“I don’t want Taiwan to become the next Hong Kong.” That was a catchphrase of Tsai Ing-wen, who was re-elected Taiwan’s president on Jan. 11.
Civil protests in Hong Kong continue to be repressed in a high-handed manner by China. The Taiwanese took the resulting turbulence as a matter that also concerns them and used the election as an occasion to shout a collective “no” to Beijing.
“One country, two systems” is China’s stated principle for governing Hong Kong. Xi Jinping, China’s president, urged Taiwan last year to accept that principle, too. The situation in Hong Kong offers telling proof of the reality of “one country, two systems.”
Beijing itself was responsible for turning Taiwan’s popular will away from an opposition candidate, who argued during the presidential race for appeasement with China. Taiwanese voters handed Tsai, who called for preserving the status quo in keeping a distance from China, a landslide victory.
Taiwan, which democratized rapidly from the 1990s, is currently one of the leading free societies of Asia. Since her ascension to the presidency four years ago, Tsai has stressed that the values of freedom and democracy, which have taken root in Taiwan, can be compared to “air.”
They are invisible, and we usually hardly take notice of them, but they are indispensable values that must be treasured by collective efforts, she was saying figuratively.
Some argue that the financial well-being of Taiwan lies in deeper ties with China. Tsai argued that being deprived of air was tantamount to suffocation, even if the people were better off and had more to eat.
Many countries are grappling with how to get along with an ever stronger China. The same holds true for Taiwan, which is in the line of fire, so to speak, given the tensions that exist over its status.
China’s policy is to apply economic and military pressure on those who do not toe the line. In response to Tsai’s rejection of Beijing’s political argument for “one China,” Beijing has exerted its leverage not only on governments of other nations but also on private businesses overseas.
It has also threatened Taiwan by sending aircraft carriers and fighter jets close to the island.
The citizens of Taiwan are more than a little apprehensive about the future of the island’s economy, which is strongly dependent on exports and, therefore, susceptible to global trends. No doubt, voters had their own share of indecision in casting their ballots.
That said, Taiwanese likely also harbor a growing sense of alarm about the possibly dismal future that awaits them unless they hold fast to the concept of “air” to breathe in.
The U.S-China race for global hegemony has sometimes been called a new Cold War. The underlying axis of conflict is about whether to value the ideals of democracy, even at the expense of all its costs, or whether to approve authoritarian governance, which places stability and efficiency ahead of ideals.
With the spread of China’s clout, concerns have been raised about a rise in authoritarian rule.
The answer given by Taiwanese voters to that fear must not be taken lightly. It says universal values, such as freedom and human rights, should never be disregarded, even if the yearning for economic development is there to stay.
Taiwan’s choice is very suggestive for Japan, another champion of democracy that is also facing up to China.