Taiwan voters consider President Tsai’s hostile relationship with China to be fool hardy

Nov 29, 2022
U.S. President Joe Biden, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, before the start of their face-to-face bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, November 14, 2022, in Bali, Indonesia.

Those vested in the ‘the coming war with China’ may need to rethink.

In a major election drubbing for the ruling DPP in Taiwan, President Tsai’s credibility was hurt by her ties with US President Biden and her constant condemnation of China that she thought would maintain her popularity with Taiwanese voters – but didn’t.

Following Election Day on November 26, Taiwan’s media, pundits and residents almost in unison opined the results of the collection of local election proved to be a major drubbing for the ruling DPP. President Tsai resigned from her position as head of the party confirming that.

Specifically, the KMT won 13 of the 21 city and county seats. It captured four of the metropolitan mayorships, the most important seats to be decided by the electorate and where 70 percent of Taiwan’s residents reside. This included Taipei, the capital city. The DPP won only two metropolitan mayors contests and a few city and county seats. The DPP lost on a single referendum on the ballot, to lower the voting age to 18.

Realising the election results proved the DPP did not perform to meet voters’ expectations, many pondered who was to blame. The first reaction was to indict President Tsai. Relations with China were most often mentioned. The economy and the coronavirus were also problems for her.

President Tsai’s relationship with China was considered fool hardy. Taking a position of maintaining the status quo worked as a policy in the past, though she didn’t satisfy her base for not pursuing independence more forcefully.

Nor did she acknowledge that China’s aggressive talk and threatening actions that she baited had a grinding effect on Taiwan’s residents. Or that Taiwan was dependent upon China economically, and that was growing. Likewise, Taiwan hardly knew how to deal with China’s formidable rise as a preeminent world power in terms of finance, technology, and more.

President Tsai relied on the United States to cope with the China colossus. There was no question about this. But she was putting her faith on the Biden administration that was sending regular signals of indecision, confusion and unreliability. Just weeks before the election President Biden said four times that America would defend Taiwan (seeming to depart from the most peaceful U.S. One-China policy it had espoused for some years). Then Biden’s aides walked him back four times. Utter confusion.

At the G-20 meeting in Bali, which concluded just before Taiwan’s Election Day, President Biden sang a different tune, telling China’s President Xi the U.S. adheres to the One-China policy while saying he wanted cordial relations with China.

It seemed that his thinking was stuck between vilifying China to bolster his efforts to create an enemy and justify his efforts to enhance his control of Americans, to a policy realising good relations with China were the sine qua non for good economic growth in the U.S. and a stable global economy.

President Tsai’s credibility was hurt by her ties with President Biden and her constantly condemning China that she thought would maintain her popularity with voters but didn’t.

Second, was Taiwan’s economy. Taiwan’s gross product (GDP), its total production of goods and services, was quite impressive in 2021, over 6.5 percent growth, and President Tsai took credit for that. It was moderately good in 2022, but only about half of the previous year’s showing. Moreover, the trend was downward and the projections for 2023 and subsequent years was well below par—around 3 percent growth for the next four years.

Further, President Tsai had long advanced the notion that equity in incomes was more important than growth per se. Yet the gap between workers in the high-tech sector of the economy and other workers remained gnawingly large. She had not fixed this.

Many workers were unhappy and talked about the minimum wage in Taiwan being lower than its competitors. The government passed a law to fix this just before the election. But many saw this as too late and pitifully long overdue.

Finally, Covid damaged President Tsai’s image. Taiwan had done a yeoman’s job in keeping it low for some time. In fact, officials bragged Taiwan was a model. But recently that changed. The Tsai administration was at a loss as to what to do. Lockdowns and quarantines were controversial.

In April 2022, in the months leading up to the election President Tsai ended the zero-covid policy. There had been few cases before that. But now the virus was spreading. In May there were more than 82 thousand cases. Then the virus hit another peak in October. All together it affected 8.25 million people and caused 14 thousand deaths. Voters were alarmed or worse.

Polls showed residents viewed Covid as a security threat. Many questioned government policies and doubted President Tsai’s ability to handle the problem. There were public disagreements about which vaccines were better. The timing in terms of the coming election was unfortunate for the president.

The KMT, of course, had better candidates competing in the election and they were more tuned into what voters wanted. Some DPP candidates were involved in scandals. Others seemed to lack confidence.

But The DPP couldn’t avoid being judged by their president and the problems cited above.

One might argue that under President Tsai’s leadership performed so poorly that one might conclude the DPP’s future is in doubt or that matters cannot be fixed quickly.

In other words, the pendulum theory of elections, that a rotation of ruling parties is a good thing, seemed to explain voters’ thinking about both President Tsai and the DPP. They were disappointed and wanted new blood.

Does this mean trouble for the ruling DPP in the national election in January 2024? Perhaps. The KMT may have momentum. The 43 year-old Chiang Wan-an, Chiang Kai-shek’s great grandson, winning the biggest prize, the mayor of Taipei (and the youngest one ever) hints at a new and vigorous KMT.

*John F. Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor emeritus of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of 35 books on China, Taiwan and U.S. foreign policy.

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