Over the weekend, one of the most momentous elections of our era took place. Despite suffering disastrous midterm elections in 2018, and constantly threatened by Beijing and barraged by its Taiwanese surrogates, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen secured a decisive reelection victory with almost 60 percent of total votes. To put things in perspective, contemporary Filipino presidents, including the incumbent, have struggled to crack the 40-percent threshold. Drenched in a Confucian past, and perched at the crossroads of mainland Asia and the vast Pacific Ocean, the tiny island-nation of Taiwan is a testament to the courageous resilience of democracy even under the most impossible conditions. Against all odds, including the long and dark shadow of Beijing’s interference and threats, Taiwanese voters reelected the firebrand incumbent, who has emphasized Taiwan’s distinct identity and de facto independence from the communist mainland. With her victory, Tsai also exposed the limits of Chinese influence among its closest neighbors.
Beijing considers Taiwan a renegade province that should be incorporated, perhaps even forcefully, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. China’s all-powerful leader Xi Jinping has warned about his country’s “firm will, full confidence and sufficient ability to defeat all activities to split the country.” More menacingly, he made it clear that he is unwilling “to abandon the [option to] use of force,” because Beijing “retain[s] the option of taking all necessary measures” against Taiwan. Not enough people seem to have taken notice, but the geopolitical implications are compelling and undeniable. Much of the world is keyed into the upcoming American presidential election, pitting a flamboyant incumbent against a diverse array of rivals desperately seeking to unseat one of the most polarizing figures in human history. We may have avoided a major conflict last week, but the influencer-president Donald Trump will likely continue to greedily gobble up much of the global media bandwidth.
And then there is the untidy, soul-crushing Brexit in the United Kingdom, which has unleashed a toxic mélange of clownish atavism and tribal partisanship thought to have been long discredited in the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy.
Against the backdrop of political decay in the cradles of modern democracy, however, it’s Taiwan that has carried the burning torch of the democratic project unlike any country in recent memory.
Tsai trounced her main rival Han Kuo-yu, a vivacious provincial mayor who mysteriously gained unprecedented traction in social media to become a top contender for Taiwan’s highest office. Catapulted from virtual obscurity to nationwide stardom, Han is notorious for his “authentic” style, unorthodox rhetoric, and, not least, his perceived intimacy with China.
In effect, Tsai heavily defeated what many Taiwanese saw as their own version of Rodrigo Duterte. Interestingly, Duterte (38.5 percent) and Han (38.6 percent) received almost the exact share of votes in their respective elections.
To understand the significance of Tsai’s electoral domination, one should remember that Taiwan is where the sharp edge of China’s influence operations, otherwise known as “sharp power,” is most apparent. While “hard power” refers to brute military force, “soft power” pertains to, according to Harvard academic Joseph Nye, the ability of a nation to shape the preferences of others through noncoercive means, namely culture, ideology, and economic resources.
Sharp power, however, is both a combination of and distinct from the two other forms of power. As political scientist Christopher Walker put it, it’s unique to authoritarian superpowers such as Russia and China, which seek to “project their influence internationally, with the objectives of limiting free expression, spreading confusion, and distorting the political environment within democracies.” The main tools are systematic disinformation campaigns, the sabotage of electoral institutions, and the co-optation of the elite and thought-leaders in targeted democracies.
Reviled by Beijing for her uncompromising spirit, Tsai faced the wrath of China and its local proxies, which cuts across Taiwanese society, ranging from the mainstream media and tycoons to influencers and opportunistic politicians. But, in winning, she is helping preserve Taiwan’s fundamental freedoms despite the clear and present danger of external interference.
Taiwan shows the path forward for the principled victory of freedom and collective autonomy in the face of tyrannical aggression. It’s not only one of the world’s most dynamic economies, it’s now also Asia’s democratic fortress. Take it from Tsai’s declaration: “China is getting more and more aggressive, [but] we will not back down.”
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