A victory for democracy in Taiwan

Published by The i paper (13th January, 2020)

While the world has been transfixed by explosive events in Iran, an eruption has taken place in a small island off the coast of China that may turn out ultimately to be of far greater global significance. This was not an assassination in a fragile region scarred by war and despotism, but something far more admirable: the casting of a millions of votes in a peaceful liberal democracy. The result may not sound like much: Taiwan’s president merely won a sightly bigger majority.

But have no doubt over the huge implications of this small nation’s fierce slap in the face of its giant neighbour. One year ago Tsai Ing-Wen was on the ropes, a floundering president languishing in polls twenty points behind a rival pushing for friendlier relations with Beijing. She had taken a drubbing in local elections, behind her ice-cool exterior fearing that she might not even secure her party’s nomination to stand again for the top job.

Yet now she has emerged triumphant after a landslide victory in Saturday’s election that saw her win a record number of votes and nearly flip that 20-point gap. It is a remarkable comeback. The result sends a clear message of rejection to a Chinese leadership that expects to get its own way, voters rebuffing the superpower on their doorstep despite disinformation, meddling, a torrent of cash and crude threats. ‘Taiwan is showing the world how much we cherish our free democratic way of life,’ said Tsai pointedly, adding that she hoped China would appreciate her nation would not buckle to ‘threats and intimidation.’

The significance should not be understated. Taiwan is a fine beacon of democracy, freedom and the rule of law, typified by its move last year to become the first nation in Asia to sanction same-sex marriage. But this makes it an irksome annoyance to the autocratic regime in Beijing, which sees it as a rebellious island needing to be reunited with the motherland due to its origins as a refuge for Chiang Kai-Shek’s nationalists after their defeat by Mao’s communists in 1949.

The key factor behind Tsai’s resurrection lies 440 miles away across the South China Sea in Hong Kong. When pro-democracy protests flared up there last June, her stock started to rise – and the more the police cracked down and Beijing’s stooges running the former British colony refused to bend, the more she surged in the polls. Tsai fanned this by tapping into Taiwanese fears of being subsumed into China, helped by claims of interference after the unmasking of a spy and the stumbles of her main opponent.

Beijing has pushed a carrot and stick approach to Taiwan. It promoted the model of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ agreed after termination of British rule in Hong Kong as a template for ‘peaceful reunification’ with the mainland. And it spent lavishly on scholarships and start-up funds to seduce young Taiwanese. At the same time China staged overt military shows of force as reminder of its power while making threats of invasion should the island dare move towards formal independence. ‘We make no promise to renounce use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means,’ warned President Xi Jinping last year.

The Communists see what they call ‘reunification’ as their ‘historic task.’ Analysts told me they believe this long focus on Taiwan served to restrain Beijing’s response to events in Hong Kong. But surveys show young people in Taiwan, just like those brave black-clad protesters out on the streets in Hong Kong with gas masks and umbrellas, are most resolutely opposed to joining China. Their fears are intensified as Xi ramps up repression, reduces political space, crams Muslim minorities in concentration camps and unleashes an Orwellian surveillance system using the latest technology to control his citizens.

As China becomes richer and militarily stronger, its rhetoric on Taiwan – a Japanese colony for first half of the last century – has become more bellicose. It has used its wealth to systematically diminish diplomatic support for the island, leaving only 15 small nations still recognising the country as opposed to 22 when Tsai won her first term in office four years ago.

Meanwhile Western business shamefully kowtow to Beijing, putting profits way above the slightest sense of morality as they call Taiwan a ‘province of China’ just as some pandered to Beijing bullying on Hong Kong. Yet suddenly the world has become a bit more dangerous, the future more uncertain.

Britain has a shoddy record of silence and appeasement over human rights abuses by Beijing, something set to grow worse in our weakened state after Brexit. Support for those struggling in our former colony to protect rights we agreed in its handover has been half-hearted at best.

Meanwhile Donald Trump terrifies Beijing with his volatility and his administration quickly applauded Tsai’s success, but he is focused on resolving his damaging trade war. And as Chinese officials point out, the West’s actions in the Middle East – from invading Iraq through to the killing of Iran’s Qasem Soleimani – corrode its claims to serve as a force for global good and stability.

The titanic struggle between the world’s superpower and its emerging challenger is now even more complicated – not least since the United States is legally bound to ensure Taiwan can defend itself.

The citizens of that island, like most of those in Hong Kong, have displayed a determination to resist the rule of China’s one-party regime. This is laudable and understandable. Yet it also fuels the risk of either place becoming a global flashpoint. China’s high-pressure tactics have backfired but it will not abandon long-cherished aims. Ultimately, however, this thriving democracy is the perfect riposte to those Communist Party bullies who are repressing one-fifth of the world’s population from Beijing.

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