Image: How Hwee Young/EPA

Taiwan Votes

Voters in the Republic of China on Taiwan headed to the polls on Saturday January 10, 2020 for the island’s seventh competitive general election. We asked scholars of Taiwan for their opinion about the election’s outcome, and what this means for Taiwan’s immediate future.


Contributors: Katherine Alexander, James Gethyn Evans, Steven M. Goldstein, Ya-wen Lei, Sara Newland, Emma J. Teng and Wen-hui Anna Tang, and George Yin.

Greater Taiwan: Watching the Election from the U.S.

Katherine Alexander, Assistant Professor of Chinese at the University of Colorado, Boulder, observes how Taiwan’s election played out among those in the U.S. who were unable to return to vote.

President Tsai Ing-wen visits Colorado and goes horseback riding with Senator Cory Gardner in July 2019. Image: Tsai Ing-wen on Twitter

When President Tsai Ing-wen visited Denver, CO in July 2019, hundreds of Taiwanese and Taiwanese-Americans came, some from as far away as California and Texas, to a banquet in her honor. That evening, President Tsai spoke to us not only as Taiwan’s head of state, transiting through Denver after official state visits to four Caribbean diplomatic allies, but also, implicitly, as a candidate up for election in a few short months.

A delightful older man at my assigned table told me that he was wearing a tie he normally only wears at Christmas because it had some green in it, and he muttered “Dong-suan, dong-suan!” under his breath as President Tsai was introduced, to my great amusement and his wife’s feigned annoyance. For so many Taiwanese far from home, united in our pride in our president, this basement hall became Taiwan for us if only for a few hours.

So it really was inevitable, after applause lines like “Taiwan is, and will always be, a champion of freedom, democracy, and rule of law,” and “I want to be very clear, the people of Taiwan are not, and will never be, intimidated… each day Taiwan stands strong in the face of suppression and growing threat, and the world needs to hear this story,” that someone in the crowd really did get the chant going. Loudly and joyfully, it echoed across the vast hall: “Dong-suan! Dong-suan! Dong-suan!” My new friend was ecstatic. President Tsai smiled and simply urged the audience to remember to return home and vote in January. We cheered.

Particularly in early January, social media was awash in reminders for registered Taiwanese to be sure to go home and vote, including highly produced videos meant to attract large audiences (like this one, from the Tsai campaign or this one, from a channel that makes cute cat videos).

As important as this was for overseas residents like those President Tsai admonished in Denver, this was even more critical for young Taiwanese, still in Taiwan but living away from their registered voting location, a demographic she particularly needed to capture. While Emma J. Teng and Wen-hui Anna Tang write about this this facet of the election in their contribution to this blog, I want to focus instead on the only group I can write about with real personal knowledge: those of us who weren’t in Taiwan for this presidential election because, for reasons either political, personal, or both, voting wasn’t an option this year.

The last presidential election I was in Taiwan for was also its very first, 1996. Sure, as a 11 year old I was excited about new Taiwanese democracy in an abstract sense, but I was mostly focused on completing a collection of campaign banners from each of the four candidates, now lovingly buried in a box in my parents’ basement. When I first really started caring, I was already living in the US, temporarily in 2000, and more or less permanently since 2003. One of my college roommates remembers, thankfully without resentment, when the phone rang in the wee hours of 20 March, 2004: my mother calling to tell me that President Chen had retained the presidency with the slimmest of margins.

I can find no record of how I felt about the 2008 election, and for 2012 I just tweeted something morose into the void. My disconnection from the greater Taiwanese and Taiwanese-American community began to change during and after the Sunflower Movement, both virtually (mostly on Twitter) and in real life as the revitalization of interest and passion in Taiwanese politics rippled through the Taiwanese student community in Chicago too. Over and over again, I was included in communities of Taiwan-beyond-Taiwan, celebrating Taiwan’s democratic processes and commiserating over its frustrating political cleavages. For the 2016 election, even though I was in the middle of traveling alone, I spent it with friends online and toasted Tsai’s victory with economy class white wine at 40,000 ft above the Pacific.

