Add Taiwan to the List of China’s Big Problems

Beijing had grown comfortable with the government in Taipei, but all that’s about to change.

01.16.16 1:00 AM ET

When the citizens of Taiwan go to the polls on Saturday to choose a president and all members of the 113-seat Legislative Yuan, the national legislature, the outcome promises to be historic. It will change profoundly the politics on the island and in the process evoke extreme concerns in Beijing, which has enough to worry about these days.

Just at the moment that bears are eating up China’s stock market, as money continues to flood out of China, with Beijing’s bad-boy client in North Korea playing with nuclear weapons like a child with matches, and the nations around the South China Sea pulling together to push back against Beijing’s expansionist designs there—now Taiwan looms large as another setback with strategic implications.

To be sure, Chinese leaders probably are not concerned by the Peace Pigeon Union, which supports bird racing on the island. That political party thinks a victory on the 16th will help remove the taint surrounding the sport, which has been caused by the kidnapping of pigeons for ransom and other unsavory activity.

But China cannot ignore the remainder of what is now called the Third Force, a group of activists who have formed parties and, in the process, transformed Taiwan politics.

By now it is a foregone conclusion that the opposition Democratic Progressive Party will capture the presidency. Tsai Ing-wen, who fell short in her bid in 2012, has a virtually insurmountable lead in a three-way race. She led Eric Chu, the candidate of the ruling Kuomintang, by 28.9 percentage points in the latest poll by the Cross-Strait Policy Association. James Soong of the People First Party looks like he is in third place, a shade behind Chu.

Tsai’s DPP has won the presidency before, in 2000 and 2004. The victor then, Chen Shui-bian, disappointed supporters in large measure because the Kuomintang, also known as the KMT, retained control of the legislature and frustrated his initiatives. This time, it appears the KMT, which now holds 65 seats, will lose its commanding position in the Legislative Yuan.

Gerrit van der Wees of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs, now on the island to observe the election, tells The Daily Beast that projections show the KMT losing 25 of those seats. The DPP, the challenger, could capture 60 seats.

And there’s more bad news for the KMT. The New Power Party, formed last year, is generally considered the island’s third-most-popular party, likely to play an important role in legislative coalition-building, and its extraordinary emergence makes Chinese, both in China and in Taiwan, fearful.

Why? Many Taiwanese, especially the younger generation, don’t think they’re “Chinese,” and this ethnic divide mirrors a political split. The Third Force generation, represented by the NPP and other parties, is pushing Taiwan toward “independence”—recognition the island is not part of China—faster and harder than Tsai’s DPP is willing to go, and youthful voters are engaging in politics to force change in the direction they demand.

A bit of history: The KMT, under Chiang Kai-shek, fled what it calls “the Mainland” in 1949 and transplanted to Taiwan the Republic of China, with the capital in Taipei. To this day it maintains Taipei is the only legitimate government of “China.”

On the other hand, the Communist Party, ruling from Beijing, believes Taiwan is the 34th province of the People’s Republic of China.

Despite the competing claims, the Communist Party feels comfortable with the KMT because both believe there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it. Thus it is no surprise that Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party, and the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, president of the Republic of China in Taiwan, could meet in Singapore in November, smile, shake hands, and talk about the future of their one and indivisible country.

Tsai’s Greens, on the other hand, believe there are two states. Their country is “Taiwan,” not part of a greater Chinese nation.

The Obama administration, worried that the new Taiwan consciousness would anger Beijing, favored the KMT in the last presidential contest, even going so far as to tell the Financial Times that it had “distinct doubts” Tsai would be able to maintain peace with China. This time, the White House is sitting on the sidelines but nonetheless anxious.

Tsai may be willing to keep the peace with Beijing—she has publicly pledged to maintain the “status quo”—but it’s not clear the island’s young people want her to keep that promise.

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The NPP epitomizes that attitude amid a cacophonous array of political voices in the legislative elections. There are a record 18 political parties vying for seats. That’s up from 11 in 2012, the last election. There were 269 candidates then and 354 now.

As Chen Chao-chien of Ming Chuan University told the South China Morning Post, “The number of contestants in this parliamentary election is a historic high.” And so it seems are the number of causes.

In addition to an effort to further pigeon racing, there is a campaign devoted to safe sex—a female candidate has been handing out free condoms—and apparently one promoting sex period: another female hopeful stripped down to her red bra in public in the southern port city of Kaohsiung recently.

The National Post, the Toronto-based newspaper, notes that “support for smaller opposition parties in this election campaign has been unprecedented.”

Although many of the young think the DPP is too old-line, Don Rodgers of Austin College told The Daily Beast that the new winners will probably work with Tsai and her party where it counts, in the Legislative Yuan.

In the past, the KMT’s control of the legislature meant it could do what it wanted. The ruling party, for instance, rammed through trade deals it had signed with Beijing during President Ma’s two terms. Ma thought those deals would bring about closer ties with China.

In fact, those trade agreements created a backlash—student groups, dubbed the Sunflower Movement, occupied the legislature for weeks in Spring 2014 to stop one such arrangement—and spurred a greater sense of Taiwan identity. As one American academic now in Taiwan watching the election told The Daily Beast, “Frustration with economic stagnation and over-reliance on China has created an appetite for change in Taiwanese society.”

The sense of Taiwanese identity has been heightened as well. Chengchi National University released a poll in June 2014 showing that 60.4 percent of citizens identified themselves as “Taiwanese” versus 3.5 percent responding “Chinese,” and the rest said they were both. In 1992, only 17.6 percent answered they were Taiwanese.

The change in thinking is so stark that the KMT, which bases its legitimacy on its claim of ruling China, could soon disappear. Taiwan’s electorate is youngish. Almost 40 percent of potential voters are under 40, and the young are overwhelmingly anti-KMT. One of the co-founders of the NPP even urged supporters to “marginalize” the KMT and “make it disappear from Taiwan.”

A December poll showed that only 11 percent of those aged 20 to 29 support the KMT. As Bonnie Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Wall Street Journal, “The mainland is quite fearful that the KMT will never recover.” If it should ever find its footing again, the KMT will do so as a Taiwan party, not a transplanted Chinese one.

This means democratic politics will almost certainly drive Taiwan further away from China. Beijing, however, is not about to let unfavorable developments continue. Chinese leaders will, in all probability, try to force the new Taiwan leader to confirm that the island is part of China. If that leader is Tsai, she will refuse.

The Chinese, as a result, are likely to cause trouble of some sort because the Communist Party’s primary basis of legitimacy is nationalism, which means it must “recover”—take, actually—Taiwan.

The election Saturday means there will be even less room for Taipei to compromise. The people of Taiwan are not about to give up their freedom to please people they consider foreigners.