How China May Help Its Enemy Get Elected in Taiwan

President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and her running mate William Lai Ching-Te, second from left, at a rally in Taoyuan on Wednesday. Credit Tyrone Siu/Reuters
President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and her running mate William Lai Ching-Te, second from left, at a rally in Taoyuan on Wednesday. Credit Tyrone Siu/Reuters

This Saturday, voters in Taiwan will choose their next president and the national Legislature. Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent president who is detested by the Chinese government because of her tough — if, until recently, low-key — anti-China stance, has chosen as her running mate William Lai Ching-Te, who openly promotes independence for Taiwan. That was a risky move, and it may well help her chances.

Ms. Tsai’s popularity rating was languishing in the midteens as recently as last summer, but all recent polls place her safely ahead of her main opponent, the pro-China, populist maverick Han Kuo-yu.

A third candidate, the veteran — and stale — politician James Soong Chu-yu, is largely irrelevant.

During the last election four years ago, Ms. Tsai won by a landslide largely because the outgoing president, Ma Ying-jeou, of the Kuomintang, was widely regarded as inept and too pro-China. But Ms. Tsai soon lost her popularity, partly for pursuing a number of worthwhile but highly unpopular reforms, such as introducing same-sex marriage and getting rid of a legacy subsidy program for retired public employees that was threatening to bankrupt the government for years.

Worse, she lost critical support from her base within her own Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.) by coming across as overly timid in her handling of the relationship with China. Her recent good fortunes are evidence that she has managed to correct that impression — and for that, she can thank two chance events created by Beijing’s stupidity.

The first are the Hong Kong protests triggered last year after the local government proposed a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. The reaction was so strong and so broad that it should have brought down the administration of Carrie Lam; instead, the authorities cracked down hard, with extreme police tactics, as the Chinese government wanted. This, coupled with the hardening of Washington’s position toward Beijing in recent years, presented Ms. Tsai with an opportunity to deliver more full-throated condemnations of China.

The second event was China’s celebration of its 70th anniversary on Oct. 1. On that occasion, President Xi Jinping reiterated China’s standing demand that Taiwan accept reunification with the “motherland” under the “one country, two systems” principle — the same principle that currently governs Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing and that has been roundly discredited by the sight of the city in near-full revolt. Ms. Tsai’s flat-out refusal to accept “one country, two systems” for Taiwan has resonated well, not just with her D.P.P. supporters but with most Taiwanese.

Ms. Tsai’s main opponent, Mr. Han, a former legislator with the Kuomintang, stunned Taiwan in 2018 when, after a long period of political dormancy, he was elected mayor of the city of Kaohsiung, a traditional stronghold of the D.P.P. Mr. Han also seemed hot then for another reason: Strongly pro-China, he was widely seen as Beijing’s horse, including for the race for the presidency. A Chinese defector in Australia who claims to have been directly involved with Chinese influence activities in Taiwan recently claimed that Beijing had given Mr. Han millions of dollars to help him and the Kuomintang win in 2018. For those who remember the Kuomintang as the staunchly anti-Communist party of Chiang Kai-shek, this may seem just short of incredible.

And yet, even Mr. Han has steered clear of endorsing “one country, two systems.” The reason is simple: Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan already has asserted sovereignty of its own, separate from that of the mainland. Why give that up by submitting to “one country, two systems”? There is nothing that Hong Kong has that Taiwan cannot have, too. The principle is a nonstarter in Taiwan, and for any politician. Mr. Xi is beating a dead horse trying to sell it there.

And so it does seem that Ms. Tsai, just back from the political doldrums, is poised to win this Saturday, despite plenty of fake news and other moves to derail her by China or its supporters. A coattail effect may also help her party retain its current majority in the Legislature.

But all this would be the result of a turn of fortune Ms. Tsai hardly controlled. Let us hope her luck holds, though, because if it doesn’t, all will be lost — not just for Ms. Tsai and Taiwan, but for America and its allies in the region, notably Japan.

Taiwan sits in the middle of the so-called “first island chain,” which stretches from northern Japan, down through the Philippines, all the way to the Malay Peninsula. From the point of view of America and its Asian allies, this is a chain of defense that can block any push by China into the Pacific; from the point of view of China, it is a hostile line of containment through which China must break to assert its dominance in the region. Lose Taiwan, and the chain is no more.

A Tsai win would buy time for America to reassess and readjust its relationship with Taiwan, which has been undervalued by a series of administrations in Washington. Taiwan — an excellent world citizen, a thriving liberal democracy and an increasingly high-tech economy — deserves much more support from like-minded governments. America should take the lead.

Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan and a contributing Opinion writer.

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