So when my alarm went off at 4am on 11 January 2020, it called me to join a hyper-connected virtual community of Taiwanese and Taiwan-watchers, living the election in real-time. I started with Formosa TV’s live streaming news on Youtube, exchanged Facebook messages with my mother (who had done her civic duty by going home to vote), opened Twitter in another tab for tweets and DMs, tuned into New Bloom Mag’s live stream and also the DPP’s live stream of Pres. Tsai’s international press conference and victory speech (and my friend Catherine Chou was there in the crowd, so I also got to enjoy it through her tweets).

Katherine Alexander encourages Taiwanese voters to return home in order to cast their ballots.

Then, once it got to be a decent hour of the morning, I also started texting my Taiwanese-American friend Celia in Chicago. I shouldn’t have worried about waking her — it turns out she got even less sleep than I did, and was just as hooked into the global network of Taiwanese. Her extended Taiwanese-American family had multiple text chains going all through the night, continuing discussions they’d been having through text and in-person for weeks before the election. As she followed along on Facebook, Celia especially texted with her cousins, young women in the demographic the DPP heavily targeted this election.

As they watched the percentage of tallied votes creep up in the predawn hours, they celebrated together, but also had serious discussions about how disappointed some older family members might be by the results. These were not conversations that could happen in all-family chats, as the generational divide in political concerns, so aptly illustrated in the data from this survey of Han and Tsai supporters taken before the election reflects how their family has approached the election too. Texting allows the cousins to share what they might not say around the dinner table with their elders, tying a younger generation of politically aware and active Taiwanese-Americans together all the more closely.

As we wound up one of our sleepy conversations yesterday (I took one nap, she took two), Celia said something that cut through my exhaustion with its implication: “We lived in Taiwan time for one day!”

But not just in Taiwan time — with our networks of family and friends, we were in Taiwan. Even without buying tickets for our pilgrimage home, we were able to join the global community of people who care deeply about Taiwan’s future. I may not be able to go home and vote, but this community gives me so much hope and joy. Thank you.

Taiwan’s Pink Vote

James Gethyn Evans, Communications Officer at the Fairbank Center, examines how pro-LGBTQ voters — many of them young — have become an increasingly important demographic for President Tsai Ing-wen.

Since summer 2019, President Tsai Ing-wen’s online image has transformed from policy-wonk to adored cat Mom. On Instagram in particular, Tsai’s social media team have embraced cutesy cartoons, her pets, memes, and pro-LGBTQ rainbow images, alongside more traditional posts of her meeting foreign dignitaries and attending political events.

Tsai Ing-wen thanks her LGBTQ supporters on her Instagram page, shortly after her election victory on January 11, 2020. She writes: “Recently, I often see my young friends carrying rainbow flags, thank you to everyone for supporting a government that takes seriously the value of human rights, this also demonstrates that Taiwan’s society is changing and progressing.”

Instagram is, after all, an important platform for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to engage with young voters, a key constituency of her political base. As Emma J. Teng and Wen-hui Anna Tang write, Taiwanese voters age 20–29, also known as the “youth vote,” favored Tsai over her opponent Han Kuo-yu, 63% to 24%. Lily Kuo writes in The Guardian that younger voters “see [Tsai] as better able to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty, compared with the explicitly pro-China KMT [opposition Kuomintang party], which advocates for closer economic cooperation and trade.”

In addition to nervousness about the Hong Kong protests and China’s increasing assertiveness, I would add that LGBTQ issues are also a driving factor in youth support for Tsai. Despite losing a referendum on same-sex marriage, she can confidently point to its legalization as evidence of her support for LGBTQ Taiwanese. Same-sex marriage represents a fulfillment of her campaign promise and a clear contrast from the mainland’s lack of explicit support for same-sex couples. It also serves as a signal to the international community that Taiwan is a member of the global liberal democratic order that values LGBTQ rights.

