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It's Taiwan's election. But this time, it's all about China
It's Taiwan's election. But this time, it's all about China
2020.02.07 14:20 Update

It's Taiwan's election. But this time, it's all about China

Original text from: The Sydney Morning Herald 

Julie Szego

One morning last month, I found myself in a dimly-lit lecture theatre in Taipei. The building, housing the Institute for National Defence and Security Research, a think tank that briefs Taiwan’s government, sits in a military compound. Facing the audience was a long table of eight experts -  seven men in ties and dark suits and one woman.

The mood was sombre. Winter was setting in. And in this besieged democracy of 23 million, it’s also election season.

In the lead-up to presidential elections on January 11, Beijing is cranking up the pressure on Taiwan’s voters to unseat President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party, whose campaign pitch emphasises the island’s sovereignty.

One of the institute’s panellists, Dr Che-Chuan Lee, reflected on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s more overt bullying measures: excluding the island from multilateral forums and turning seven of Taipei’s diplomatic allies to Beijing, so that now only 15 states formally recognise Taiwan.

“Is that good for China?” he asked. If Taipei “gets to zero” allies, with nothing left to lose, might that strengthen the hand of those Taiwanese advocating formal independence from China, even at the risk of war?

While Taiwan’s long-term future is an open question - and most Taiwanese are happy to keep it that way - its past two decades testify to a stubborn resilience.

Taiwan boasts the world’s first transgender minister in the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage, civil society groups helping authorities detect fake news, and some promising experiments in reinvigorating democracy.

But an increasingly dominant Beijing is smothering Taiwan’s story.

The story that had rocked Taiwan shortly before my arrival was the claims of Chinese defector and self-declared former spy Wang Liqiang about Chinese interference in the island’s elections. Taiwanese authorities detained at the airport two Hong Kong-linked business executives Wang had identified as Beijing operatives.

Back at the institute, JR Wu - the lone female panellist - said Beijing’s global interference and influence operations should be a concern “regardless of whether Mr Wang is the real deal”.

“And the biggest threat is China pacifying other nations [such as Australia] about its intentions.”

Ever since two million Kuomintang (KMT) nationalists and their leader Chiang Kai-shek decamped from the mainland to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to the Communists, Beijing has insisted that it is the sole ruler of "One China". For four decades the KMT ruled Taiwan with an iron fist, likewise refusing to recognise the Communist Party as China’s legitimate government.

“You had these two authoritarian regimes ... both agreeing there was ‘One China’ but disagreeing whose,” as the Lowy Institute’s Natasha Kassam, a former Beijing diplomat, puts it.

With democratisation came new political parties, such as the DPP, promoting a distinctive Taiwanese identity. According to the most recent authoritative survey, only one in 10 Taiwanese support unification; most people favour the status quo of de facto independence. But from Beijing’s point of view, Kassam explains, the KMT, still invested in One China, are “at least still on the same page as them”.

Tsai’s signature achievements - boosting social spending, apologising to Indigenous peoples for their historical mistreatment, same-sex marriage - chime with the DPP’s younger, more ethnically diverse constituency.

At Taipei’s Presidential Office Building, I paused in front of a manga-style portrait of Tsai. She’s at her desk, writing in a red exercise book.  But she is overshadowed; a grey cat on the table looms large. The creature gazes directly at the viewer, wide-eyed, with a hint of defiance.

The affectionate caption from artist Wei Zong-cheng tells us the president handles “an endless stream of issues that concern the country ... But with her beloved companion by her side, any fatigue or weariness soon dissipates.”

This time last year, Tsai's re-election chances looked grim, the public disenchanted with policy gridlock and wage stagnation.

Then in a speech on January 1, Xi warned Taiwanese "reunification" must be the ultimate goal of any talks over its future, and in pursuing that goal “we make no promise to abandon the use of force”. He reassured Taiwanese their rights in a unified China would be respected under the principle of “one country, two systems”.

In June, protests erupted in Hong Kong, giving Taiwan an ominous lesson in what “one country, two systems” really means. Tsai rebounded in the polls. She’s now that rare progressive politician wedging a conservative opposition on national security. The DPP's slogan is "Resist China, Defend Taiwan".

