Asia Pacific / Politics

Taiwan rivals in final election push as China's shadow looms

Suspected meddling by Beijing is a major issue

AFP-JIJI, AP

Taiwan’s presidential rivals were in a final push to convince voters Friday ahead of a closely watched election that looks set to infuriate China and send ripples far beyond its borders.

Some 19 million people are eligible to vote Saturday to choose between two leaders with very different visions for Taiwan’s future — in particular how close the self-ruled island should tack to its giant neighbor.

Beijing views Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to one day retake the island, by force if necessary.

But China is also Taiwan’s largest trade partner.

President Tsai Ing-wen, who is seeking a second term, has pitched herself as a defender of Taiwan’s liberal values against the increasingly authoritarian shadow cast by Beijing under President Xi Jinping.

Her main competitor, Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang, favors much warmer ties with China — saying it would boost the island’s fortunes — and accuses the current administration of needlessly antagonizing Beijing.

Both candidates planned huge final campaign rallies Friday night as they tried to mop up swing voters for both the presidency and the unicameral parliament.

Taiwan bans the publishing polls within 10 days of elections, but Tsai has led comfortably throughout the campaign.

“It would take a huge shift from the final polls for Han to win,” said Shelley Rigger, a Taiwan expert at North Carolina’s Davidson College. “Unless there was a huge polling failure or turnout is wildly uneven, a surprise seems unlikely.”

Beijing has made no secret of its desire to see Tsai ousted.

Her Democratic Progressive Party leans toward independence, and Tsai rejects Beijing’s view that Taiwan is part of “one China.”

But in the four years since Tsai won a landslide victory, Beijing has tightened the screw.

It severed official communications with her administration while ramping up economic and military pressure.

It also poached seven of Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies, hopeful that a stick approach would convince Taiwan’s voters to punish Tsai at the ballot box.

The campaign appears to have backfired, however, especially in the last year after Xi gave a particularly bellicose speech stating Taiwan’s absorption into the mainland was “inevitable.”

The ruling party has been crying foul over alleged Chinese attempts to sway the election. On New Year’s Eve, the DPP rushed through a law banning “infiltration” by outsiders. The Kuomintang contends the law might be abused to stifle freedom of speech. A third candidate, James Soong, also has objected to the move.

Alarm over foreign interference has risen globally following evidence of Russian meddling in U.S. and other elections. China’s “soft power” efforts to shape public opinion in its favor by acquiring overseas media outlets, funding academic posts and setting up government-supported Confucian Institutes abroad have likewise raised concern.

“Resisting China is the party’s biggest issue this year across candidates,” said Lin Fei-fan, the DPP deputy secretary general.

Government security experts say they believe the use of fake Facebook pages and other online disinformation has eased somewhat since local elections in November 2018, but Beijing uses other forms of infiltration and more traditional ways to try to influence Taiwan politics more than 70 years after Nationalist forces fled the communist mainland for Taiwan.

DPP officials say that on average 1,000 items of “fake news” from China are published or shared in Taiwan every day.

Civil society groups, village chiefs, professional and academic associations, criminal syndicates and religious organizations all have built up relationships with mainland Chinese counterparts that are sometimes used to push political agendas and spread disinformation, said Jin-Deh Wu, acting director for Cyber-warfare and Information Security at Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a nonpartisan think tank.

Months of massive, often violent political protests in Hong Kong have accentuated those concerns and left many in Taiwan skeptical that Beijing’s “one-country, two systems” approach to governing the semiautonomous former British colony could ever work for their own democratically ruled island.

A recent case involving an alleged spy for Beijing has further raised alarm.

In what may be the first case of a mainland Chinese operative blowing his cover, self-confessed spy Wang “William” Liqiang reportedly disclosed to Australia’s counterespionage agency intelligence on how Beijing runs interference operations abroad. Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg described Wang’s allegations of Chinese infiltration and disruptions of democratic systems in Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan “very disturbing.”

Wang said he meddled in Taiwan’s 2018 municipal elections and claimed there were plans to disrupt Saturday’s election, according to Australian media reports.

Those assertions have not been officially confirmed, and Chinese officials in Beijing have dismissed them as false. But Taiwan authorities have detained two executives he claimed had been running a spy network for China on the island.

Taiwanese voters also have been rattled the mass internment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Tsai has seen a dramatic reversal in fortunes.

A year ago she looked a lame-duck president, languishing in the polls after the DPP received a thumping at local midterm elections. But analysts say Tsai’s ability to seize on the protests in Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan’s successful economic navigation of the U.S.-China trade war, have boosted her fortunes.

“Tsai has convincingly presented herself as the best person to defend Taiwan’s sovereignty,” said Bonnie Glaser, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Han has struggled on the campaign trail.

A plain-speaking populist, he stormed onto the political scene in 2018 when he won the mayoralty of the usually staunch DPP city Kaohsiung, and then saw off party bigwigs to win the KMT primary.

But his political momentum slowed once he became the opposition candidate as he fought to shake off accusations he lacked experience and was too cozy with Beijing.

“Han Kuo-yu was a bad choice for the KMT,” said Glaser. “He has made many gaffes and provided little details about his policies.”

Still, the KMT are not going down without a fight and have campaigned to the end — portraying Tsai as a dangerous leader pushing Taiwan towards conflict.

“Don’t let Tsai Ing-wen destroy the Republic of China’s democracy, freedom and the rule of law,” party chairman Wu Den-yih told supporters Thursday, using Taiwan’s official name.

The results of Saturday’s vote will also be closely watched by regional powers and in Washington, especially given the parlous state of U.S.-China relations.

Taiwan has long been a potential flash point between Beijing and Washington, which remains the island’s main military ally.