Video: A primer on same-sex marriage in Taiwan, BBC Zhongwen

Politicians and governments are increasingly using LGBTQ issues as a signal of their support for — or condemnation of — liberal democratic values to both domestic and international audiences. Emphasizing LGBTQ issues is therefore a mechanism by which politicians can signal to voters that they are willing to change with the times, and that they are responsive to a broad range of issues that appeal to younger voters. Recent polling shows that same-sex marriage (as a stand-in for both LGBTQ and progressive issues more broadly) was favored by 76.9% of 20–29 year olds in Taiwan. Higher levels of support for LGBTQ issues among younger voters than older voters is indeed a trend that is consistent with polling in the U.S. and around the world.

Notably, while a referendum on same-sex marriage (specifically on the question of amending the civil code) highlighted opposition across Taiwan, parties that ran on an explicitly anti-marriage equality platform performed poorly in the general election. For example, the explicitly anti-LGBTQ Stabilizing Force Party 安定力量 — founded in May 2019 just after same-sex marriage became law — received a meager 0.67% of the vote. While we might expect the vote share for the Stabilizing Force Party to be small compared to other more established parties, and for many who oppose same-sex marriage to support the opposition KMT instead, the lack of a single-issue protest votes suggests that opposition to same-sex marriage is not necessarily the highest priority for KMT and third party supporters.

Despite her apparent support for LGBTQ issues, however, Tsai hardly enjoys universal support from individuals in the LGBTQ community, whose opinions on Tsai vary as much as any other voting bloc. One self-identifying gay man in his early 30s that I interviewed in June 2019, for example, stated that same-sex marriage was not enough for him to support Tsai. He believed that the DPP would push Taiwan towards a formal declaration of independence (something that Tsai refuted a few days after the election). Instead he would be voting KMT: “I think economic growth should be prioritized instead of claiming formal independence, because deep down I already consider Taiwan and China as two separate countries.”

Two days prior to the election, however, his views on who to vote for had changed. Tsai was still not getting his vote, but his dislike of the candidates for the legislature from both the DPP and KMT — combined with Han Kuo-yu’s sliding in the polls — meant that he instead would vote for a third party candidate as a protest vote against both main parties.

While third parties are an increasingly attractive option for some voters, for now, LGBTQ individuals and allies appear to strongly favor Tsai and the DPP. It remains to be seen not only whether the so-called “pink vote” will continue to support Tsai into her second term, but also whether she will continue to prioritize LGBTQ issues to signal her broader support for liberal democratic values.

Taiwan’s 2020 Elections and Cross-Straits Relations

Steven M. Goldstein, Director of the Fairbank Center’s Taiwan Studies Workshop, examines what this election might mean for Taipei’s relationship with Beijing.

At the end of 2018, the prospects for Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) seemed dim as island-wide elections, scheduled for January 11, 2020, loomed ahead. The party had done badly in local elections (with even the “safe constituency” of Kaohsiung going to the opposition Kuomintang (KMT)) and Tsai, with an approval rating in the 20% range, resigning from her position as party chair.

Yet, little more than a year later, the situation has changed dramatically. Tsai and the DPP appear to have made a remarkable comeback. In the recent election, she garnered over eight million votes for 57.1% of the total (the second highest percentage in Taiwan’s electoral history), while the DPP gained a controlling share of 61 seats in the 113 member legislature.

The BBC’s graphic depicts new seat distributions after the 2020 election.

How does one explain this remarkable reversal of fortune? And how might this outcome affect the future of cross-strait relations between Taiwan and the mainland?

Ironically, a major factor aiding Tsai’s resurgence was mainland policy. In January 2019, both President Tsai and Chinese president Xi Jinping staked out their positions for the new year. Xi presented his most comprehensive discussion of Taiwan policy, which affirmed previous demands for concessions from Taiwan, while also placing particular emphasis on an inevitable future of the island’s incorporation into the Chinese state under the framework of “one country, two systems.” Tsai, in both her New Year speech and response to Xi strongly affirmed the sovereignty of Taiwan and refused to accept the basic premises of mainland policy — especially a future under “one country, two systems.” The opposition KMT, which had presented itself as a party that could negotiate with the mainland, seemed unsure of how to reply to Xi’s uncompromising message.

