On the eve of crucial elections that could set the course for Taiwan’s future, incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen issued a rallying call to voters to turn out in support of their hard-won freedoms, after months of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
“Every one of us must vote!” Tsai told a rally in the island’s capital late on Friday, wrapping up a campaign that has seen support for her no-nonsense approach to protecting Taiwan’s way of life surge in the wake of the Hong Kong protests.
“This is for the sake of Taiwan’s youth, for the sake of their future,” she said ahead of Saturday‘s election.
Tsai has been a vocal supporter of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which has broad public support and still sees more than a million people take to the streets to call for an independent inquiry into police violence and an amnesty for arrested protesters, as well as fully democratic elections.
While the city’s leader Carrie Lam eventually withdrew hated legal amendments that would have allowed extradition to mainland China, protesters now say all five demands, including an end to the description of protesters as “rioters” must be met before they will stand down.
Tsai, for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), is currently ahead of opposition Kuomintang (KMT) contender Han Kuo-yu in the polls by a comfortable margin, although the KMT is hoping to make inroads into the DPP’s bloc in the Legislative Yuan.
Tsai’s renewed popularity comes after she stood up to increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who called on the island to “unify” with China, by force if necessary.
Tsai responded by saying that Taiwan’s 23 million people — who are ruled under the KMT-founded 1911 Republic of China that fled to the island in 1949 after losing the civil war — have no wish to give up their sovereignty.
Taiwan was part of Japan for 50 years before being handed back to the 1911 regime, and has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor has it formed part of the People’s Republic of China.
No love for ‘one country, two systems’
Tsai has repeatedly argued that the erosion of democratic progress and civil liberties in Hong Kong under China’s “one country, two systems” means that Taiwan should never take Beijing seriously when it talks about “unification.”
She told the closing rally on Friday: “The youth of Hong Kong have shown us with their lives, their blood and tears, that one country, two systems does not work. Tomorrow, it will be the turn of the youth of Taiwan to show them that, with freedom and democracy, we can cope with anything.”
Tsai’s stance appears to have reversed huge losses for the DPP in local elections 14 months ago, with analysts saying the main reason for her resurgence has been Xi Jinping.
“Of course it is Xi Jinping,” Wang Hao, author of a book about Taiwan’s leaders in the modern age, told RFA. “The reversal of Tsai Ing-wen’s polls is largely related to Xi Jinping’s [threat] to use force to implement his one-country, two-systems plan for Taiwan.”
“It is also related to Xi Jinping’s handling of the situation in Hong Kong, because the Taiwanese people have seen the failure of one-country, two-systems in Hong Kong,” Wang said.
By contrast, Han Kuo-yu has been lukewarm on Hong Kong at best, and made his allegiance known when he visited Beijing’s Central Liaison Office in the city during a visit to Hong Kong last year.
As a result, Tsai’s election platform has been tailor made in advance by regional developments, leaving her free to warn the people of Taiwan that their democracy was hard-fought and won by decades of protest under martial law, against a one-party KMT authoritarian state.
Researchers and security agencies alike have revealed how China has poured funding and disinformation into Taiwan ahead of the crucial poll, while self-identified Chinese spy Wang Liqiang has made details of Beijing’s influence and interference operations available to the Australian media.
For example, an article criticizing Tsai published by state-run media in China last July was reposted by 23 news websites in Taiwan, according to Song Chengen, a researcher at political think-tank the Doublethink Lab.
“Their actions include press conferences, media propaganda and online dissemination,” Song told RFA.
PRC propaganda and fake news
In spite of the opinion polls appearing to favor Tsai, much of the propaganda is working, he said.
“A lot of people now hate Tsai Ing-wen and hate the DPP,” Song said. “They think that the DPP will drag Taiwan into a war.”
“But there are also a lot of people who believe that the KMT … will sell Taiwan out [to China]. Fake news makes these divisions even worse,” he said.
Ying Yu Lin, an assistant professor at National Taiwan Chung Cheng University, said that China has lately become increasingly focused on information warfare and thought control.
“After the invasion of Crimea [by Russian troops] in 2014, China’s People’s Liberation Army began to focus on research in this area and invested a lot of resources in it,” Lin told RFA.
“I think they started developing it after 2014 in conjunction with the change in Xi Jinping’s Taiwan policy,” he said.
Lin said the aim of disinformation is to affect people’s behavior by subtly changing their perception, but that it takes a long time to achieve results.
Taiwan began a transition to democracy following the death of KMT supreme leader Chiang Ching-kuo in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Reported by Shen Hua for RFA’s Mandarin Service, and by Chuang Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.Print