Syaru Shirley Lin on Taiwan Elections

Syaru Shirley Lin is Compton Visiting Professor in World Politics at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. She is also a member of the founding faculty of the master’s program in global political economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her book, Taiwan’s China Dilemma, was published by Stanford in 2016 and in Chinese in 2019. She is now researching five East Asian economies caught in the high-income trap. Previously a partner at Goldman Sachs, she spearheaded the firm’s investments in technology start-ups including Alibaba and SMIC. She currently serves on the boards of Goldman Sachs Asia Bank, Langham Hospitality Investments, Mercuries Life Insurance and Swire Pacific Limited. She is also on the board of the Focused Ultrasound Foundation and a member of the Hong Kong Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation. After Harvard and Goldman Sachs, she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Hong Kong.

Lintong Lyu CMC'22 interviewed Syaru Shirley Lin on Nov. 24th, 2019.


In January 2020, Taiwan will hold presidential elections. What are the biggest issues thus far in this campaign? What are the voters’ most salient concerns?

It has been 30 years since Taiwan had its first free and open election under a democratic system. For any presidential election, cross-strait relations have been the most important issue in a way that is quite different, for example, from the United States. In the U.S., foreign policy may be the primary issue for only some voters in the national election. But in Taiwan’s presidential election, Taiwan's relations with China are of paramount importance. This differs from the November 2018 local elections, for example, where mayors were elected primarily focusing on domestic governance issues.

How would you explain the differences between the two presidential candidates’ views over cross-strait relations?

The current DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) incumbent Tsai Ing-wen has been in office for nearly four years. She has not been recognized by Beijing, and she has not affirmed the “1992 Consensus,” a pre-condition for Beijing to have any dialogue with the Taiwan government. However, the KMT (Kuomintang) candidate Han Kuo-yu, who is the newly elected mayor of Kaohsiung, has had a much friendlier attitude toward Beijing. This is unusual. In the past, the DPP and the KMT candidates would have had differences in terms of their economic policies, especially in terms of how close they wanted Taiwan’s economy to be integrated with the Chinese economy, but rarely are the two presidential candidates so different in their outlook on cross-Strait relations. Han Kuo-yu won his Kaohsiung mayoral election campaign based on bringing in more Chinese businesses and Chinese capital. He also wants to get more concessions from the Chinese to allow more Chinese imports from Taiwan and more Chinese tourists to Taiwan, under the slogan allow “the goods in and the people out.” He is trying to extend the same issue to the presidential election and work more closely with China to make Taiwan's economy more dynamic. By contrast, Tsai Ing-wen, since becoming president, has focused on expanding and diversifying Taiwan's economy, particularly in Southeast Asia, so that it is less dependent on a few large markets, including China’s. In addition, because of the U.S.-China trade war, there have been a lot more Taiwanese businesses relocating to Southeast Asia or returning to reinvest in Taiwan, which contributes to the success of this “New Southbound Policy.” So the KMT and DPP actually have divergent views on how Taiwan's economy should continue to develop. In this way, the voters will be voting for two entirely different visions.

Two other issues are important in this election. First, the KMT and DPP candidates are quite unusual compared to their predecessors. The KMT always had elites or technocrats representing the party in the presidential election. The DPP had always been a more “populist” party, and promoting progressive policies, strengthening Taiwan's autonomy and consolidating Taiwanese identity were important goals. The KMT has always been in a better position to work with the U.S. and China with more experience in handling international relations. Both the KMT and CCP, of course, believe that unification should be the ultimate goal.

But this election is unusual in that the two parties seem to have switched. The DPP has an elite leader, Tsai Ing-wen, who is very well-educated and has studied abroad both in England and the U.S. She is also a technocrat, previously in charge of the Mainland Affairs Office under Chen Shui-bian as well as a trade negotiator who helped Taiwan join the WTO. Ironically, the KMT is represented by a populist Han Kuo-yu who has never studied abroad and has limited public service experience as a legislator. It also looks like he does not have strong connections with the U.S. but a much deeper affinity for Beijing. Han Kuo-yu's stance has divided the KMT party, which is rife with factionalism. Many of the mainstream KMT leaders are not throwing their weight entirely behind him. More importantly, the pan-Blue, who are more supportive of the KMT and the goal of unification in general, are also divided. Just a few days ago, James Soong of the People First Party, decided to run for president for the fourth time, which will further divide the blue votes. Some polls show that he had nearly 10% support level as of early December, taking away votes which could have gone to Han.

