The China Factor in Taiwan’s 2020 Election

ttendees of a political campaign rally wave Taiwan flags
Attendees of a political campaign rally wave Taiwan flags, in Taipei on Nov. 11, 2018. (Chris Stowers/AFP/Getty Images)
By He Qinglian 

Taiwan’s presidential election in 2020 is set to be a showdown between Tsai Ing-wen and Han Kuo-yu. For the pan-Green coalition, it is a stroke of luck that Han, the most pro-China of the Kuomintang (KMT) candidates, has become Tsai’s rival—this will make their mainland policies the main theme of the campaign trail, distracting from Tsai’s much-maligned governance. This comes as a major reversal of the situation following the victory of the “anti-Democratic Progressive Party force” in the Taiwanese local elections of 2018. No matter what happens in Taiwan over the next few months, the China factor will be the salient issue of the election.

Han the ‘Beijing Agent’

On June 1, Han’s first major campaign event was held in front of the Presidential Office, with over 400,000 people reportedly in attendance. According to a live interview by a BBC reporter, many in the audience were Taiwanese businessmen residing abroad who had returned home specifically to participate as “reinforcement of the pro-Han commoners.” Most Taiwanese businessmen support the pan-Blue coalition, and it’s an open secret that the mainland Chinese regime has in recent years chartered airliners to take Taiwanese residing in mainland China back to Taiwan so they could more conveniently take part in the local election process.

What’s more, Han Kuo-yu has already met with leading personnel of the Beijing’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Liaison Office, as well as the chief executives of both the Hong Kong and Macao SARs, giving the Chinese regime’s explicit endorsement. It’s a given that Taiwanese businessmen, who listen to Beijing, would rush back home to lend popular support to Han and vote for him in the general election.

There are other shadowy but powerful supporters—or, more accurately, promoters of Han—whom neither the KMT nor Han himself would want to mention. On June 28, an insider story titled “Chinese Cyber-Operatives Boosted Taiwan’s Insurgent Candidate” by Foreign Policy described how several supposed employees of China’s Tencent helped Han win the primary election.

“Multiple social media and national security experts have privately examined this finding and were dumbfounded that a professional cybergroup potentially organized by the Chinese state would have left such relatively obvious traces. But they were all in agreement that the three Facebook users and 249 profiles on LinkedIn are unmistakably linked,” reads the article.

Once this news was disclosed, public opinion in Taiwan was seething with indignation: Han’s fans are from the other side of the strait!

On July 15, in “Who Is the Biggest Hero Behind Han Kuo-yu’s Victory in the Primary Election?”, the U.S.-based Duowei News, which is linked to the Chinese Communist Party’s Great External Propaganda Plan, highlighted three supporters behind Han’s campaign on June 1: Tsai Eng-meng of Want China Times, the Buddhist monk Master Miao Tian, and Fu Kun-chi, former commissioner of Hualien County. Want China Times is the CCP-aligned publication that became the object of protests against subversive “red media” in a June 23 demonstration that saw tens of thousands of people march in the rain that day in Taipei.

‘A Rare Lucky Winner’: The Tsai Administration

This May, at the invitation of the publisher, I went to Taiwan to promote my new book “Red Infiltration: The Truth About the Global Expansion of Chinese Media,” published in March. At that time, the DPP had yet to recoup from its failure in the local elections of 2018. Taiwanese society’s multiple dissatisfactions with Tsai ing-wen’s performance still remained.

Small and medium-sized business owners and workers were dissatisfied with the policy of “one fixed day off and one flexible rest day”; military personnel, civil servants and teachers disliked the 18 percent preferential savings rate reform which would impact them; the KMT lost its party assets. Even the pan-Green coalition base chaffed at Tsai playing the game of political correctness when people’s livelihood hadn’t improved: focusing on same-sex marriage and unrealistic environmental protection goals. There was widespread concern in the pan-Green coalition that “punishing the DPP” could become a factor in Taiwan’s election campaign. The DPP was at the peak of the race between Tsai and Lai. What’s more, Han Kuo-yu was strong.

