Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has China to thank for landslide re-election win

Saturday's election victory for Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen was big, but the defeat for Beijing was bigger, a stark lesson the dictatorship next door — no matter how powerful or prosperous — holds little appeal for the only part of "Greater China" that gets a real vote on its own democratic future.

"When our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the Taiwanese people will shout our determination even more loudly back," Tsai said in her acceptance speech.

Beijing's impulse to intimidate all challengers clearly backfired during the campaign. And yet, it continues. Hours after Tsai's win, Chinese state news agency Xinhua accused her party, DPP, of using "dirty tactics, such as cheating." It went on to label her "selfish, greedy and evil." 

Throughout the campaign, China was accused of its own campaign of misinformation and dirty tricks in support of Tsai's opponents.

More than eight million voters cast ballots for Tsai — 57 per cent of the vote —  setting a new record with her margin of victory. Tsai's main challenger, Kuomintang (KMT) Leader Han Kuo-yu, finished more than 2.5 million votes back. His party advocates closer ties with China, primarily for Taiwan's economic benefit.

For youth in particular, Tsai cemented her image as a progressive defender of freedoms — reinforced by her government's backing of LGBT rights last year. A careful campaign to cultivate that connection — including images of Tsai as an energetic anime character with her own game — brought out a surge of first-time voters, like Cindy Pai.

"We are not afraid of China," Pai said at Tsai's victory rally. "Our president will protect us."

Still, in many ways, Tsai owes her success to missteps by the Chinese leadership.

Just seven months ago, as Hong Kong was waking up to Beijing's efforts to exert control and limit democratic rights, it looked as if Tsai was headed for defeat. Polls put her some 15 points behind her rival, Han.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Then voters started to notice the connection with Hong Kong.

"We saw the aggression of China," said Gary Yen. "We saw what happened in Hong Kong, and people in Taiwan are concerned if Taiwan is going to be next." 

Yen is a Canadian, born in Taiwan, who flew in from Toronto because he felt it was important to support democracy here, one of many who said they made the journey back because they felt Taiwan was facing an existential crisis.

Relations with China dominated many discussions during the campaign, even on the streets. 

At a market in the tech hub of Hsinchu, south of Taipei, a woman selling pickled eggs said she worries more about the economy than China's threat to Taiwan. That immediately set off her neighbour, arguing loudly that he was Taiwanese, not Chinese, and it was important to stand up to "bullying from China." 

Indeed, pressure from Beijing has only increased since Tsai came to power.

China has long considered Taiwan a wayward province, to be reunited with the mainland eventually. In a tough speech a year ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping said he "will not promise to renounce the use of force" to achieve that.

China has also imposed new economic restrictions, like limiting tourism from the mainland. And it has convinced more countries in the Pacific region, Central America and Africa to switch diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing. Only 15 countries now formally recognize Taiwan.

Saša Petricic/CBC

Under "one-country, two-systems" principle, Xi has offered Taiwan a similar status as Hong Kong in China: limited autonomy that would — in theory — allow the island to keep some of its democratic rights. 

Tsai has rejected that, as well as any other move that would give Beijing direct power over Taiwan. But she's also been careful not to antagonize Beijing by declaring formal independence.

With her current victory — and with so many who now see her as protector of the island — political observers say that may change in a second term.

Outgoing KMT legislator Jason Hsu said he expects Tsai to be under pressure "in pushing the envelope and demanding more Taiwan identity, or even pursuing a Taiwan independence agenda." 

That would almost certainly trigger a confrontation with Beijing, potentially drawing in the United States. Washington is Taiwan's strongest military backer and supplier of equipment.

Still, J. Michael Cole argues Taiwan has no choice but to stand up to China, and that's important to the whole world. Cole is a Canadian, a senior fellow with Ottawa's Macdonald-Laurier Institute who has studied Taiwan and has lived in Taipei for the past 14 years.

"I think if China got what it wants over Taiwan," he said, "it would certainly embolden the Chinese Communist Party. It's not going to stop at Taiwan."

Cole said Western democracies also need to stop China from intimidation beyond its borders, to show "that we are willing to do what is necessary to defend ourselves."