Taiwan has again voted to re-elect the Democratic Progressive Party, further inflaming cross-strait tensions with Beijing. By Linda Jaivin.

China’s reunification goal the loser in Taiwan’s elections

Politicians in bomber jackets wave to supporters as confetti falls around them.
Taiwan’s soon-to-be-president, William Lai Ching-te, and his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, at a rally earlier this month.
Credit: Annabelle Chih / Getty Images

On January 13, Taiwanese voters returned the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP) to a historic third term in power, though with only 40 per cent of the popular vote. Its chief rival and opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT), scored 33.5 per cent with the rest going to the new Taiwan People’s Party (TPP). Despite the DPP winning the presidential poll, it will have a minority in the Legislative Yuan, with KMT winning 52 seats, the DPP 51 and the TPP holding the balance of power with eight.

Taiwan may have fallen out of love with its two major parties, but it’s still mad for democracy. Although voting is not compulsory, and there are no postal, early or absentee ballots, nearly 72 per cent of the island’s 19.5 million voters showed up on the day. Some had travelled for hours to get to their home towns. Others flew in from across the world.

The Taiwanese people’s fierce attachment to democracy worries the Communist Party of China (CPC) as much as the return of the DPP to power infuriates it. The defection of Nauru the day after the election from the shrinking stable of states that maintain diplomatic relations with Taipei – now 12 including the Vatican – would have been the smallest of consolations.

The CPC detests the DPP, which was born in 1986 out of opposition to the then ruling KMT, a commitment to human rights and rising nativist sentiment. It stands today for progressive centre-left values and is the natural home of advocates of Taiwan independence, even if in power its leaders carefully moderate their language around what for Beijing is the ultimate red flag. No one wants to be the idiot who triggers an invasion.

The communists nonetheless loathe the incumbent president, Tsai Ing-wen, whose eight years in power saw Taiwan actively boost its unofficial relations and exchanges with numerous countries, from Lithuania to the United States. Beijing has expressed its displeasure by steadily increasing naval and air harassment of the island, not to mention escalating grey-zone tactics and cyberwarfare, including mis- and disinformation campaigns, over her two terms in office. Beijing is even warier of the man who will be inaugurated as her successor in May, current vice-president William Lai Ching-te. Lai belongs to a more radical faction within the DPP, and once described himself as a “pragmatic worker” for independence. In office, however, he has carefully pledged to follow Tsai’s example, “replacing confrontation with dialogue” while continuing to enhance Taiwan’s global presence. Beijing, unimpressed, says Lai has the potential to be a “creator of a dangerous war”. Given his reputation for impulsiveness, some in Taiwan share the concern. If cross-strait tensions have run high over the past eight years, they are almost bound to worsen over the next four, with obvious implications for regional security.

Xi Jinping is set on sealing his legacy as the Chinese leader who reunified Taiwan with the mainland. “Reunification”, of course, has been the CPC’s intent since 1949, when its revolution drove then KMT leader and Chinese president Chiang Kai-shek to flee to Taiwan with his government, army and followers. Chiang plotted uselessly to retake the mainland while imposing a brutal martial law on the island that lasted four decades. Even if the KMT no longer advocates for reunification, the CPC sees it as the only political party on Taiwan it can trust to work towards a peaceful solution to what it describes as a “life and death” problem.

The communist leadership’s fondness for the KMT is remarkable considering that when the KMT governed the mainland, and the communists were a revolutionary party trying to overthrow it, the two groups spent decades trying to knock one another off. It makes more sense when you consider that not only does the KMT consistently advocate for closer cross-strait relations but, during its last period in power, between 2008 and 2016, the island’s defence spending fell to a historic low of 1.78 per cent of GDP. Under Tsai’s administration, defence spending has risen to more than 2.5 per cent.