And then came the anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong. Tsai immediately and forcefully took the side of the demonstrators, noting that the “one country, two systems” practiced in Hong Kong was the policy proposed by Beijing for Taiwan, a theme that she hammered repeatedly throughout the election campaign. This was in contrast to the KMT, which tried either to avoid the issue of Hong Kong altogether, or make more moderate statements about the protests.

Still, mishandling the Hong Kong issue was only one of the failings of the KMT. It would have been difficult for the party to handle these developments under any circumstances. However, the Party was further weakened by continued divisions within the senior leadership and the sudden emergence of a charismatic victor in the 2018 local elections, Han Kuo-yu of Kaohsiung. As the campaign progressed it became clear that his charisma could not compensate for his considerable personal baggage and obvious policy inexperience.

There were other domestic factors that aided Tsai. Surveys suggested that she was aided by a generational change in Taiwan, with those in their 20s and 30s strongly identifying with Taiwanese citizenship and favoring greater distance — even independence — from the mainland. In addition, the economy at home was doing reasonably well. Unemployment was moderate; economic growth was about 3% (good compared to the other “little-dragon” economies in Asia); efforts to develop economic ties with Southeast Asia were showing some progress; and the economy benefited from foreign investment and the return of some Taiwanese firms from the mainland.

This final factor highlights another development that aided Tsai — the downturn in Sino-American relations. By returning to Taiwan, firms avoided possible damage from the trade war between Beijing and Washington. In addition, these tensions also seemed to benefit Taiwan as its “friends” in Washington upped their support as a signal to the mainland. This, in turn, allowed the Tsai administration to take credit during the campaign for what appeared to be an enhanced relationship with the United States.

Finally, what of the future of cross-strait relations and particularly the triangular relationship between the United States, China, and Taiwan?

Although things may become clearer in the interim between the elections and the presidential inauguration of May 20, it seems for the moment that the major trend in the relationship will be continuity. Tsai Ing-wen’s authority has been considerably enhanced within Taiwan and the DPP. It is likely that she will pursue a policy that refuses to accept mainland conditions for a renewal of contacts, but avoids provocations while also seeking to expand Taiwan’s international profile, to modernize the military, and to strengthen relations with the United States.

In its initial statements after the election, China has declared that its policy toward Taiwan will not change. This suggests continued insistence on its conditions for renewed contacts and on acceptance of its vision of a future relationship based on “one country, two systems.” Beijing’s policy for achieving acceptance of these unpopular goals in Taiwan will likely include a continuation of an approach that combines incentives (e.g. privileges for Taiwan citizens who would work or study on the mainland) with threats or coercion (e.g. military exercises, exclusion from international organizations, attracting Taiwan’s international partners, etc.). The assumption being that time is on China’s side and that at some point Taiwan’s resistance will be exhausted.

Finally, the United States will likely continue to enhance the relationship with Taiwan within the boundaries of the “One China Policy.” Despite the initial incident of the Trump-Tsai phone call, the administration has generally stayed within the boundaries of this policy that defines the limits of the American relationship with Taiwan. However, Congressional support will continue to be an important force probing these limits by efforts to promote Taiwan’s international status in the face of mainland opposition; to strengthen the military relationship based on the Taiwan Relations Act; and to expand bilateral economic ties.

Steven M. Goldstein talks to the Fairbank Center’s “Harvard on China” podcast about President Tsai’s phone call with President Trump in December 2016.

However, the likelihood that the status quo will be continued in the immediate future should not be taken as assuring regional stability. Today’s relative calm is based on the implementation of policies by all three parties (Taiwan, the mainland, and the United States) that can also be seen as undermining the realization of other powerful — perhaps even more powerful — goals sought by each of them.

