Taiwan voters head to local elections under shadow of China's invasion threat

Pro-China candidates could make a comeback as Beijing dials back propaganda and local issues are in focus.
By Hsia Hsiao-hwa and Hwang Chun-mei for RFA Mandarin
2022.11.25
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Taiwan voters head to local elections under shadow of China's invasion threat Supporters of Wayne Chiang, Taipei mayoral candidate of the opposition party Kuomintang (KMT), attend a rally ahead of the election in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 25, 2022.
Credit: Reuters

Taiwanese voters go to the polls on Saturday in local elections that will likely see a swing toward the opposition pro-China Kuomintang amid growing dissatisfaction over the government's handling of the pandemic and the economy. 

There’s also a perception among some that Democratic Progressive Party President Tsai Ing-wen has exacerbated tensions with Beijing with her emphasis on defending democracy and the island's sovereignty.

Recent opinion polls show that the majority of district, municipal and county council seats, as well as magistrate, mayoral and village chief posts, could go to the KMT in an apparent rejection of the ruling DPP's focus on defending the island against growing Chinese aggression, based on recent opinion polls by Channel News Asia and other outlets.

Political opinion tracker DailyView has projected that the Kuomintang could win 15 out of the 22 mayoral and county magistrate seats, with ruling party candidates winning just five, the report said.

The issues at stake in the weekend's elections are more local than international, and the KMT typically outperforms the Democratic Progressive Party at this level, according to this argument.

"Based on the last three local and national elections, I have a theory that a new block of voters has emerged in Taiwan following the 2014 Sunflower Movement, what I refer to as 'conservative, safe bet' voters," columnist Courtney Donovan Smith wrote in the Taiwan News on Nov. 24.

These voters support pro-China candidates in local elections as the safe bet based on the assumption they will be better administrators, but for the ruling DPP in national elections as the safe bet "because they are viewed by these voters as more trustworthy and reliable on national security and managing the China threat," Donovan Smith wrote.

Better cities and neighborhoods

But while candidates have been asked by campaigners to sign a pledge of "no surrender" in the event of a Chinese invasion, the issues they are being asked about on the campaign trail have more to do with making better cities and better neighborhoods rather than the forging of future war heroes in defense of the island's democratic way of life.

"These elections will make Taiwan better, and Taipei better," DPP candidate and former health minister Chen Shih-chung told voters on the Taipei mayoral campaign trail. "They're about striving for ways to make Taipei progress."

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Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen gestures next to Chen Shih-chung, Taipei mayoral candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), during a campaign rally ahead of the local elections, in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 25, 2022. Credit: Reuters

KMT candidate Chiang Wan'an, the great-grandson for late KMT president and authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek, hit out at Chen for not delivering rapid testing or vaccines quickly enough during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in the city.

"After the DPP became dominant, they seized power, and there is nothing they dare not do," Chiang said. "They never admit their mistakes when they make them, nor apologize, nor correct them."

Independent candidate Hwang Shan-shan was more concerned with urban development, focusing on plans for a "Rive Gauche"-style cultural plaza on the banks of the Tamsui River.

The rhetoric is a far cry from the sense of existential threat and Beijing-backed disinformation campaigns that characterized the 2020 presidential race between Tsai Ing-wen, who won on a platform of defending Taiwan's democracy, and the KMT's Han Kuo-yu.

When DPP lawmaker You Si-kun told voters that a vote for the DPP would stop "Xi Jinping from coming calling," he was dismissed by Taichung mayoral candidate Lu Hsiu-yen with a shrug. 

"Is he really so godlike?" she said with a smile.

Chinese threat

However, there was still plenty of military and strategic awareness among Taiwanese citizens who spoke to RFA in the run-up to the vote, and commentators said the shadow of China's territorial claim on the island was always present to some degree.

"You can't claim that Taiwan belongs to mainland China," a businessman who gave the surname Hsieh told RFA. "We've been independent for so long, and we, the people, have to support Taiwan against the Chinese Communist Party."

A breakfast-shop owner who gave the surname Wang said they don't want war, but that there may be little choice.

"If our young people have to become soldiers, the country will be ruined, but if we don't defend our country, we will get bullied by others,” Wang said. “We won't cause trouble, but we're not afraid of it either.”

