in order to decrease its over reliance on China’s market.  The policy had not yielded impressive results but it is certainly catching on a unique timing that might present Taiwan with an historic opportunity.

Bumper: Coming up, is the U.S.-China trade war an historic opportunity for Taiwan?

Part 3: An Historic Opportunity?

Narration: On a cold and rainy winter day in Washington DC, two months away from Taiwan’s presidential election, the Global Taiwan Institute had a full house hosting media, U.S.-Taiwan experts, Taiwan diplomats,  and a representative from the Trump administration: deputy director of the Bureau of East Asian, Australia, New Zealand and Pacific Island affairs. The theme of this event is the strategic challenges China has brought to the interest of the U.S. and Taiwan in this region.

James Fanell: They had a detailed package. And this is just the 3 out of the 15 pages go through and says: this is our plan to build up the infrastructure of Bougainville. We are gonna rebuild this road on the east coast, we are gonna build two major bridges between Buka and the main island. We are going to build another bridge in the south to connect the major resorts we have down there. We are gonna upgrade two of your airfields and we are also going to upgrade a couple of your ports. They provided all these to the people and the anticipation is that when they become a newest nation on earth and when they are asked who do you recognize? Taipei or Beijing? As it is situated right now, I think the answer is pretty clear.

Narration: Islands in the southern Pacific are the first island chain for Australia and New Zealand. Both of them are members of the “Five Eyes,” an alliance that shares intelligence information with the United States. In June 2017, China officially announced that the Belt and Road Initiative will expand to include three blue economic passages, one of them is the South Pacific. Recently, two south pacific island countries severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan for China. The U.S. government leaves no ambiguity as to who they stand with.

Jennifer Spande: The U.S. has always emphasized how much Taiwan contributes to its partners, its neighbors, and to the international community. And we see Taiwan as a reliable partner and a responsible stakeholder. Taiwan and its vibrant democracy are a force for good in the Pacific and in the world, and that’s why we firmly support Taiwan’s relationship with pacific island nations.

John Tkacik: I just want to point out that this is a diplomatic anomaly that for one country who doesn’t recognize–in fact derecognize one country to go around and encouraging its friends and allies to continue to recognize the country that the U.S. derecognized. I am not going to point this out and ask everybody questions about this because I already know the answers but this really underscores the incredible change of America’s strategic outlook toward the Pacific and toward Taiwan that’s only taken place in the last two years.

Narration: In the last two years, the U.S.-China trade war has brought a major change to the relations of the two countries. Moreover, the great U.S.-China conflict sets the backdrop for most geopolitical operations today. Steven Yates was the Deputy National Security Adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2001 to 2005. He spent many years in Taiwan. He told me right now is a historic opportunity for Taiwan.

Ms. Gao: I think Taiwan has never really been able to have a standalone relationship with the United States and it’s always caught in the relationship between China and the U.S. So against the backdrop of this grand conflict between the U.S. and China, the trade war and everything, what has that brought to Taiwan and what’s your suggestion to the Taiwanese government?

Steven Yates: I think we’re on the front end of a conversation with Taiwan but also with many, many others to not think of this as a binary choice. Really. There’s one force, the CCP, that’s trying to impose an unfair and unjust approach on all of us. And it’s not really the United States versus China, it’s China versus everyone else that wants a more normal, free pattern of trade and investment in dealings between nations. And so Taiwan, like everyone else, needs to begin diversifying its supply chain. And when it’s doing that, that’s not just with the United States, that’s with Southeast Asia, it’s with South Asia, it’s with other parts of Asia. It’s with the U.S., it’s with Canada, Mexico, and parts of Europe. It’s really all of these free and developed economies that are safer areas, more receptive to a democratic Taiwan, and a prosperous and tech leading Taiwan.

Ms. Gao: I feel for the Taiwanese it’s not that clear cut because you know, 40% of Taiwan’s export is to China. And there is this military scenario always hanging there. I mean that China might invade Taiwan and also, you know, there’s a hurt feeling between the U.S. and Taiwan because of the history. So Nixon has — how would you say it — chose China over Taiwan once and I think all this feeling about if Taiwan would be used as a bargaining chip, again, all of these elements come into play. So on Taiwan’s side, how do they position themselves?

Mr. Yates: Well, it is a challenge of perceptions versus realities. And I think on the perception side, I agree with your summary of what some of those perceptions are and what the concerns related to those perceptions might be. On the reality side of it, though, Taiwan is a country of 23 million people. It’s a substantial economy. It certainly warrants attention on its own merits with regard to U.S. strategy, especially in Asia, but really globally. Taiwan’s trade and investment is very, very relevant to key states in the United States. And so there’s no question on its own merits. It should get some degree of support and respect and interchange that wouldn’t be open to negotiating away. At the same time, Taiwan, relative to the magnitude of what China is, is a smaller country. And so when you are a smaller country and a smaller power, in some ways, when you are a part of the bargaining process, in some ways, that’s when you stand to benefit the most.

If you are not a part of the bargaining process, you sometimes risk being marginalized or ignored. So the dilemma for Taiwan is the only time they get thought about by a critical mass of Americans is when they’re potentially at risk. Uh, and so in, in a, in an odd way. Otherwise, the American people don’t know that Taiwan exists.

Narration: This comes across as being a bit harsh, but it might be practical and true. In the past two years the U.S. passed more legislation benefiting Taiwan and boosting closer U.S.-Taiwan relations than the past decades combined. President Trump gave a green light to major arms sales to Taiwan in spite of strong opposition from China. Now, days before the presidential election, on Capitol Hill, U.S. lawmakers are watching closely which direction Taiwan will go.

Scott Perry: I think Taiwan is approaching a crossroads. They will have to decide about their economic independence, their own sovereignty, their own security and their own freedom. That’s solely up to the people of Taiwan to make that choice.

Ms. Gao: What do you want to say to the Taiwanese people who will elect their president very soon?

Mr. Perry: I hope they elect a president that will stand strong against the Chinese influence and want to strengthen the relationship with the United States of America, understand the stakes for the people and the freedom of Taiwan.

Ms. Gao: Do you think this election will be a referendum on the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party?

Ted Yoho: I think it will be, and I think it will be a strong referendum. And again, I hope that signal with what Hong Kong did, those many seats going to the pro-Hongkongers hopefully will happen in Taiwan. That’s a signal that people are saying we are not going to accept your authoritarian rule, period.

Ms. Gao: Do you think the U.S. policy toward Taiwan is on the right track right now?

Mr. Yoho: Yes absolutely. I really think it is. I really think you are going to hear more of a strong message come out of congress. When I speak, I feel like I am speaking for me, but I also speak for a lot of the members of Congress. I can’t say all of them but a majority of them. Probably the majority of Americans feel the same way.

You know I had somebody ask me: Why are we so strong in our support for Taiwan? And I said, because of a lot of things. One is that we had an agreement back in the ‘60s, saying that we will protect them, sell them military equipment to protect them. It was actually in the ‘70s. And they are a Western democracy. They believe in the same thing we do. The same belief that they have contributed so much to the world whether it is medicine or technology or just being people believing in what we believe. Yes, we are going to stand with them because they are a democracy in a tough neighbourhood.

Host: The U.S. relationship with Taiwan at times is about geopolitical balances, at times is about bargaining power. But ultimately, the long-term foundation of this relationship is built upon the same values and belief systems. To the Taiwanese people, the 2020 election is a referendum on the CCP. To the American people, it is an opportunity to see if Taiwan will be a true friend. Thanks for watching Zooming In. I am Simone Gao. See you next time.

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