The day after the unprecedented November summit between the leaders of China and Taiwan, the Facebook page of Tsai Ing-wen, the front-runner in the upcoming Taiwanese presidential election, was flooded with some 70,000 messages. The majority of them were written in the simplified Chinese characters used only on mainland China, and they demanded that Taiwan reunify with the rest of the country. Given that Facebook is banned in mainland China, this campaign had a rigged feel to it, another of the efforts — direct and indirect, menacing and gentle — that Beijing has made over the years to lure Taiwan back into the fold of the motherland. The willingness of Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet with his Taiwanese counterpart, President Ma Ying-jeou, was on the gentler side of the spectrum, a promise of peace and harmony if only Taiwan does not go its separate way.
But Taiwan’s presidential election campaign has indicated that none of the approaches to its Taiwan problem appear to be getting China to its goal. A foreign-educated, policy-wonkish former senior bureaucrat, Tsai is the candidate who embodies the notion of a separate Taiwan, and she remains so far ahead in the polls that her victory is almost a foregone conclusion. Indeed, the question isn’t so much whether the 59-year-old Tsai will win the Jan. 16 election, but whether her election will signify a failure of China’s reunification policy. In other words, whether a Tsai victory means that the one-China idea, with regards to Taiwan, is dead.
Yes, Taiwan’s relationship with the mainland has not been the only thing on voters’ minds. A widening income gap, a sense of diminished opportunities for young people, and disarray in the ranks of the incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) are other factors. But the existential question for Taiwan is always whether to promote integration with the giant across the Taiwan Strait, or to keep a certain distance, and Tsai represents the option of distance. She is the nominee of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which favors ultimate independence: Its governing charter opens with a call for “the establishment of an independent sovereignty known as the Republic of Taiwan.”
This does not mean that the DPP would attempt to establish such a sovereignty. But the election campaign is taking place after eight years of a tremendous joint effort, fostered by the outgoing KMT president, to persuade Taiwan of the benefits of ever closer and more elaborate ties with the mainland. Tsai’s election would represent a conviction that integration has gone too far, too fast; that Taiwan has gotten too close to the authoritarian, controlling, and often bullying giant across the strait; and that this closeness poses a danger to Taiwan’s treasured sense of de facto independence.
Under Ma (who, having served two terms, cannot run for a third), China and Taiwan have signed more than 20 agreements expanding trade and investment, tourism, student exchanges, and direct flights. Trade jumped to almost $200 billion a year — from roughly $18 billion in 2000 — and China now buys some 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports. This has had a remarkable effect, exponentially multiplying contacts between the two sides while reducing the chance that Taiwan could be a flashpoint for conflict in Asia — a particular worry in Washington, because the United States would be obliged to intervene if China launched an armed strike on Taiwan.
But the very speed and amplitude of this cross-strait development generated a startling backlash in Taiwan, expressed by the 2014 Sunflower Movement — when huge student-led demonstrations forced Taipei to shelve a major trade deal. The hundreds of thousands of protesters feared that the Goliath on the mainland was being given too much economic power over the Taiwanese David. “Protect Democracy: Never Give Up” read one common poster. Others depicted Ma as “Ma Zedong,” likening him to China’s Mao Zedong. His approval rating had fallen to 9 percent and stayed there. “Beijing’s strategy is to lure Taiwan deeper and deeper into China,” Diane Ying, a veteran journalist and magazine editor in Taiwan, told me during a July visit to the island. “But the Taiwan people don’t like the way of life there.” Early in her campaign, Tsai gave a five-word summary of her view on the matter to Time magazine. “Taiwan needs a new model,” she said — in other words, less reliance on China and greater ties to other countries.
There is a risk here in overstating the difference between Tsai’s DPP and the KMT. In fact, on the most basic question of dealing with the mainland — independence or reunification — both parties have long observed a kind of double restraint: neither independence nor reunification, but an indefinite perpetuation of the status quo. The KMT is known as the pro-Beijing party, meaning that it opposes independence as a matter of principle, favors reunification as an eventual goal, and believes more economic integration will stave off future conflict. But the party’s leaders acknowledge that formal reunification is impossible for the foreseeable future. “As long as China is not democratic,” Lee Shih-chuan, the KMT secretary-general, told me during a visit to party headquarters in Taipei, “there is no possibility of reunification.”
The difference is that the DPP accepts a weak, pro forma allegiance to the idea of a single China, not as a matter of principle but of necessity. Partly because of pressure from the United States — and, more importantly, not to live too dangerously — the party supports the status quo. Few people in Taiwan seem to believe that will change, even if Tsai wins big on Jan. 16. The memory of the 2000 to 2008 reign of Chen Shui-bian, the DPP’s first and so far only president of Taiwan, is clear. Chen knew perfectly well that he could not declare de jure independence without provoking a losing war with China, but he couldn’t resist roiling the waters by referring to Taiwan like his party’s charter did, as an “independent, sovereign country.” And that “made China angry and the United States unhappy,” Joseph Wu, the DPP secretary-general, told me during my July visit to Taiwan. “We learned a lesson from that. We try to make sure that we’ll be a reliable partner of the United States, and in order to be a reliable partner, we have to be very careful about many issues.”