On the mainland, there are expressions of concern that, given the generational trends in Taiwan and the drift of American policy, the current, more patient approach may only allow increasing resistance to eventual incorporation with the mainland. While on Taiwan, although Tsai is likely to use her influence to shape a moderate and restrained mainland policy, public opinion polls suggest growing opposition to the mainland and an increasing favoring towards independence. Finally, given the uncertain state of Sino-American relations, Washington’s balanced management of relations with Taiwan and China might be undermined, leading to a crisis in the Taiwan Straits.

In short, to assume that status quo will continue in the near future is as much an expression of concern regarding the persisting dangers in cross-strait relations as it is an affirmation of the necessity of careful management by all sides.

Taiwan Doubles Down on Democracy

Ya-wen Lei, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Harvard University, argues that Taiwan’s election defies the pressures of being a democracy on China’s periphery.

On Saturday, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen was re-elected President of Taiwan with a record-high number of votes. Her victory comes in the wake of renewed tensions between Taiwan and China, with the latter increasing its threats on a number of fronts. Tsai’s Kuomintang (KMT) challenger Han Kuo-yu ran a campaign using the slogan: “Taiwan is safe; people are rich,” but Tsai’s re-election suggests Han’s fundamental misreading of conditions. The Taiwanese people are primarily concerned not with their financial prowess, but with Taiwan’s sovereignty, democracy, and freedom — issues highlighted in Tsai’s campaign.

The election results reveal the limits of money, power, and threats. Both Beijing and Han Kuo-yu sought to mobilize the logics of money and power to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people. Beijing added threats by cutting Taiwan’s diplomatic ties and imposing economic sanctions. Looking at China’s economic growth and rising global power, it is true that some Taiwanese have admired the “efficacy” of Beijing’s rule. Yet the recent protests in Hong Kong and the response of both the Beijing and Hong Kong governments to those protests have reminded the Taiwanese public of the dangers of authoritarian rule. It is increasingly clear that the democracy so cherished by Taiwanese voters would not survive under Beijing.

In one of her speeches before the election, Tsai told her supporters that a divided society would only undermine Taiwan and she promised to embrace Han’s supporters, regardless of the election outcome. But when it comes to listening to different viewpoints, facilitating conversation, and incorporating diverse inputs into policymaking, Tsai and her government have not always excelled — as recently evidenced by the hasty passage of the Anti-Infiltration Act just prior to the election. Moving forward, President Tsai and the DPP need to focus on upholding a high standard of democracy and the rule of law. Taiwan, like other liberal democracies, confronts increasing domestic political polarization, but Tsai would do well to capitalize on the nation’s relatively high levels of mutual trust and goodwill, as well as the Taiwanese people’s investment in democracy.

As democracies elsewhere seem to be collapsing, Taiwan’s history of fighting for and defending its democratic institutions remains inspiring. Taiwan’s experiences belie again and again the argument that democracy is an exclusively “Western” property. Beijing must recognize and accept this if cross-strait relations are ever to improve.

What Challenges Lie Ahead for Tsai’s DPP?

Sara Newland, Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College and Fairbank Center Associate in Research, examines what Taiwan’s two main political parties — the DPP and KMT — might take away from Saturday’s election results.

Sara A. Newland, Associate in Research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and Assistant Professor at Smith College, meets with Taiwan Vice President Chen Chien-jen 陳建仁 in January 2019. Photo: Liu Tinming

In many ways, Saturday’s election was a decisive victory for President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Tsai was reelected with 57 percent of the vote; the 8.1 million votes she received were the most of any presidential candidate in Taiwan’s democratic history. While the DPP lost seven seats in parliament (the Legislative Yuan), it retained its legislative majority and the ability to build on the domestic policy agenda it undertook during Tsai’s first term in office. However, the results suggest that some challenges lie ahead for the DPP.

