Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen announced her re-election bid this week following a bump in public polling that came after she spoke out against Chinese President Xi Jinping’s suggestion that Taiwan and China unify as one country.
She was polling at 24 percent after her party lost local elections in November. In January she was speaking out every few days against Xi’s idea and her approval ratings hit 34.5 percent by Jan. 21, according to a Taiwan Public Opinion Foundation survey.
On Wednesday, Tsai indicated she plans to run for another four-year term as president. Inspired by her jump in approval ratings, Tsai will center at least the early part of her campaign over the coming year on raising public suspicion of China, political scientists say.
“Their campaign strategy is to speak of hating China, fearing China and refusing China,” said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University. If officials reiterate these messages and they appear in the mass media, he said, “ultimately people will be affected by them.”
China has claimed sovereignty over Taiwan since the 1940s and insists that the two sides eventually unify. Most Taiwanese oppose that outcome.
Opportunity to talk about China
The Chinese president’s Jan. 2 speech urging Taiwan to accept unification gave Tsai an unexpected opening to warn citizens against ties with China, political experts say.
In his remarks, Xi urged Taiwan to merge with China under a “one country, two systems” model that his government applies now to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is ruled from Beijing, but local officials make some decisions.
China has claimed Taiwan since the Chinese Civil War, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost and rebased their government in Taiwan. Tsai took office in 2016. Since then she has irked China by refusing to negotiate on the condition that both sides belong to one China.
More than 70 percent of Taiwanese say in government surveys they prefer today’s self-rule, or full legal independence from China, over unification.
In one comment since the Chinese president’s speech, Tsai warned at an impromptu news conference Wednesday against any China-Taiwan peace agreement.
“China’s military ambitions and not giving up deployment of arms against Taiwan are making the region unstable,” she said. “As China doesn’t give up weapons aimed at Taiwan and emphasizes ‘one country, two systems,’ there’s no way to negotiate equally and there can’t be any real peace.”
Knack for China issues
Tsai, as former chairwoman of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and a former government official in charge of Taiwan’s China policy, knows the issue particularly well, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan.
“This is her forte,” Lin said. “She has been immersed in it for 18 long years.”
Since 2016, China has shown displeasure with Tsai by passing military aircraft and ships near Taiwan and persuading five foreign countries to switch allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. Taiwan has just 17 allies left.
“In international relations, what she can do is limited, we all know that, but in winning the public support in Taiwan, especially on controversial issues like ‘one country, two systems,’ she’s very, very capable,” Lin said.
Her party takes a guarded view of China compared to Taiwan’s main opposition camp, which advocates that the two sides talk on Beijing’s condition.
According to a survey released Thursday by Taiwan television network TVBS, Tsai would take 16 percent of the vote if the presidential race were held today and she ran against non-party aligned Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and Han Kuo-yu, opposition Nationalist Party mayor of the southern city Kaohsiung. The two mayors would get shares of more than 30 percent each, TVBS said.
Much of the public wants Tsai to stand up against China but also take stronger action on domestic economic problems, voters said in interviews in November. Among the domestic issues: low wages compared to other parts of Asia and rising costs, especially real estate.
“She has already shown that she is against the ‘one family, two sides’ or ‘one country, two systems.’ That’s good,” said Shane Lee, political scientist with Chang Jung Christian University in Taiwan. “That will probably give her some points. But domestically there are many policies she will have to change.”