HONG KONG—The president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, has won reelection with a record-breaking 8 million votes, a major victory over Beijing’s concerted campaign of lies and propaganda meant to support her opponent, Han Kuo-yu.
Tsai’s triumph on Saturday is not entirely a surprise. Polls had been predicting her win. But the outcome giving her a second term showed clearly that for most people in Taiwan the vote was about where the island will stand as the Chinese Communist Party and Xi Jinping become increasingly forceful in their actions to fold it under Beijing’s governance.
In early 2019, Xi gave his first major speech about Taiwan, calling Taiwanese independence a “dead end.” He told Party officials that “unification between the two sides of the Strait is the great trend of history.” Military action is on the table, should things fail to go as smoothly as he demands.
Xi sees Taiwan’s absorption into the People’s Republic of China as a key goal during his tenure as CCP leader. Beijing uses multiple fronts to influence political developments across the Strait, at times through businesses that seek to curry favor in the mainland—including media organizations.
Ahead of Taiwan’s presidential election this week, waves of disinformation hit voters online. Tsai’s victory suggests that even though Beijing’s propaganda apparatus is massive (though at times clumsy), the existential threat posed by the People’s Republic and its military discredits any notion that Taiwan will be able to maintain its own way of life under Communist Party rule.
One false claim that persists is that Tsai’s PhD from the London School of Economics is illegitimate. The rumor has circulated online and in pro-China outlets for months, and was co-opted by a columnist in Taiwan to claim that the Taiwanese president bribed the LSE Taiwan Research Program with £480,000 in exchange for her academic degree, weeks after the school issued a statement to clarify Tsai’s status as an alumna.
At the beginning of the year, when a Black Hawk helicopter crashed, killing eight people including Taiwan’s top military official, fake news began circulating on social media and local television channels suggesting that Tsai was pushing her campaign hard to take advantage of the tragedy. In reality, she suspended her campaign for three days.
As voting day neared, there were other attempts to damage Tsai. A candidate in the opposition party posted a falsified image online, showing Tsai with a banner that reads, “Fuck the Ministry of National Defense.” Though the image was eventually removed, the candidate who uploaded it claimed it was real.
On election day, fake news about an outbreak of a SARS-like disease circulated to discourage people from heading to voting stations.
Tsai’s election platform frames Taiwanese identity as one that is separate from that of mainland China, where the CCP is reshaping Chinese culture according to its own goals and interests. The president has frequently referred to the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong, which led to a landslide victory for the city’s pro-democracy camp in an election in late November. If the CCP’s framing of assimilation through “one country, two systems” isn’t valid in Hong Kong, where Beijing’s influence is already deeply rooted in the political machinery, then it’s fair to ask: How could it possibly be adopted in Taiwan, which is functionally a sovereign nation?
Taiwan has democratic elections, a central bank, as well as its own currency and military. Its social fabric differs from mainland China in fundamental ways, perhaps most obviously in how it handles gender issues—nearly 40 percent of legislators are women, and its parliament legalized gay marriage, making it the first government in Asia to do so.
Han, Tsai’s challenger and the mayor of Kaohsiung, failed to articulate a coherent policy for relations with the CCP. He denied that he is Beijing’s preferred candidate, but indicated displeasure with Taiwanese textbooks emphasizing the island’s own history rather than hooking into the grander narratives of Chinese civilization. “There has been a calculated decrease in the connection our young people feel toward Chinese culture,” he said, claiming that there are dangers in weakening those “connections.”
When asked by a journalist whether he still thinks the CCP has not interfered with Taiwan’s presidential election campaigns, Han feigned ignorance by saying, “You made my right ear deaf, let me switch to my left ear now.”
On his own, Han repeatedly has made sexist remarks on the campaign trail, from the incoherent “man’s life is his lower body, woman’s life is her upper body,” to references to an erotic novel to describe Tsai’s affiliation with her running mate. And the chairman of Han’s party, the Kuomintang, which held a monopoly of power in Taiwan until the 1990s, said, “Tsai Ing-wen is a woman who brings bad luck,” and claimed that since she doesn’t have children, she would never understand the mindsets of anyone who is a parent.
These attempts at character assassination were futile, and the fake news and disinformation pushed by Beijing and its proxies backfired. Instead of turning voters against Tsai, they galvanized support for her. In October, a government survey found that fewer than 2 percent of Taiwan’s population favored unification with mainland China.
CCP state organs have mastered the art of strangling the press and coercing mainland citizens into self-censorship, but have not been able to truly influence individuals whose culture isn’t defined with the Party at its heart. Beijing’s belligerence has instead revealed that it sees the people of Taiwan (and Hong Kong) as inferior, corrupted by the idea that they too have a say in how to be governed.
Since 2013, Xi Jinping has extolled his “Chinese Dream,” a vaguely defined term that is meant to encapsulate the Party’s ethos in national renewal and the CCP’s elevated profile on the world stage. However, as in Hong Kong in November, the voters of Taiwan have chosen to reject Xi’s fantasy.
Across the Strait, CCP mouthpiece Global Times said that Tsai’s victory led to “some [people] calling for a firm preparation for reunification,” flicking at the idea of a military invasion. In the early evening on Saturday, when votes were still being counted, a host at the Kuomintang’s headquarters said on stage, “We may have lost because of the media’s fake news.” He was correct, though in a manner he didn’t intend.