First, voters were far less enthusiastic about the DPP as a party than about Tsai as a candidate. 34 of the 113 seats in the Legislative Yuan are elected via proportional representation — voters cast a ballot for their preferred political party, and seats are distributed in rough proportion to the percent of votes that each party receives — and the DPP only slightly outperformed the opposition Nationalist Party (KMT), winning 34 percent of votes to the KMT’s 33 percent. The small parties that emerged after the 2014 Sunflower Movement have remained popular; despite the very public implosion of the New Power Party, the NPP won almost eight percent of the party list vote and captured three seats in the legislature. In the long term, the DPP will need to convince young voters of its appeal. The challenge is that winning back the loyalty of these voters will likely require the DPP to adopt more socially progressive positions, which may alienate some of the DPP’s older and more conservative supporters.

Second, the strong performance of one small party in particular — the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), founded in 2019 by the popular independent mayor of Taipei, Ko Wen-je — may complicate the DPP’s efforts to retain the presidency after President Tsai’s term ends in 2024. Despite being only a few months old, the party captured over 11 percent of the party list vote and five seats in the legislature, largely on the strength of Ko’s personal popularity. While the party has few set policy positions — it emphasizes flexibility and pragmatism, and could appeal to both DPP- and KMT-aligned voters across a range of social groups — on Saturday it appears to have disproportionately taken votes from Tsai supporters (who might otherwise have voted for the DPP party list). The TPP’s relatively strong showing lays the foundation for Ko to run for the presidency in 2024, and a three-way race between Ko and a candidate from each of the two major parties seems likely. Saturday’s results suggest that this scenario would hurt the DPP more than the KMT.

The election also reveals some major challenges facing the KMT. The first is a challenge of interpretation: Do the election results suggest that Han Kuo-yu — an economic populist who rose from obscurity to be elected mayor of Kaohsiung only months before running for president — was a poor choice as a presidential candidate? Tsai Ing-wen’s 19-point victory suggests that he was. However, measured against the KMT’s performance in the 2016 election, Saturday looks like a win: Han’s 5.5 million votes exceeded the number earned by Eric Chu, the KMT’s presidential candidate in 2016, by nearly two million. Han is a polarizing figure, hated by DPP voters and also by those in his own party who see him as buffoonish and inexperienced. But like so many charismatic populists around the world, Han has inspired fierce loyalty among his supporters. These fans could represent a reliable base of support for the KMT, which the party badly needs as it struggles to attract young voters who dislike its relatively pro-China stance. However, just as the Tea Party in the United States brought fundamental changes to the Republican Party, the “Han fans” may dramatically alter the norms and policy preferences that guide the KMT.

A second challenge facing the KMT is thus a coming fight over the future direction of the party. Han and his supporters represent a totally different vision for the KMT than the party has ever embraced before — one rooted in economic populism and making the KMT the party of the “shumin,” the economic underclass that feels that its interests are not represented by either the DPP or the traditionally business-friendly KMT. Embracing economic populism might produce some electoral victories for the KMT — after all, the success of this strategy largely explains Han’s mayoral victory in Kaohsiung, traditionally a DPP stronghold, in 2018. But this vision is completely at odds with the staid traditionalism and the economic policy preferences of the KMT old guard. Whether these two visions can exist side by side — and which one will come to dominate the KMT in the coming years — is an open question.

Election rally for Tsai Ing-wen, Jan. 10, 2020, Kaohsiung. Photo: Wen-hui Tang

“1/11: I’m going home!”

Emma J. Teng, Professor at M.I.T., and Wen-hui Anna Tang, Professor at National Sun Yat-sen University Taiwan, discuss democratic values in Taiwan’s election. You can also read this post here on the Fairbank Center blog.

In the lead up to Taiwan’s election on January 11, 2020, a television ad featuring young voters promoted a heartwarming narrative exhorting busy 20-somethings to put aside their daily routines to travel home and vote, to protect their democracy and to show pride in their freedom. The tagline, “January 11: your home is waiting for you; your country is also waiting for you,” underscored the repetition of “home” (jia) in the Chinese word for “country/homeland (guojia).” Since Taiwan does not permit absentee balloting, voting day thus means a crush of travel home, not only for students and military servicemen, but also Taiwanese living abroad, thousands of whom returned to exercise their treasured right to vote.

