President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party was just elected to her second term in office, defeating two formidable challengers, Han Kuo-yu (韓國瑜) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and James Soong (宋楚瑜) of the People First Party, in a colorful presidential race.
Winning the presidential and legislative elections, Tsai has obtained a popular mandate to implement her vision of a new developmental direction for Taiwan through a series of incremental reforms that consolidate democratic governance and human rights, improve people’s livelihoods, pursue multiple diplomatic ties and secure transitional justice for victims of the previous KMT regime.
When the voters went to the polls, they perceived the electoral contest as a de facto referendum on Hong Kong’s post-colonial governance and on Taiwan’s relationship with China.
Ever since taking over the presidency in 2016, Tsai has strengthened the nation and made it a safe haven that is free from fear and suppression. In recent months, she has expressed a great deal of concern over the rapid erosion of freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong, and has sheltered the territory’s political refugees.
Looking back, Taiwan’s trajectory toward democratic self-determination has become part of the global struggle for democracy. Its embrace of universal norms, religious and cultural diversity, and good governance are vital to nurturing an inclusive and cosmopolitan environment for people with different opinions, ranging from liberal to conservative.
China’s dismissal of Taiwan’s electoral outcome is predictable and presents three challenges to Tsai’s second term.
First, Tsai needs to double up on efforts to seek and establish institutional safeguards to defend equity and market stability. Because unemployment among low-skilled workers, wage stagnation and economic reliance on China have long been serious structural issues, it is difficult for any administration to pursue a comprehensive economic strategy that satisfies the public’s expectations. Now she has a larger mandate to launch holistic developmental policies to put the nation on the right path toward self-autonomy on both economic and technological fronts.
Second, during her first term, Tsai reassured Beijing and Washington about Taipei’s efforts to stabilize cross-strait relations, with the goal of revitalizing the nation’s high-tech economy and consolidating her political base. However, there has been little room for bilateral negotiations across the Strait.
The worsening crisis in Hong Kong has jeopardized the rhetorical appeal of China’s “one country, two systems” or “one country, many systems” frameworks. This mode of top-down co-optation builds on narrow political and economic interests rather than on shared values and norms.
Witnessing all the institutional restrictions that China has imposed on Hong Kong since 1997, Taiwanese are unwilling to lose their rights to elect officials and express opinions publicly. They fear that under the Chinese constitutional framework, the nation might easily degenerate into another Hong Kong, with an unfulfilled promise of autonomous governance. The electoral results have confirmed that Taiwanese are skeptical about the fundamental principles and merits of incorporating their nation into the Chinese political entity.
Third, China’s persistent efforts to marginalize Taiwan diplomatically suggest that Tsai is still under immense pressure to acknowledge the “one China” principle.
As a popularly elected leader, Tsai is responsible to her electorate only. It is necessary for her to balance external pressure with the Taiwanese desire for autonomy. Therefore, any perceived threat from Beijing is bound to reinforce Taipei’s resolve to safeguard its democratic polity against external intervention.
Like it or not, Beijing has yet to recognize and appreciate the broader meaning of a unique Taiwanese identity. Instead of using military, diplomatic and economic muscle, it should evaluate the Taiwanese model of peaceful democratization and incorporate it into a more cosmopolitan, inclusive and pluralistic Chinese nation-state. Otherwise, it is missing a valuable opportunity to appropriate the Taiwan political miracle as a way to transform China’s autocratic system in this new century.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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