He who wins over the young people wins the world

Just about a week after the Taiwan presidential election, the rhetoric from both sides of the Taiwan Strait is aggressive. Will China take military action to take back Taiwan, or go with a safer approach? Zaobao associate editor Han Yong Hong examines the reasons for Tsai Ing-wen’s big win and concludes that young people will play a major role in the future.
Supporters of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen outside the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters in Taipei, January 2020. Young people played a big role in Tsai's win, and will continue to exert an influence in the future. (Tyrone Siu/REUTERS)
Supporters of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen outside the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters in Taipei, January 2020. Young people played a big role in Tsai's win, and will continue to exert an influence in the future. (Tyrone Siu/REUTERS)

The spillover effect of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests and the Taiwanese people’s feeling of being doomed like “dried mangoes” has led to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election. (The Taiwanese snack of dried mango, 芒果干/mangguo gan, sounds similar to 亡国感/wangguo gan, or a feeling that the doom of the nation is near.)

Tsai’s record-high vote share has boosted her confidence. In an interview with British media, she claimed, "We are an independent country already and we call ourselves the Republic of China (Taiwan)," and called on China to "face reality". Mainland China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) immediately retorted that Tsai should not get puffed up and misjudge the situation.

Less than a week after Taiwan’s presidential election, the war of words across the Taiwan Strait has gotten aggressive.

As for Tsai herself, in just 14 months she has climbed out of an abyss and reached a pinnacle, eclipsing the previous nationwide support for her election opponent Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT). I am reminded that Tsai’s former party rival and Vice President-elect William Lai once called Han “the political genius of the century”. But now, if votes make a hero, would Lai take back his praise of Han, and call Tsai the political genius instead? Other political stars in Taiwan have to step aside for the might of this feisty Taiwanese woman.

A handout photo Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (R) giving an interview to BCC correspondent John Sudworth (L) in Taipei, Taiwan, 14 January 2020 (issued 15 January 2020). In the interview, conducted three days after she was re-elected, Tsai said China should face the reality that Taiwan is an independent country and respect the will of Taiwanese people. Tsai reportedly added that China's threat is intensifying, but warned that invasion would be costly for China. (Taiwan Presidential Office)

On the way to victory, Tsai definitely gained from the conflict in Hong Kong. Taiwan’s pro-Green Liberty Times yesterday published a poll showing that 26.7% of Taiwanese admitted to switching who they supported because of the Hong Kong protests. However, to say that Tsai “found a gun” (捡到枪) as described in most commentaries is oversimplifying things somewhat. She not only picked up that gun, but quickly got to the front line and seized the narrative. She linked the 1992 Consensus with mainland China’s idea of Taiwan under “one country, two systems”, and invoked Taiwan’s fears of mainland China, and successfully controlled the election issues and guided the votes of a significant number of voters.

Tsai thinks it is mainland China that is changing the current situation, and Hong Kong’s resistance is really making people feel that there is a threat from mainland China, and that it is growing.

According to BBC’s Chinese language online report, Tsai said former president Ma Ying-jeou’s ambiguous handling of Taiwan’s status (that is, agreeing to the 1992 Consensus) is no longer relevant, because “the situation has changed”. Speaking for the Taiwanese, she said, “The ambiguity can no longer serve the purposes it was intended to serve… We have a separate identity and we're a country of our own. So, if there's anything that runs counter to this idea, they (the people) will stand up and say that's not acceptable.”

It is also clear that Tsai thinks it is mainland China that is changing the current situation, and with the resistance in Hong Kong, people are getting a real sense that the threat from mainland China is real and that it is getting more and more serious.

The fact is, tracing Tsai’s election successes in recent years, we find that young people have always been a strong backing for her. Even before she became president for the first time in 2016, the student-led Sunflower Movement against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement prematurely made the KMT government look pathetic. And during this year’s election, the resistance among Hong Kong’s youth and strong vote support from Taiwan’s young voters created her record-high vote share.

sunflower movement
Masked police officers take part in a protest, against a court decision ordering police to pay compensation to a group of protesters who were injured during the "Sunflower Movement" clashes in 2014 over a controversial trade pact with China, outside the Taipei District Court in Taipei, November 2019. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

Tsai has also put in a lot of effort on young people. Just looking at her time as president, she has not shied away from offending military personnel, civil servants, and teachers in pushing through pension reforms. She reduced the retirement benefits for the three groups to demonstrate greater generational equality.

Also, despite intense social debate and strong victories for the anti-LGBT camp in the three referendums in late 2018, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators went on to legalise same-sex marriage in May 2019. It did not hold back from offending conservative pro-Green supporters and church groups.

... taking Taiwan by force in the short term is indeed not Beijing’s top priority, because military action would affect mainland China’s peaceful rise, and would really not be worth it for Beijing.

That same month, Bloomberg described Tsai as staking her political career on same-sex marriage. Looking back now, one might say her gamble paid off, or that she is indeed the one politician in Taiwan who is the best at grasping the issues of young people and their voting tendencies, while aligning herself with young people’s pursuits and their so-called “contemporary values”.

The price of doing all this is that Taiwan’s society is being torn apart, including rips in cross-strait relations, and generational divisions (apart from the issue of unification with China). In terms of the former, Tsai thinks that while a military attack by mainland China on Taiwan looms, Beijing will pay a heavy price if it happens. That assessment seems like a gamble, but taking back Taiwan by force in the short term is indeed not Beijing’s top priority, because military action would impact mainland China’s peaceful rise, and would not be worthwhile for Beijing. As for how to heal the inter-generational rift, that is a major issue the election has left for Taiwan.

Taiwan's marine corps personnel demonstrate their skills during a military exercise in Kaohsiung, January 2020. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

The 2020 Taiwan presidential election has highlighted one trend: he who wins over the young people wins the world. As more “natural independents” who grew up in a separated Taiwan get to voting age, the “One China”-averse DPP might stay in power for a long time to come. In contrast, there is now a question mark over whether the KMT can keep to the 1992 Consensus. It will also get more and more difficult for Beijing to unify both sides of the Taiwan Strait through peaceful means.

Of course, if Tsai’s DPP messes up again over the next year or so, that would very likely lead to another dramatic change during Taiwan’s local elections in 2022. Only thing is, waving the “Resist China, Defend Taiwan” banner might work wonders again at the next presidential election. For Beijing, if it is not yet time for military action, the safer strategy is not to give the Green camp any fodder. It also has to do its homework to get to know the values of the younger generation as quickly as possible. This applies equally to its approach to both Taiwan and Hong Kong.


Related reading: Taiwan Election: Understanding the outcry from Chinese state media and netizens | Taiwan election: Anti-mainland sentiments and zero cross-strait interaction will continue | Why the 2020 Taiwan presidential election is a battle of the generations | 2020 Taiwan elections: Winning voters’ hearts