The intransigence of the Chinese number one and the situation in Hong Kong reinforce the popularity of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Beijing’s “bête noire”, who is running for a second term on 11 January, analyses Pierre Haski.
For the second time in a few weeks, the Chinese Communist Party will lose democratic elections. Not in mainland China, of course, where such elections do not take place; but on its periphery. At the end of November 2019, young pro-democracy activists won local elections in Hong Kong, inflicting a stinging defeat on Beijing’s leaders who believed that a “silent majority” would emerge after six months of increasingly violent confrontation. On 11 January, it is in Taiwan that Beijing will receive a new disavowal.
Taiwan is the “other” China, the confetti of 23 million souls that stands up to the giant of 1.4 billion inhabitants, which has become the second largest economic power in the world. At the time of the Cold War, both were dictatorships, one communist, the other pro-American.
But since the 1990s, Taiwan has undergone a remarkable democratic transition that has made it one of the freest societies on its continent: first or second in Asia depending on the year in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, the first Asian country to have legalized marriage for all, several democratic changes of government… At the same time, China has taken the opposite path, a return to the most inflexible authoritarianism.
At the beginning of this parallel history, in 1949, it was Taipei, where the defeated nationalist army of Chiang Kai-shek had taken refuge, which wanted to “reconquer” the continent that had fallen into the hands of the communists. The roles are reversed: today it is Beijing that wants to recover its “rebel province”, and Taiwan that is taking to the sea, in the name of an autonomous, insular and, above all, democratic identity.
The failure of Chinese “soft power
These elections on 11 January have become a test of feelings towards China; and it was Xi Jinping, China’s number one, who decided it. The popularity curve of Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who is running for a second term on behalf of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), reflects this. In 2018, her party lost the municipal elections, and her chances of re-election appeared to be in jeopardy.
But in January 2019, Jinping made a martial speech, leaving the Taiwanese with a choice between voluntary reunification under the principle of “one country, two systems”, the concept conceived to welcome Hong Kong into the “motherland” in 1997, or reunification by force. In the wake of this speech, Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity has recovered.
But it is above all since the start of mass protests in Hong Kong in June 2019 that the outgoing president became unbeatable on 11 January against her opponent from the Kuomintang, the old nationalist party, which was considered more complacent towards Beijing. In Taipei, all the Taiwanese I met decided to vote for Tsai Ing-wen with Hong Kong in mind, regardless of their reservations about the PDP’s record on other issues.
Taiwanese democracy is alive and has no desire to commit suicide, not even to test a status that Hong Kongers are denouncing as bankrupt… Xi Jinping, by his intransigence, will have got his “pet peeve” re-elected in Taiwan, even if he keeps all his pressure tactics on the island.
This election further strengthens the Taiwanese people’s attachment to their uniqueness, and polls show only 10% of the population in favour of reunification with the “motherland”. This is a sign of the failure of Chinese “soft power”, which has become a repellent instead of a seducer. This will be the message of the January 11 vote in Taiwan.