The evocation of home was meant to appeal to the younger generation’s sense of pride in Taiwan’s democracy and their desire to uphold the island’s democratic way of life. Yet, the notion of “home” also begs the question that has to some degree been at the center of this presidential election: what to Taiwan’s voters is “home” and how does “home” relate to “country”? Whereas DPP incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen, pitched her campaign to voters who embrace Taiwan as home, KMT contender, Han Guoyu and People First Party candidate, James Soong, targeted those who favor closer ties with China, the ancestral homeland of the majority of Taiwan’s population, and the current domicile of some 1 million Taiwanese businessmen and their families. Identity issues thus once again animated this election — though a KMT campaign truck blaring the slogan “oppose Taiwanese independence, oppose gay marriage” (pictured below) is a reminder of the multiple layers of identity issues in Taiwan today.

KMT campaign truck, Taipei, Jan. 9, 2020. Photo credit: Emma Teng

Unfolding against the backdrop of the escalating protest movement in Hong Kong, as well as ongoing trade tensions between the US and China (not to mention Beijing‘s usual election-year saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait), the “China factor” loomed large in this election cycle — further complicated by suspected Russian-style election meddling by Beijing.

Concerns over China’s influence gave rise to the biggest buzzword of the campaign season: “dried mango” (mangguo gan). A play on words for “wangguo gan,” the fear that if the opposition wins the election the whole country will be doomed for destruction, this trending internet phrase expressed the mood of existential anxiety over Taiwan’s future that permeated the election. “Dried mango” and related memes went viral among Taiwan youth in response to the escalating protest movement in Hong Kong. Media images of police violence against Hong Kong activists, many of them students or recent graduates just entering the workforce, particularly impacted the younger generation, prompting some to reflect on whether Taiwan might one day find itself in a similar situation: “Today, Hong Kong; tomorrow, Taiwan?” Which candidate could best secure Taiwan’s future thus emerged as a key question of this election.

The two leading candidates offered very different visions. With her campaign slogan “Resist China, Defend Taiwan,” Tsai trumpeted her efforts to reduce dependency on China and face Taiwan toward the global stage. In contrast, Han’s campaign promised “Safety for the Country, Money for the People” through increased engagement with China. These dueling visions exemplify what political economist Shirley Lin has called “Taiwan’s China dilemma”: that is, “how to preserve a country’s democracy and freedom while maintaining economic relations with a neighboring giant that wants to subsume it.”

While Tsai has consistently rejected Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model, Han came under attack for failure to take a clear position on this question. Mounting public concern over Hong Kong compelled Han to backpedal on his pro-China stance, leaving him open to accusations of flip-flopping. The fierce contest over the China dilemma led both parties to be charged with “selling dried mango”: in other words, fear mongering to win votes.

That “dried mango” could become such a crucial keyword in this election indicates the growing influence of younger voters. Taiwan’s media increasingly relies on the internet and social media to gauge popular trends, and these domains are largely dominated by the young generation. Ads aimed at galvanizing the youth vote indicate recognition of their importance as a voting bloc. And as political scientist Shelly Rigger has shown, the native-born “Sunflower Generation,” named after the student protests of 2014, overwhelmingly sees itself as Taiwanese. Polling conducted in late November and early December 2019 showed that 63% of respondents in the 20–29 age cohort favored Tsai, with only 24% favoring Han.

Tsai’s popularity with this cohort can be explained by several factors: her support of Taiwan’s same-sex marriage bill; younger voters’ rising sense of nationalism in response to Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests; and her generally progressive and environmentalist policies. Considering these strands together shows how complicated Taiwan identity issues have become. This election also saw a record number of young candidates for the legislature, across the three parties.

As we wrote for this blog four years ago, Tsai Ing-wen’s election as president in 2016 was historic as the election of Taiwan’s first female president, a triumph not only for Tsai but also for women throughout East Asia, and indeed across the world (we note that the U.S. has yet to elect a female president). Her landslide victory in the 2020 election, with over 57% of the vote (versus 38.6% for Han), sets yet another historic record as the largest margin of victory in Taiwan’s presidential elections: a major step forward for women in politics in East Asia, though it raises questions about future relations with China, and hence the US.

