What you need to know
What happened after Saturday's KMT victories? In Beijing, they say, Xi's heart grew three sizes that day.
Count Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) among those pleased with Saturday's election results in Taiwan, which saw the reunification-favoring Kuomintang (KMT) win races in Kaohsiung, Taichung, and New Taipei City, among others, at the expense of the faltering Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Under President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), the DPP, which favors eventual Taiwanese independence, has wielded sharp rhetoric to differentiate itself from China, whose ruling party aspires to overtake Taiwan despite never ruling over the sovereign island of over 23 million people. However, the DPP agenda suffered a devastating blow on Saturday as voters rejected its failures to follow through on progressive promises made during its 2014 electoral rout and its decisive victory in the 2016 presidential election.
China reacted to the news with glee. After seemingly lifting a media embargo as news of KMT victories in Kaohsiung and Taichung hit the presses, the state-run tabloid Global Times reported on the DPP's "major defeats" late Saturday evening. Its editor, the ever-notorious Twitter personality Hu Xijin, wasted no time chiming in himself:
Prior to the election, there was widespread talk of Chinese influence in the "nine-in-one" elections via secretly funding pro-China candidates and spreading disinformation on social media and through traditional news outlets. While some commentators expressed concern that China may have aided the KMT, however, most analysis has rightly focused on voters rejecting the DPP's failure to act on promises such as raising the minimum wage, reforming labor rights, and legalizing full marriage equality.
There has been no conclusive evidence as of yet that China meaningfully infiltrated Saturday's democratic voting process, although state actors certainly attempt to do so, as DPP legislators continuously warned leading up to the Nov. 24 vote.
But Taiwanese politicians weren't alone in sounding that alarm. In an interview with the Chinese-language Television Broadcasts Satellite (TVBS), American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Chairman James Moriarty warned that external forces were attempting to influence public opinion ahead of elections. The interview was aired once before being abruptly pulled from the TVBS lineup, which the Chinese-language Next Magazine called a "forced disappearance." The AIT, which is the de facto United States embassy in Taiwan, responded by posting the interview on its website on Thursday, Nov. 15.
China's various propaganda and influence actors certainly wield considerable might over Taiwan's domestic affairs. However, it's important to note that it's far from alone in this respect.
The AIT, which angered Beijing when it opened a new complex in Taipei this June, has become a valuable resource for the U.S. government as the Trump administration escalates its trade war with China. The U.S. this year passed the Taiwan Travel Act and included provisions to aid Taiwan in its 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. High-level officials have spoken in support of a democratic Taiwan, which the Trump administration sees as a bulwark against a rising China. The Tsai administration has responded in kind by lavishing praise upon supportive U.S. legislators and Cabinet officials – a relationship that has resulted in several lucrative arms deals between the U.S. and Taiwan.
While Tsai has seemingly followed through with her mandate to veer away from China, however, this has not resulted in calculable economic progress. It also remains unknown whether the U.S., especially under the legendarily unpredictable and transactional Trump administration, truly cares for Taiwan's long-term interests to retain its sovereignty and democracy.
Under Trump, the U.S. stance for democracy and human rights can be described as inconsistent at best and abhorrent at worst. While the U.S. has criticized China's rights record and recently floated the idea of sanctions over its internment camps in Xinjiang, it has also publicly supported Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the Middle Eastern country admitted that journalist Jamel Khashoggi was murdered in its Istanbul consulate in October.
While the United States floats its idea of a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific" as an alternative to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its dealings in the Asia-Pacific region are consistently backed by Trump's famous inauguration day slogan of "America First."
On Saturday, however, Taiwanese voters did not vote in favor of China, or against the U.S. It's far more likely that, out of the millions who headed to the polls, the vast majority voted in their own interest – and in the interest of the Taiwan they want to see in the future.
There will be reckoning in the coming weeks and months over whether the elections were influenced by foreign actors or tainted by disinformation, either foreign or domestic. Experts maintain, after all, that the large majority of social media disinformation in Taiwan comes from within the country. Progressives will also find their footing after disappointing referendum losses that saw Taiwan fall short of giving a popular push to its quest to become the first Asian country to legalize marriage equality. The DPP will have to collect itself and find a way to inspire the voters it lost ahead of a crucial 2020 presidential election, which is only 14 months away.
While China may feel optimistic, however, it's too soon to call Saturday's results a step towards "reunification." They are far more likely a reminder from Taiwanese voters that elected officials must serve the people – and, if so, that sure seems like a shining example of a healthy, functional democracy.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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