China’s disinformation, coercion campaigns fail to convince Taiwan’s voters

On January 13, the world, particularly the U.S. and China, watched Taiwan’s election with bated breath. After a three-way race, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)’s presidential candidate William Lai Ching-te and his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, former Taipei’s representative in Washington, won the election, giving his party a historic and unprecedented third term in office.

Lai’s victory came after what the ruling DPP termed as China’s most intrusive attempt to interfere in the election through means such as a disinformation campaign and rising military pugilism. 

International observers also saw the election outcome on January 13 as a sign of Taiwanese resistance to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and a referendum on Taiwan’s sentiment toward communist China and the U.S.

Leaders in the U.S. Congress and many lawmakers issued statements congratulating Lai’s historic victory. Former undersecretary of state Keith Krach lauded the election results, interpreting them to be a sign of the Taiwanese people backing continued U.S.–Taiwan relations.

“In the face of persistent threats and meddling from the Chinese government, Taiwanese citizens stood resolutely behind their democracy and sent a clear message to the rest of the world,” Krach stated. 

In September 2020, under former president Donald Trump, Krach became the highest-ranking State Department official to visit Taiwan since the U.S. established diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979.

Krach posited that as long as Taiwan remains free, the CCP will continue to incite tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement hailing Lai on his victory in the presidential election.

“The United States is committed to maintaining cross-Strait peace and stability and the peaceful resolution of differences, free from coercion and pressure,” the statement read. The CCP has never ruled Taiwan, a democracy of 23 million people, but regards the self-governing island as part of the mainland, insisting that it could reunite the island with mainland China, by force if necessary.

Just a few weeks ago, Lai’s campaign seemed to be on the decline amid voter dissatisfaction with DPP governance on bread-and-butter issues. However, with Beijing’s move to weigh in on the election trail, calling Lai a “separatist” and “destroyer of peace”, ethnic Taiwanese voters began to focus on their ethnicity and the threat posed by a militarily assertive Beijing. 

Earlier this month, a senior Chinese official even declared that the January 13 election presented voters with a choice between “peace and war”. The Taiwanese electorate, after witnessing how Beijing has tightened its grip on Hong Kong in the past four years, voted and resisted being ruled by the CCP regime. 

Lai’s winning margin on January 13 was larger than that in the polls released just before the 10-day polling blackout period went into effect. 

While the opposition Kuomintang (KMT)’s candidate Hou Yu-ih tried to downplay his party’s pro-China ties, the KMT’s former president Ma Ying-jeou, in a televised January 10 interview with Deutsche Welle, essentially promoted kowtowing to Beijing’s plans for reunification, undermining Hou’s attempts to placate China-skeptic voters. 

“No matter how much you defend yourself, you can never fight a war with the mainland, you can never win,” Ma said. “They are too large, too much stronger than us.” 

When questioned if Chinese authoritarian leader Xi Jinping was to be trusted, Ma responded: “As far as cross-strait relations (are concerned), you have to.”

Additionally, Ma said unification was acceptable under Taiwan’s Constitution. 

“But it has to be done peacefully and through a democratic process,” Ma qualified in English. “If that can be done, the chances are people in Taiwan may be interested in accepting that.”

The independence-leaning DPP has since highlighted Ma’s remarks to attack the KMT for being out of touch with Taiwanese interests.

“The timing is very unfortunate for the Hou campaign,” Ma Chun-wei of Tamkang University in New Taipei City told Singapore news outlet The Straits Times. “If Ma had said what he said two months ago, people might have moved on from it by now. But to say these things just a few days before the election will likely cost the party crucial median voters.”

Ma, who had been campaigning for Hou, was not invited to the most important KMT campaign event, a rally held the day before the election in New Taipei City.

Hou, by not including Ma, was trying to reassure voters that he was not going to sell out Taiwan to China. After all, Hou ran on an electoral platform alleging that he was the best person to handle China and maintain Taiwan’s democracy.

However, besides having to woo ethnic Chinese in Taiwan, its core base, the KMT has had to appeal to native Taiwanese, who are beginning to dominate politics and have different aspirations than the Chinese.

In Taiwan’s industrialized western region, facing the Chinese mainland, voters overwhelmingly chose the DPP. To the east, voters in more rural, mountainous areas voted for the KMT.

It was therefore unlikely that Taiwanese voters living in prosperous conditions would opt for the KMT and the possibility of reunification and limited freedoms under communist China. 

“I think the people here are accustomed to the endless threats coming from China,” Bob Yang, a retired professor and a former president of the pro-Taiwan Formosan Association for Public Affairs, said to Gatestone Institute. “They seem to take them in stride.”

Photo credit: iStock/ HUNG CHIN LIU

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