For the 2020 Taiwan election, the pan-Green coalition felt very uncertain about its prospects. Although the public clearly felt that Taiwan’s media industry and politics are being infiltrated by communism, and that the CCP’s strategy of “better to buy Taiwan than to fight Taiwan” was working, it was hard to find a focal point for protest. After returning to the United States, I wrote the article “Taiwan’s Anxiety In the Face of ‘Red Infiltration’” about my thoughts during this trip. But as the old Chinese saying goes, “man proposes, God disposes.” In June, the anti-extradition bill protests erupted in Hong Kong, and the situation made a complete reversal. The theme of Taiwan’s 2020 election was no longer Tsai’s performance, but anti-communist infiltration and the security of Taiwan’s democratic politics. The KMT, which has close ties to Beijing, lost its political support all at once, and even the CCP’s overseas media exclaimed that “Tsai Ing-wen’s administration is a rare lucky winner in Taiwan’s history.”

Key Factors in the 2020 Taiwan Election

Several factors can be expected to accompany Taiwan’s election until the results are announced in January 2020:

1. Hong Kong as a Negative Example

Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protest has turned into a long and bitter struggle for universal suffrage. Taiwan’s current social consensus is tp never follow the footsteps of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong. Even if the KMT hopes to focus on the Tsai administration’s performance, Han Kuo-yu’s slogan of “one hundred percent economics, zero percent politics” and calculation to attract votes by his vision of “making a fortune” are hard to realize. Although Taiwanese are not very familiar with mainland Chinese politics, they know that this slogan is a bit unreliable, because even for Chinese directly under Beijing’s rule, 90 percent of them failed to make a fortune. In addition, Han Kuo-yu’s pro-China position is known to all. Everyone knows that his “Republic of China area” was not a slip of the tongue. No matter how Han conceals it, the fact that he received political endorsement from the mainland, and the exposure of various backroom conspiracies, such as Tencent campaign group, all demonstrate his status as China’s chosen political agent. Thinking about the dark prospect of how “voting in the KMT will turn Taiwan into Hong Kong,” most Taiwanese will make political security their top priority

2. Internal Friction in the KMT Will Split Its Support Base

After Han Kuo-yu was selected as the presidential candidate of the KMT, there appeared an article titled “The End of the Primary Election Marks the Beginning of Civil War in the KMT.” In it, the author talked about the perennial disease of schism in the KMT from historical experience and the present situation, and considered the DPP to be more united than the KMT. For example, after DPP candidate-hopeful Lai Ching-te withdrew from the primary, he immediately laid low so as not to bother Tsai Ing-wen. On June 13, Lai wrote on Facebook that “Taiwan is our common mother,” and once again called on people to support Tsai, and then retreated from the public sphere. The author also noted that the DPP is now planning to bring Lai back into politics through legislative elections. By contrast, the KMT never gets over its internal strife even when it comes to war. The end of the primary election is the beginning of the KMT’s civil war. Schism seems to be part of the KMT’s DNA, without exception. This time, for instance, more than one candidate wanted to leave the party and run independently. Han Kuo-yu expressed his view on the KMT’s disunity: the DPP has a natural healing force. Cut off its hand today, another hand will grow out tomorrow. Cut off the head and it’ll grow another head.

3. Han’s Inherent Weaknesses as Presidential Candidate

One of Han’s weaknesses is the aforementioned label of Chinese political agent. This year is an unlucky year for Han. China’s support did not help him, and this label will be seized upon by the pan-Green coalition to attack him. The second is that Han himself is ill-prepared. His aides and staff are not particularly politically experienced. Taiwanese political observers believe that they cannot afford to fight this ferocious battle of election. Han has also been losing points by making indiscreet remarks. Further, he has threw himself into another election less than half a year after taking office as Kaohsiung mayor. Kaohsiung residents have been dissatisfied with this “runaway mayor” for a long time. One false move in the campaign could lose Han his political backyard.

4. U.S. Support for Tsai Helps Her Election Chances

The protracted trade war between China and the U.S. will continue to impact Sino-U.S. relations. Although the United States cannot influence the Taiwan election to the extent that China can, its support for Tsai’s government at critical moments will have a favorable impact on her electoral fortunes.

Unlike local elections, in which are economic considerations predominate, the presidential election concerns Taiwan’s future and the topic of unification or independence cannot be avoided. Beijing is now subject to international censure on too many fronts, so its hope of propping a Taiwan political proxy up in 2020 is very likely to be dashed.

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