This weekend, Taiwanese voters sent Xi their most emphatic response so far by giving President Tsai Ing-wen an overwhelming victory in the country’s presidential elections. Tsai, who represents the Progressive Democratic Party, which is inclined for independence, won 57 percent of the votes in a three-way race that had a high participation of 74 percent. It was the biggest electoral victory since Taiwan held its first free and fair presidential election in 1996.
But the events of the past year have highlighted both the fragility of the Hong Kong model and the unwavering authoritarianism of the Xi government and have provoked a violent reaction against the main rivals of Tsai, the Kuomintang or KMT. “The results of these elections have an additional meaning,” Tsai told reporters over the weekend. “They have shown that when our sovereignty is threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even louder.”
It is unlikely that Beijing will hear that message. “This temporary countercurrent is just a bubble in the current of the times,” said the official state news agency Xinhua in response to the election of Taiwan, calling Tsai’s decisive victory a “chance” and insisting that “reunification cannot be stopped by anyone. ” force or anyone. “
But Tsai and his allies do not see themselves as victims of history. Taiwan “has existed in a kind of limbo since the communists took control of China and the Kuomintang nationalists fled to the island, 160 kilometers off the southeast coast of China, in 1949,” said colleague Anna Fifield. “But in reality, it has become a dynamic and pluralistic society, which has the world’s premier transgender cabinet minister and last year became the first in the region to legalize same-sex marriage, with its own sense of national identity. “
At the same time, attitudes are hardening in Taiwan, with many people turning their backs on the “1992 consensus,” an agreement reached almost three decades ago between the then ruling KMT and Beijing that agreed to the principle of One China, but left space for different interpretations of what that meant in Taiwan and the mainland. At various times since then, this vague commitment to unity provided the basis for heating the ties between the two parties.
But that unit shows little now. Tsai, on the other hand, has been a strong advocate of Hong Kong’s protests and has allowed dozens of activists from the former British colony to take at least one temporary sanctuary in Taiwan. “We reject the ‘one country, two systems’ proposed by Xi Jinping,” he told reporters Saturday night. “We value the lifestyle of democracy and defend our sovereignty.”
Meanwhile, Xi refuses to rule out the possibility of using military power to unite the two countries., an extreme escalation that could trigger an armed conflict with the United States. His hard line stance is part of a broader nationalist stance: China’s confrontation over trade with the Trump administration, along with the glow of global attention on Hong Kong protesters, gives Xi little room for conciliation , argued Pan Chao-min, a professor at the Graduate Institute of Political Science at Tunghai University in Taiwan.
“We can anticipate that China will strengthen efforts to poach the remaining diplomatic allies of Taiwan and prevent the island from participating in international organizations and events,” Pan told Asia Nikkei Review. “Beijing will also offer more incentives to hollow out Taiwanese industry and talent.”
“I doubt that Beijing will reflect on the meaning of President Tsai’s victory, but it will double the coercive policies he implemented during his first term,” Richard Bush, a senior member of the Brookings Institution, told Bloomberg News. “Beijing sees the Trump administration, and not President Tsai, as the most dangerous variable here. It will step back even further against US initiatives to help Taiwan.”
Although exultant in victory, Tsai reiterated his “commitment to peaceful and stable relations through the strait” with Beijing. But the various external and internal pressures that underlie Xi’s government, including the death of any possibility of unification, at least in the near future, suggest that tensions may soon erupt.