Second, in this election most of the younger voters are undecided. Nearly four million voters are under the age of 39. These younger voters showed the lowest rate of loyalty to any party in recent polls. Undoubtedly, Han Kuo-yu and James Soong are more appealing to older voters, whereas the DPP is more attractive to younger generations for a variety of reasons. For those students who were involved in the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014, many don’t believe that further dependence on the Chinese economy is good for Taiwan. They want to see Taiwan's international role increased and autonomy strengthened. In addition, many of them also believe that the DPP has been more successful in leading a progressive social agenda, such as same-sex marriage which was legalized in May this year. Many of Tsai Ying-wen’s reforms, for example the pension and labor reform, would ultimately benefit the younger generations as well. That said, the execution of these reforms was done in a very poor manner in terms of planning, design, and communication. This might drive even more Taiwanese, especially civil servants and retirees, to vote against the DPP.

Given China’s history of interference in Taiwan’s elections, are there concerns that Beijing might try to manipulate the election?

Yes, there is already a lot of concern. During the November 2018 local elections, the Taiwan government expressed this concern, and it subsequently proved that China spread disinformation in order to affect the election outcome in favor of KMT candidates. For this upcoming election, this continues to be true. Chinese-related entities have paid media platforms, like cable television and newspapers, to increase support for Han Kuo-yu and reduce support for Tsai. Taiwan has very few ways to manage this disinformation campaign because it is by a foreign authoritarian regime that has the resources and determination to discredit and influence a democratic country’s free and open elections. There were a number of Facebook posts by unknown sources that helped Han Kuo-yu’s campaign in November 2018, which are all well-known examples of Chinese interference. Although Taiwanese voters know about this disinformation campaign, I am not sure what Taiwanese government or citizens can do about it. More importantly, in terms of cyberwarfare, China has been successful in using non-traditional threats, not just against the Taiwanese military but also against Taiwanese tech companies, which has been highly disruptive and harmful to national security.

How is the emerging strategic competition between the United States and China affecting Taiwan’s presidential election and cross-strait relations more generally?

The U.S. doesn’t want any trouble that could heat up the Taiwan Strait and make things difficult for Washington. Taiwan is now becoming more important for U.S. foreign policy, which also put stress on Taiwan. Much of the legislation proposed or enacted under the Trump administration, for example the Taipei Act, is symbolic and arguably remains within the One China policy. But there is certainly more support for Taiwan on the Hill and among Americans than ever. The KMT finds the international context very challenging. It claims that the increased level of American support is alarming because the Trump administration is unreliable and would provoke Beijing. On the other hand, the DPP is enjoying better relations with Washington which was not the case during Tsai’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 2012 or during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency. After Tsai’s recent visit to the U.S., she appears to have become the most supported DPP president in Taiwan’s democratic history. Although Chen Shui-bian was viewed as a trouble-maker, Tsai Ing-wen is much more cosmopolitan, sophisticated and prudent in her handling of cross-Strait relations. 

The economic fallout of the U.S.-China trade war has been more Taiwanese leaving China and moving to Southeast Asia or returning to Taiwan. But to view all of this through the lens of U.S.-China economic rivalry and specifically the trade war would be misleading. For the last several years, doing business in China has become more costly, especially among coastal cities. Many Taiwanese businesses in China had moved away already for market reasons, and the trade war probably accelerated such migration. The DPP’s New Southbound Policy aims to help companies move to Southeast Asia from China. It looks like the policy may have shown early successes with many Taiwanese businesses moving back to Taiwan. But as mentioned, the move out of China is driven as much by market economics as by the U.S.-China trade war. Therefore, the U.S.-China trade war has had unintended consequences for the DPP and KMT.

In addition, an issue for Beijing is arms sales. This year, two big U.S. arms sales worth more than $10 billion in advanced weapons were approved, which is unacceptable for Beijing. Continued security support for Taiwan is an important part of the U.S. foreign policy in the Taiwan Strait. Besides, there’s never been so much bipartisan congressional support for Taiwan. The specific issue that the U.S. and Taiwan need to overcome is that Taiwan has few free trade agreements with other economies, and negotiations with the U.S. for a Trade and Investment Framework agreement have deadlocked over Taiwan’s restrictions on imports of American beef and pork. Tsai Ing-wen needs to address this, but she has made very limited progress to date. I doubt Han will make much progress either. So Taiwan’s China Dilemma, which is the name of my last book, remains salient. Working with the U.S. is very important for Taiwan’s security and economy, but given Taiwan’s inability to sign bilateral or join multilateral trade agreements, Taiwan’s economy continues to rely on China. To survive economically, many Taiwanese feel that they have no choice but to depend on China, including for investment, for higher education opportunities, and technology. This makes the job of every Taiwanese president difficult.

What could be the reaction of the Chinese leadership if the 2020 election results in another DPP victory and another four-year term for President Tsai? 