The KMT accuses the government of exaggerating the threat of foreign interference to smear the party as “red”, as in Communist. Yet even the KMT’s former defence minister, Andrew Yang, now at a think tank called the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, reserved most of his criticism for China in a meeting with him.

According to senior government official Chen Ming-chi, “Taiwan has become the scapegoat for Chinese political leaders ... to air their frustrations” about Hong Kong and the trade war with the US.

Chen heads an agency set up to manage what were fast-growing cross-strait relations. Called the Mainland Affairs Council, its primary focus these days appears to be keeping the mainland out of Taiwan’s affairs.

Since Tsai and the DPP swept to office in 2016, Beijing has telegraphed its displeasure through overt and covert channels. Apart from isolating Taiwan internationally, it has weaponised tourism - a recent ban on individual Chinese travellers visiting Taiwan slashed tourist numbers by more than half in October, Chen said. There were also increased military exercises and cyber attacks, and incentives to lure Taiwanese investors to China.

The Taiwanese government has responded with a range of measures from raising defence spending to the New Southbound Policy, aimed at boosting trade with Asian countries. Like Australia, Taiwan is economically dependent on China, which accounts for about 30 per cent of its trade.

But China’s efforts to conquer Taiwan from within present a tougher challenge. Security experts  point to the CCP recruiting “proxy” agents of influence among Taiwan’s academics, local temple associations, veterans and the media. They also point to a tsunami of fake news and disinformation. Facebook this month removed more than 200 accounts, pages and groups to help “protect the integrity of Taiwan's elections”.

Chen claimed - as have others - that such fake news reports  helped populist opposition leader Han Kuo-yu win last year’s municipal elections.

A long-stalled anti-infiltration bill has just passed through Taiwan’s parliament. But the very idea of regulating free expression is contentious, as Chen noted: “We have an authoritarian past, which makes our people cherish their freedom of speech more than any other democracy.”

How does a nation deal with foreign actors taking advantage of free societies to subvert them? What to do about those advocating “reunification” with China? Should they perhaps be made to register as foreign agents?

Ketty Chen, vice-president at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, tosses these questions around without pretending she has answers.  She says Taiwan is “fortunate, in a way” to be on the frontline of authoritarian meddling because it has galvanised the nation’s young. Groups of undergraduates are reaching out to their grandparents’ generation, teaching the seniors how to detect bots and disinformation on social media. Another youth group is raising funds to bus people back to their electorates on polling day, as Taiwan doesn’t have absentee ballots.

If anyone represents the spirit of Taiwan’s enterprising democracy, it’s Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s (transgender) Digital Minister in charge of social innovation, open government and youth engagement. When the youth of the 2014 “Sunflower Movement” occupied Taiwan’s parliament building to protest what they regarded as a secretive trade pact with China, Tang was among them. In the revolt’s aftermath, the KMT government of the day asked for her help in rebuilding trust between politicians and the public.

The former anarchist, an advocate of “radical transparency”, greeted us in what she calls her “boring” government office. Normally, Tang explained, she’s in the Social Innovation Lab, a space in the heart of Taipei. “Every Wednesday, everybody can come and talk to me for 40 minutes at a time. We recently tore down the walls, so people can directly walk in from the street.”

Tang explained that these days Taiwan’s ministers must respond to disinformation within two hours with clarifying, often funny, memes. Any petition with more than 5000 signatures will near-automatically summon the relevant minister to wherever it originated, no matter how geographically remote.

Tang concedes that Taiwan largely defines itself “constitutively” against the People’s Republic of China; the PRC casts Taiwan as a “breakaway territory”, so Taiwan responds with nation-building around liberal values.

“As I usually say, the ‘breakaway’ … was during the Neolithic Era ... 8500 years ago, when the land bridge in the Taiwan Strait gets submerged by water again,” she chuckles.

Tang hopes that in time Taiwan will be seen simply as “beautiful islands in the whirling oceans”.

“That is definitely the way to go.”