A victory for democracy in Taiwan

Published by The i paper (15th January, 2024)

Amid so much grim global news, something to celebrate. For the biggest election year in human history, which will see more than half the planet’s population cast votes of widely varying significance, has begun with an impressive win for democracy. The final numbers were close, the winner’s mandate is weak and the victorious ruling party lost its majority in parliament. But the presidential tussle in Taiwan that saw vice president William Lai, who is also known as Lai Ching-te, take the top job sends out a strong signal to the world about the value of freedom for millions of citizens who shrugged off intimidatory threats from their massive neighbour.

Anyone who believes in liberty should cherish this result – despite a strange irony that Taiwan’s decision to stick by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party rather than change course might turn out to be the most consequential of 76 elections taking place this year, even if Donald Trump is sent back to the White House and Rishi Sunak turfed out of Downing Street.

For this result is a defiant slap in the face for the communist goons running China, who want to grab the territory and warned voters not to back a candidate they branded a dangerous “troublemaker” for daring to support independence.

The ballot took place against a backdrop of increasing belligerence from Beijing and escalating military activity around the island, a flashpoint that risks sparking war between the world’s two superpowers through design or miscalculation. China cast the contest as a “choice between war and peace”. This bullying was backed by disinformation to boost Lai’s rivals, testing tactics used by China and its autocratic allies to influence voting and amplify divisions in other societies.

“Taiwanese people have successfully resisted efforts from external forces to influence our elections,” declared Lai in his victory speech, adding that this showed they “stand on the side of democracy” in the global struggle for freedom.

The significance cannot be overstated. Taiwan is a beacon of Asian democracy, freedom and rule of law, rated stronger for political rights and civil liberties than the UK and US by the Freedom House think-tank.

And it is not just the result that challenges China. That election posed a threat from its unfettered political debate through to the rules that forced Tsai Ing-wen to stand down after eight years – unlike her despotic Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping who abolished presidential term limits while silencing critics, jailing rivals and crushing freedom in Hong Kong. Even Winnie the Pooh gets censored by this vain ruler after internet memes compared him to the podgy cartoon bear.

Taiwan, this land of 24 million people, bolsters its identity as a state forged on liberal values with every passing day and every election. It stands as a vibrant symbol of China’s potential if ever able to shake off dictatorship – and a powerful rebuke despite its comparatively small size to the brutal neighbour repressing almost one-fifth of the world’s population. Bear in mind they are barely one mile apart at their closest point beside Xiamen, as I have seen looking across the dividing waters at the city where Xi began his rise to power.

This makes Taiwan a serious threat to his regime, which falsely portrays it as a rebellious place needing to be rejoined with the motherland due to its origins as a refuge for Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists after defeat by communist troops in 1949. No peace agreement was signed and Mao’s hardline successor sees that civil war as unfinished business. “We make no promise to renounce use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means,” Xi has warned.

In his new year address, days before the election, the Chinese president spoke again about the “historical inevitability” of “reunification”. One former Taiwanese military chief told me that over the past 25 years Beijing’s military spending had soared from twice that of his side to 20 times higher, underscoring the daunting scale of their situation

Beijing’s sabre-rattling regime sought to scare Taiwan’s voters into backing parties that might prove more compliant because it fears this thriving democracy on its doorstep that evolved peacefully from repressive autocracy. Its existence exposes the hollowness of claims that Chinese people prefer the guiding hand of communist dictatorship to the chaotic freedoms of democracy.

So it uses its global strength to erode diplomatic support for Taiwan, leaving only 13 small nations recognising the country as opposed to 22 when Tsai took power eight years ago. And it flexes its financial muscle to persuade amoral business chiefs to ignore human rights abuses and genocidal atrocities against minorities.

We saw in Ukraine the tragedy that unfolds when an insecure dictatorship feels threatened by neighbouring democracy and emboldened by perceptions of Western weakness. China, under its ultra-nationalist leader, stands at the apex of an alliance of autocrats backing Russia’s evil onslaught on Kyiv, alongside repulsive regimes such as Iran and North Korea.

Taiwan has tripled the length of compulsory male conscription. And the US is legally bound to ensure that Taipei can defend itself, with President Joe Biden repeatedly saying they would defend it from Chinese military assault (although some analysts there wondered to me what would happen if their island is besieged and slowly strangled).

Despite China’s bogus claims of ownership, Taiwan is a democratic country with its own identity, currency, culture, passports and politics. It has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. Foreign Secretary David Cameron was right to say this result was “testament to Taiwan’s vibrant democracy”. Generations have grown up embracing these freedoms – and this terrifies Beijing.

Lai faces a tough task of walking the tightrope of relations with a hostile China in a world that has become alarmingly turbulent. But the West must avoid the mistakes made over Ukraine – and make it very clear whose side we are on in the global fight between democracy and dictatorship at a time when freedom is under such threat across the planet.

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