How China Lost Taiwan
By NICK FRISCH JAN. 27, 2016
Tsai Ing-wen won a crushing election victory on Jan. 16 by getting surrogates to fire up the base. Credit Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
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TAIPEI, Taiwan — On a drizzly Tuesday night earlier this month, Chen Li-hung, a celebrity news television host, strode onto a stage in Changhua, in central Taiwan, and launched into a passionate speech, feeding red meat to his Democratic Progressive Party’s assembled faithful.
“My parents are from mainland China,” he told the crowd. “Yet I was born in Taiwan. I grew up in Taiwan. So why did the teachers in school tell me I am still Chinese? Since my youth, I have felt that I am not Chinese, I am Taiwanese!” He ripped into the incumbent president, Ma Ying-jeou. “Eight years ago, President Ma won himself a pretty nice electoral victory, but he is walking us closer and closer to China, and has Taiwan gotten any better?”
For hours, speakers like Mr. Chen raised the crowd to a fever pitch. Then Tsai Ing-wen, the party’s presidential nominee, arrived to cool them down.
Ms. Tsai, a former law professor and trade negotiator, let her surrogates fire up the base during the election campaign that ended on Jan. 16 in victory for her and her party. She knew that if voters detected too much populism, they would have turned on her. And she realized that Beijing and Washington watch her words closely.
The range in performances between Mr. Chen and Ms. Tsai helps explain the Democratic Progressive Party’s crushing margin of victory two weeks ago over Mr. Ma’s Kuomintang party, which lost both the presidency and, for the first time, Parliament. The rally highlighted why, with this election, China has lost Taiwan for good.
When the Kuomintang was defeated in a civil war by Mao’s Communists in 1949, its leadership retreated to Taiwan with millions of mainlander refugees like Mr. Chen’s parents, establishing an independent authoritarian government that gave way to democracy in the 1990s. Since 1949, Beijing has claimed Taiwan as a wayward province that must be reunited with the mainland, peacefully if possible but by force if necessary. The United States is Taiwan’s security guarantor, but also wishes to avoid offending Beijing and has been unsympathetic to Taiwanese leaders who rock the boat. Taiwan’s voters punish candidates who needlessly provoke China, or alienate Washington.
Beijing has pursued a decades-long strategy of patience and economic courtship, hoping that Taiwan would peacefully rejoin the mainland. And the Taiwanese do want stable, functional ties with China. Polls show most Taiwanese favor the status quo of de facto independence, without any official declaration that would enrage Beijing and possibly provoke an invasion.
But with the mainland’s economic miracle running aground, many Taiwanese are questioning the wisdom of lashing themselves to the mast. The Taiwanese worry that Mr. Ma’s rapprochement with Beijing has gotten too close, without enough trickle-down benefits to average Taiwanese. A free-trade bill that would have opened sensitive industries, such as media, to mainland Chinese ownership, stalled in Parliament in 2014 amid student protests, which became known as the Sunflower Movement.