A resident who gave the nickname Vivian said that China is always a major election issue.

"For some, yes," she said. "For me, it's always been an issue."

Peng Hwai-en, adjunct visiting professor of journalism at Taiwan's Shih Hsin University, said President Tsai Ing-wen's 2020 landslide victory came largely off the back of the citywide crackdown on the 2019 protest movement in Hong Kong, which lost the freedoms promised under the "one country, two systems" arrangement that Beijing wants Taiwan to accept as well.

"Two years ago, the theme of protecting Taiwan from China was very influential, especially due to what was happening in Hong Kong at the time," Peng said.

"However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the beginning of this year has had some impact, mainly because young people want to serve in the armed forces," he said.

Less propaganda

Wu Chien-chung, associate professor at Taipei Ocean University, said there has also been a relative lack of Chinese propaganda or disinformation in Taiwan during the current elections, providing less for voters to push back against.

"I personally observed the power and capabilities of the Chinese Communist Party's mobilization [back in 2020], but these ... are local elections, and Beijing hasn't expended so much energy on them," Wu said.

"These elections are mostly being influenced by domestic political factors ... and it's more of a test of personal integrity rather than offensive-defensive sparring," he said.

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Independent Taipei mayoral candidate Huang Shan-shan [center] poses with a basket of "lucky vegetables" received by supporters during an election campaign at the Huannan Market in Taipei, Taiwan, Nov. 23, 2022. Credit: AFP

President Tsai, who won two presidential elections after vowing to protect Taiwan from China, has naturally been keen to remind everyone that Beijing has repeatedly refused to renounce the use of force to achieve what it terms "unification."

"This is the first election we've had since the 20th National Congress [of the Chinese Communist Party," she told voters on Chen Shih-chung's campaign. "Now the whole world is paying attention to Taiwan, which is on the front line of freedom and democracy."

"It is also the most critical link in the global semiconductor supply chain, and all of the actions and decisions we take here will affect how the world sees Taiwan," Tsai said.

Taiwan has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor formed part of the 73-year-old People’s Republic of China, and opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the island’s 23 million people have no wish to give up their sovereignty or democratic way of life to be ruled by Beijing.

She reminded voters that the KMT's "excessively pro-China line" was why they had suffered a massive defeat to Tsai's DPP in 2016, while "8.17 million Taiwanese showed their determination to defend freedom and democracy in the 2020 general election," she said.

"We defended Taiwan's democracy, and didn't allow Taiwan to become Hong Kong, and together defended Taiwan from the pandemic -- we didn't allow it to become Wuhan either," she said. "Taiwan is for the Taiwanese."

More aggressive stance

KMT lawmaker Chen Yu-chen responded that while Tsai hadn't allowed Taiwan to become another Hong Kong or Wuhan, her resistance to Beijing's political rhetoric had turned it into a "gunpowder store."

"While China may be at fault, the ruling party is incapable of delivering a comfortable environment in which to live and work, and of attracting foreign investment," Chen said.

"Back when the Kuomintang was in power, mainland Chinese came here to Taiwan, and every plane was full of tourists," he said. "Now they are sending military planes, and we're all talking about army recruitment and how to hide in air-raid shelters."

"If a war happens, a whole generation will be lost," said Chen, claiming that the KMT's policy of detente with Beijing was the best way to maintain the status quo.

Wu Se-chih, a researcher at Taiwan's Cross-Strait Policy Association, said preparations for war have inevitably entered into local government election campaigns.

"Clashes in the Taiwan Strait could break out at any time," Wu said. "Local leaders are the commanders of local civil defense corps, police, firefighters, and medical staff. So defending Taiwan against China has been discussed in the localities to a certain extent."

U.S.-based Chinese rights activist Zhou Fengsuo said he remembers visiting Taiwan to observe the 2020 presidential election, and said he has been struck by the maturity of the island's democracy during the current campaign season.

"This time round, it's clearly a very mature democratic system," Zhou told RFA. "The threat from the Chinese Communist Party still casts a huge shadow, even though these are only local elections."

"Taiwan's democracy is precious, and hard won, and is even more worthy of defense in the future," he said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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