Whatever the implications for China-Taiwan relations, this is also a good moment to pause and reflect: amid global events such as Brexit, mounting tensions in the Persian Gulf, and ongoing protests in Hong Kong, the fact that this small island of 23,000,000 people quietly and routinely carried out a democratic election for president, with approximately 19,311,105 (nearly 75% voter turn-out) traveling home to their polling stations by planes, trains, and automobiles, is a bright spot in our world today.

As we heard a number of Taiwan voters say: “it doesn’t matter which candidate you vote for, what’s important is that in a democracy we all have the freedom to make our individual choice.”

Han Kuo-yu’s rise and fall

George Yin, Dickey Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy and International Security at Dartmouth College, asks how and why KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu’s campaign failed to attract enough voters in the 2020 general election.

Mayor Han Kuo-yu visits the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University in April 2019, pictured here with Steven M. Goldstein. Image: James Evans

When Mayor Han Kuo-yu visited Harvard in April 2019, public opinion polls overwhelmingly showed that Han was Taiwanese voters’ preferred choice for Taiwan’s presidency even before Han declared his intention to run. Han is funny, eloquent, charismatic, and has a knack for connecting with working class voters. He makes x-rated jokes that no other Taiwanese politician would dare make, and coins ingenious and easy-to-remember policy slogans (台灣安全,人民有錢; “safe Taiwan, prosperous people”, Han’s version of MAGA).

Han is unlike a traditional KMT politician, who might typically hold a Ph.D. from an elite Western university and might be more comfortable talking about the analects of Confucius rather than how s/he stared at the opposite sex’s legs as a student. Initially, many felt that it was easier to connect with Han than President Tsai, who in comparison seemed serious and boring.

Han’s personal characteristics that contributed to his meteoric rise also led to his downfall. Han was more interested in slogans than concrete policies. Voters soon became skeptical of Han’s grasp of the key policy issues facing Taiwan. Han was particularly evasive when it came to cross-strait relations.

When journalists asked Han about the Hong Kong protest, Han initially responded that he did not know or understand what was going on (不知道、不了解). Han slowly but surely acquired an unshakeable reputation of “grass bag” (草包), the metaphor for an ignorant fool in Chinese. Han’s eloquence and sense of humor also attracted criticism. Many accused Han of being a sexist and socially-reactionary politician. Support for Han declined steadily. By December 2019, most public opinion polls showed that Han trailed Tsai by between 15 and 25%.

The rise and fall of Han Guo-yu demonstrates that there is limited market for populist politicians in Taiwan. Taiwan has been a pawn of Sino-U.S. geopolitics since the Cold War, and its economy is highly dependent on trade; Taiwan’s democracy and prosperity have therefore always been precarious. Taiwanese voters understand this, and they do not have much time for any “grass bag” who cannot govern. Electing a populist leader is a luxury that Taiwan does not enjoy.

Han Kuo-yu goes for hot pot with his team after losing the general election. Image: Apple Online.

Han’s demise does not mean that the KMT will cease to be a relevant political force in Taiwan. We should not forget that Han still received 5.5 million votes, 1.7 million votes more than KMT’s Eric Chu in the 2016 presidential election — albeit in the context of significantly increased overall turnout.

Tsai’s victory will not necessarily lead to a further deterioration in cross-strait relations. On the one hand, Xi has more urgent issues than Taiwan to deal with, from China’s sluggish economy to the Sino-U.S. trade war and Hong Kong. On the other hand, Tsai may have more space to pursue dialogue and reconciliation in her second term as she will not have to worry about re-election. We would do well to not forget that it took President Richard Nixon (a Republican politician with stellar anti-communist credentials) to initiate the normalization of U.S.-China relations.

Read more blog posts about Taiwan on the Fairbank Center blog, and check out our latest research on Taiwan on our website.



Fairbank Center Blog
Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University

The Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at @Harvard University is a world leading center for the study of #China.