“After his electoral victory, Tsai Ing-wen will have to make several trips of thanks. The first to Zhongnanhai (the residence of Chinese government leaders), then to the office of Carrie Lam, the head of the Hong Kong Self-Government, and then to the Hong Kong Police. ” The joke circulating on Taiwanese social networks since this weekend makes clear to what extent the Hong Kong protests and the rejection of Beijing have played a key role in the re-election of the Chinese skeptic Taiwanese President with a record number of votes in favor. A result that has been a real slap in the face for China.
That slap has hurt, a lot. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, former head of the Taiwanese Affairs Office in his Government, has insisted from Zimbabwe, on a tour of Africa, that despite the electoral results, China will not change its attitude towards the island, that it considers an inalienable part of its territory and that it does not renounce to annex by force. “This consensus will not change one iota for local elections in Taiwan, and will not be altered by the wrong words and acts of certain Western politicians,” he stressed, in an apparent allusion to the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, that over the weekend he congratulated Tsai and criticized Beijing’s “tireless pressure”.
Beijing does not hide its animosity towards Tsai, commonly described in the Chinese media as a supporter of Taiwan independence. Although many in her party, the Progressive Democrat, do sympathize with that idea, the president has maintained a calculated ambiguity and supports maintaining the current situation, an independence de facto without formally declaring it to avoid a backlash from China.
Tsai raised the elections during his campaign as a kind of referendum on the need to maintain democratic values on the island against an authoritarian China. Throughout 2019, and after Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated in his New Year speech the threat of the use of force to achieve unification, his government had increased pressure. It had wrested diplomatic allies from Taiwan – it only has 15 left – had limited tourism to the island, and had sent warships for military maneuvers in the strait that separates them. The Taiwanese government had also blamed China for an intense disinformation campaign and false news.
Tsai’s message spread, especially among young people, who have followed the protests in Hong Kong with great interest. The Taiwanese president obtained 8.1 million votes, 57.1%, in an election in which participation shot up to 75.2%, the highest percentage since 2008, in clear support for her proposals regarding the conciliation with China advocated by his rival, Han Kuo-yu, of the conservative Kuomintang. The Progressive Democratic Party also renewed its comfortable absolute majority in the unicameral Legislative.
Despite these results, Beijing insists that it will not change its position. “The reunification of both sides of the Taiwan Strait is a historical inevitability,” said Wang, who in a harsh statement has assured that “those who try to split the country will be condemned to reek for eternity,” an expression that in Mandarin is equivalent to ensure that the subject will go down in history as an example of bad reputation.
The minister’s reaction adds to the criticism of this weekend in the Chinese official media. The Xinhua News Agency believed that the victory had been made possible by the president’s “dirty tricks” and by maneuvers by “dark foreign forces.”
According to analyst Jude Blanchette of the Center for International Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington, after Tsai’s re-election, one can only expect “an increase in pressure from China.” “The Communist Party does not accept well the need for compromises or anything that indicates weakness, so there will be no accommodations” or changes towards a more flexible position, he believes.
“Although the party is capable of tactical change, it will not rethink its attitudes on matters it considers vital, such as Taiwan or Hong Kong. We already saw this after the November legislative elections in Hong Kong. After the victory of the Democratic opposition, Beijing did not recalibrate its position to incorporate more flexible officials or with a broader vision, “recalls the expert. Instead, Xi has appointed Luo Huining, former governor of Qinghai Province, a man accustomed to a heavy hand to enforce Beijing’s orders, as head of the central government representation in Hong Kong.
Lai I-chung, from the Taiwanese Prospect Foundation, agrees with the American specialist. “Changing his policy would mean admitting that Xi was wrong. And as we know, in China Xi Jinping is never wrong, ”he ironic.
The Taiwanese leader spent her first words of victory on Saturday urging China to understand that democratic Taiwan, and its elected democratic government, “will not yield to threats or intimidation,” and that the only ones who can decide the island’s future are its 23 million inhabitants, not the Government in Beijing.
Since his victory, Tsai has also released several messages of support for Hong Kong protesters from his social media accounts. “Before the elections, I said that Taiwan would unite to defend our freedom and our democracy. Over the past six months, Hong Kong has shown us how important that commitment is. I hope that the people of Hong Kong find hope in the message that our elections have sent to the world, ”he wrote on Twitter on Monday.