The verdict from Taiwan
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s landslide re-election win surprised many — and possibly none more so than Tsai herself. A record 8.2 million voters turned out for last Saturday's poll, handing the Taiwanese leader more than 57 percent of the popular vote.
Barely three months ago, however, Tsai would not have dreamt of winning a second term, let alone claiming victory with a thumping majority.
With her re-election, Tsai’s political journey seems to have turned full circle. Four years ago, she staged an equally spectacular win and became the first woman to lead the island nation, standing on the ticket of the pro-independence Democratic Progress Party (DPP). Since then, Tsai has introduced many liberal policies, not all of them popular with voters. Her push for renewable energy almost resulted in an electricity shortage, while her attempt to offer workers two days off led to claims that she was anti-business.
These moves, along with controversial pension reforms and a listless economy, drove Tsai’s approval rating down to 15 percent, leading to a revolt within her party and a challenge for the party’s nomination for the presidential poll. Away from home, she had to deal with an increasingly aggressive China, which claims Taiwan as a wayward province and part of the “one nation, two systems” policy under which two other territories, Hong Kong and Macau, are governed by Beijing.
However, Tsai and the DPP maintain that Taiwan is an independent nation. Her staunchly pro-independence stance could have been a challenge, given that Beijing — Taiwan’s biggest trading partner, accounting for a third of all trade — has a firm grip on segments of Taiwanese economy. In addition, Taiwan’s robust tourism sector is also heavily dependent on mainland tourism, and Beijing has resorted to curbing travel in a bid to turn up the heat on Taipei.
This was in evidence in July last year when China banned individual travel from 47 of its biggest cities to Taiwan, permitting only business and leisure groups to visit the island nation.
Yet Tsai refused to bow down to Beijing. As tensions continue to mount, the Taiwanese people, clearly influenced by events in Hong Kong, have affirmed their full support for her policies. Beijing’s apparent ineffectiveness in dealing with the protests seems to have encouraged the Taiwanese, and notably Tsai, to take the plunge and adopt a stridently pro-independence stance.
With her re-election, Tsai’s political journey seems to have turned full circle.
For China’s President Xi Jinping, the bad news from Taipei comes at a particularly uncomfortable time. The past two years have been difficult for the Chinese leader. In 2018, the Communist Party voted to allow him to remain president for life, removing the previous restrictions on age limits. His grip on business and society in China was unparalleled. Overseas, too, his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative — a thinly veiled attempt at spreading Chinese influence by financing infrastructure projects — resulted in dozens of nations signing multibillion-dollar deals with Beijing.
Now, barely 18 months on, Xi is beset by issues on both domestic and external fronts, and no longer appears invulnerable. China’s economy, which had already been slowing, has been hit hard by the trade war with the US, leaving Chinese companies such as Huawei under threat of sanctions and outright bans.
Protests in Hong Kong also seem to have affected both Xi and China’s image, especially since few expected the unrest to last for six months or longer. At home, besides the groaning economy, Xi also faces the issue of public debt and a rapidly aging population. Now this leader, who once seemed to find rapid solutions for any problem, seems unable to pull any more rabbits out of his hat.
- Ranvir Nayar is editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.