Careful is something Tsai does well. Indeed, there’s not much radicalism or impetuosity in her curriculum vitae. She’s a graduate of Taiwan National University’s College of Law, has a master’s degree in law from Cornell, and a Ph.D., also in law, from the London School of Economics, where she wrote a dissertation on international trade law. As Time pointed out in its June profile, she was abroad during the protest movement of the late 1970s that gave birth to the DPP. Back then, Taiwan was a repressive one-party state, and many of its future leaders were bloodied and imprisoned. Tsai only joined in 2004 after a nonpartisan technocratic career in several posts. She was a KMT appointee to Taiwan’s Fair Trade Commission, the island’s chief economic regulatory agency; in 2000 Chen named her to the very visible post of minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which carries out the day-to-day work of dealing with China.
Tsai was promoted to be the head of the DPP in 2008 after a scandal badly tarnished it — the outgoing president, Chen, was imprisoned for bribery — and the party’s leaders were looking for a fresh, untainted face. She ran for mayor of Taipei in 2010 and lost, to Eric Chu, who is her KMT rival in the upcoming election. She ran for president against Ma two years later and lost again, narrowly. But Ma’s approval ratings have stayed low, and the KMT’s nominee in the upcoming election, Hung Hsiu-chu, was performing so poorly in the polls that in October the party, in a highly public gesture of desperation, ditched her in favor of Chu.
If Tsai does win — and, with more than a fifth of the electorate still undecided, it is unlikely but more than theoretically possible that she might not — her election would further a trend toward permanent separation that began long before she was born. Ever since the island became a Japanese colonial possession in 1895, Taiwan has been under mainland rule for a grand total of four years: the period between the 1945 defeat of Japan in World War II and the Communist takeover of China in 1949. That year, the KMT government and several million mainland refugees arrived on Taiwan and created what they called “Free China” — even though for a quarter century it was a repressive one-party state that, like its bitter Communist enemy, rigorously stamped out any pro-independence sentiment.
But there was always a split between the residents of the island who arrived centuries before and the mainland refugees, with their revanchist longings for their lost homeland. When the supreme KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek died in 1975, the first push for democracy came from Taiwanese intellectuals who resented the mainlanders’ authoritarian control. Some of these intellectuals spent time in prison after expressing their dissenting views. But within a few years, Taiwan embarked on the road that led in the mid-1990s to becoming the multiparty state it is today. With that move, a strong, undisguised Taiwanese identity has emerged. And the bedrock principle of that identity — the element that most distinguishes Taiwan from the authoritarian giant across the Taiwan Strait — is its status as a genuine democracy. “You have to make a difference between Taiwan and China, and electoral democracy is the game in town that shows that we are different,” Lin Jih-wen, a researcher at Academia Sinica, Taiwan’s national academy, told me. “Taiwan demonstrates that it is possible to have democracy under Chinese culture.”
During my July visit, I asked a few members of Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — which mostly oversees the nonofficial relations that Beijing allows it to have with other countries — whether they felt Taiwan could accept the formula that Beijing generally offers: the one-country, two-systems idea that defines China’s relationship with the former British colony Hong Kong. Plenty of foreign experts on China believe that Taiwan should accept that deal because it would give the island control over its own affairs in exchange for recognizing Beijing as the capital of a single country. But the Taiwanese diplomats I spoke to were emphatic that any such arrangement would abolish Taiwan’s sovereignty. “We are not like Hong Kong,” one of them told me. “I don’t want to say that we are independent, but we are a country. We have an army. We have territory. We have a government.” These are the attributes of a sovereign state.
Tsai, the cosmopolitan, lawyerly, careful technocrat, does not talk as explicitly as that. After a June speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., three different questioners asked her whether she supported the one-China idea. Tsai coolly batted the question back each time without answering. But her speech was full of the words and phrases — “democracy,” “transparency,” “civil society” — that, she said, “are deeply ingrained in the hearts of the Taiwanese people.” She avoided explicitly rejecting the one-China principle, but she pledged “to uphold the rights of the people [of Taiwan] to decide their future free of coercion,” which in the current condition of public opinion means, practically speaking, one China and one Taiwan.
Similarly after Ma’s unprecedented November meeting in Singapore with Xi, Tsai was unsparing in her criticism, using the occasion to evoke the danger of Chinese coercion. “We expected him,” she said of Ma, “to note Taiwan’s democracy, Taiwan’s freedom, the existence of the Republic of China, and most importantly, the rights Taiwanese have to decide their future freely. However, he did not mention any of those.”
At around the same time, Tsai replied to those 70,000 pro-unification Facebook messages by making essentially the same point. “I hope this rare new experience can let the ‘new friend’ see a more complete democracy, freedom, and pluralism of Taiwan,” she wrote. On Jan. 16, the Taiwanese will show that they have the right to decide their future. And if Tsai emerges victorious, Beijing’s strenuous effort to win Taiwan’s population to the side of a unified China will have suffered a striking defeat.