Polls today show that Tsai Ing-wen has a healthy lead, and Beijing has already stepped up in terms of showing off their military force in the Taiwan Strait. In the past, when Beijing tried to send a message to the Taiwanese people to influence Taiwan’s election like in 1996, it was largely counterproductive. Since 2016, after the DPP won the presidential and legislative elections in a landslide, Beijing cut back most tourist groups immediately. This August, Beijing decided to further penalize Taiwan’s support for the DPP by prohibiting individual tourists from 47 cities to travel to Taiwan. Therefore, Taiwan’s inbound tourists, which were mainly from China, have dropped dramatically.

But I wouldn’t say China’s policies have been effective. If Tsai Ing-wen wins another election, Beijing will probably use more and more hardline strategies to marginalize Taiwan, such as convincing more countries to derecognize Taiwan which has been ongoing since Tsai became president. Taiwan eventually will have very few allies and could be blocked internationally. In addition, Beijing also used economic sanctions to weaken Taiwan’s economy. Given such pressures have been ongoing for three years, why are the Taiwanese supporting the DPP? My view is that Taiwan is an open and democratic system which will decide its own goals. My next book is focused on challenges facing high-income societies in Asia which include rising inequality, increased financialization, and an aging demographic. Many of these issues will not be resolved by further integration with China. In terms of inequality, for example, many people believe that the last thirty years of further integration with China has exacerbated Taiwan’s inequality. Indeed, economic integration with China benefited select businesses and individuals close to Beijing, not the ordinary Taiwanese voters. Therefore, despite China’s interference, Taiwanese voters have not shown consistent support for the KMT and the younger generations are much more supportive of the DPP despite its mixed record in policy design and implementation. They are making a point. Taiwan’s election may be affected by China’s disinformation campaign, but the election process has remained clean, and many Taiwanese people nevertheless still want to vote for the DPP. However, the Taiwanese people continued to be divided as to the best way forward. That is why the legislative election, which is concurrent with the presidential election, may be more revealing as to what the voters prefer since some people may vote for Tsai but vote for the KMT or other pan-blue candidates in the legislative election. It is very possible that the DPP wins the presidential election but KMT retains a healthy representation in the Legislative Yuan which will compromise the president’s ability to continue with reforms. If the DPP does not control the Legislative Yuan, even if Tsai wins another four years, nothing will be accomplished as in the Chen Shui-bian era.

In terms of the U.S., U.S.-China relations will remain tense or even deteriorate further for several years to come, and Taiwan will continue to be in this uncomfortable position of being squeezed by the two superpowers. Furthermore, it will be penalized by China given young people’s determination to safeguard Taiwan’s democracy and freedom. However, one benefit is that Taiwan will have closer ties with other democratic countries in Southeast Asia that have common values and goals, like developing and consolidating a democratic culture that promotes women, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Today’s Taiwan has a lot in common with Hong Kong in terms of being at the intersection between two entirely different systems. Hong Kong has given Taiwan a real view of what may happen when a high-income society with democratic inclinations is integrated with China.

Do you have any prediction for the outcome of next year’s election?

So much has changed since the local elections in November 2018 when Tsai’s popularity hit rock bottom. In January this year, after Xi spoke about how Taiwan must be unified under the One Country Two Systems framework, Tsai responded forcefully which gained a lot of support. Then a few months later, Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protests began. Very few people predicted that the situation would deteriorate so quickly and the protests would maintain such a high momentum until now. At the beginning, even experts thought the Hong Kong protests would have a very limited effect on the Taiwan presidential election. As time goes on, though, the KMT keeps talking about improving relations with China for the sake of Taiwan’s economy, but has said little in response to what’s happening in Hong Kong. This has been detrimental to the KMT. Hong Kong’s autonomy has clearly eroded over time, with protests emerging on and off since 2003. As this year’s conflict intensified, the Taiwanese voters are increasingly alarmed and there are rallies supporting Hong Kong all over the island including the December 21 rally in Kaohsiung. October polls showed that the percentage of Taiwanese who didn’t support the “one country, two systems” model had increased to 89% from 74% at the beginning of the year, and the ramifications of this will continue to feed into the election. Because of poor U.S.-China relations and the ongoing Hong Kong protests, cross-strait relations are more important now than in any past presidential election in Taiwan. What remains to be seen is whether the government will be divided between the DPP and the KMT, which will make governance very difficult. The DPP continues to be challenged by how to solve issues facing a high-income economy and manage a democratic system which is threatened by such a large neighbor with an entirely different set of values and way of life.  

Lintong Lyu CMC'22Student Journalist

Solomon203 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

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