The CPC sees reunification as increasingly urgent, given the well-documented drift among Taiwanese, especially younger ones, away from any kind of identification with China or even an ethnic Chinese, as opposed to uniquely Taiwanese, identity. Beijing slates this to a DPP plot to “de-Sinicise” Taiwan. That’s more palatable than admitting the CPC’s own actions might also have something to do with the Taiwanese people’s inward turn: the execution, for example, of more than two million “counter-revolutionaries” including remnant KMT supporters in the early 1950s, the ultra-violent Cultural Revolution, the massacre of unarmed civilians on the streets of Beijing in 1989, and the violent repression of the Hong Kong protests of 2019 (a major factor in the DPP’s victory in 2020).

Beijing did its best to push for a KMT win last weekend. Among other efforts to discredit the DPP, mainland-sourced social media sparked a racist moral panic on the island over a mooted DPP policy to import Indian labour. When Foxconn’s billionaire founder Terry Gou – a man President Xi had once called an “old friend” and one with a vested interest in good cross-strait relations – threatened to steal KMT votes by forming his own political party, Beijing announced a criminal investigation into his businesses on the mainland. He withdrew from the race. Beijing promised all kinds of beneficial exchanges and trade deals should the KMT triumph and more trouble if it did not.

The day before the election, a prominent mainland commentator known as Chairman Rabbit posted on WeChat his summary of Beijing’s expectations in the case of a KMT victory. The KMT, Chairman Rabbit declared, would not permit Taiwan to become a “pawn” in American “anti-China” strategies. With the KMT in power, cross-strait relations would improve: there’d be an uptick in tourism, trade and the kind of cultural exchanges that, he added with typical snark, would allow Taiwanese people to get the education in Chinese civilisation and cultural heritage they were sorely missing.

After the election, Chairman Rabbit deleted his post – which disappeared along with many other comments on the elections across mainland social media – while the CPC worked out the allowed parameters of debate and discussion. Beijing’s spokesperson on Taiwan affairs, Chen Binhua, speaking on behalf of a party that has never in its history subjected itself to a popular vote, asserted the DPP’s failure to capture a majority of votes showed it didn’t represent mainstream public opinion.

Multiple surveys of voter intentions conducted before this election showed that especially younger Taiwanese – about 20 per cent of the population – were more concerned with the cost of housing, fair wages, economic growth and other bread-and-butter issues than anything to do with China. If the KMT’s vice-presidential candidate, Jaw Shaw-kong, warned the elections were a matter of “war and peace”, and Lai framed a victory for the DPP as a blow for “democracy versus authoritarianism”, the charismatic head of the TPP, the surgeon and populist Ko Wen-je, framed the contest as a choice between “new politics or old forces”. On the China question, he lands somewhere in the middle of the DPP and KMT, advocating both “deterrence and communication”. This nothingburger of a policy passed muster with a population sick of the China question dominating internal politics.

This also worries Beijing. Like Oscar Wilde, the CPC believes it’s better to be talked about than not. The mainland scholar of international relations Zheng Yongnian wrote a post-election analysis in the Chinese-language Greater Bay Area Review that laid out what he saw as the challenges to the project of reunification over the next four years – and potentially eight, should Lai get a second term. With a likely continued freeze on cross-strait exchanges and ongoing “de-Sinicisation”, he warned, the Taiwanese sense of a distinct identity would only grow stronger and there would be rising “alienation” between Taiwanese and mainlanders.

Zheng’s solution is to use social media platforms popular with young Taiwanese to “circulate and change” their identity. This chimes with the ideas of other approved commentators, including Chairman Rabbit. It also accords with remarks Ambassador Xiao Qian made at the National Press Club in Canberra in 2022, when he said there would have to be a “process” by which the Taiwanese people would arrive at a “correct understanding of China”. Identity politics is the conflict’s newest, and increasingly key, battleground. Beyond ethnicity, however, Taiwanese identity is values based – and the Taiwanese know theirs are not shared by the CPC. 

[email protected]

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 20, 2024 as "China’s reunif ication goal the loser in Taiwan’s elections".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription