Written by Jacques deLisle.
Tsai Ing-wen begins her second and final term as Taiwan’s president buoyed by her adept handling of a pair of crises. But the skill, and luck, of Tsai and the Democratic Progressive Party-led government are likely to be tested on several fronts.
After the DPP’s setback in the local nine-in-one local elections in November 2018, prospects looked dim for Tsai’s bid to become the third consecutive two-term president during Taiwan’s democratic era—so much so that she faced a serious challenge from within her own party. Her fortunes changed markedly with the crisis that roiled Hong Kong. At the start of 2019, Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave Tsai a political gift, taking a tougher line on cross-Strait unification and stiffening his insistence — most pointedly in an address on the 40th anniversary of Ye Jianying’s seminal “Message to Taiwan Compatriots”— that the One Country, Two Systems model implemented in post-reversion Hong Kong must be the template for Taiwan’s unification. What followed made Xi’s gift increasingly valuable. Chief Executive Carrie Lam ignited Hong Kong’s crisis when she introduced legislation that would have permitted handing over criminal suspects from Hong Kong to Mainland authorities for prosecution, including for what critics charged could be political offences and politically motivated charges. The move sparked charges that it imperilled Hong Kong’s cherished rule of law and the autonomy of its legal system that had been promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration returning the territory to Chinese sovereignty and embedded in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. However, weeks of massive protests produced gripping and disturbing images of police violence and dark hints that China’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police might intervene. As the protesters’ message became increasingly critical of the PRC, the Chinese leadership and its representatives in Hong Kong condemned aspects of the movement as secessionist and with elements of terrorism. Having added a reprise of the 2014 Umbrella Movement’s call for fundamental democratic reforms to their list of demands, the protesters and their supporters argued that Hong Kong’s existing but eroding autonomy and its long-promised future democracy was mortally threatened.
Tsai took the hand she had been dealt and played it masterfully. She equated the 1992 Consensus and the One-China Principle (which Beijing had demanded, unsuccessfully, that she accept) with the One Country, Two Systems model (which, Xi had reaffirmed, must apply to Taiwan) with, in turn, the desperate situation in Hong Kong (which was profoundly unappealing to Taiwanese voters). With the opposition Kuomintang unable to articulate a policy position that was sufficiently critical of the PRC to appeal to median voters, yet distinct from the DPP’s stance on China and Hong Kong, Tsai surged to victory with a margin similar to that which she had enjoyed in 2016.
In the final days of the 2020 campaign, a second crisis was lurking. Eleven days before Taiwanese went to the polls, China informed the World Health Organization of the illness that would become known as COVID-19. The global public health catastrophe delivered another political gift to Tsai from China. As the outbreak grew into a pandemic, Taiwan emerged as a global success story. The public health emergency response institutions that had been created in response to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome epidemic in 2003 were activated and bolstered by artificial intelligence tools, Taiwan’s robust universal healthcare system, and the public’s memory of SARS. Despite again being among the places most endangered by a contagion emanating from China and despite Beijing-imposed impediments to engagement with the WHO, Taiwan contained the first wave impressively well, reporting under 400 cases and fewer than ten deaths by Tsai’s second inaugural. Although government methods encroached on liberties Taiwanese are accustomed to enjoying and drew criticism as excessive, the government’s response to COVID-19 garnered high public approval ratings. A mask-wearing Tsai visibly taking charge, high-profile briefings by Minister of Public Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung, and the symbolically potent fortuity of Vice President Chen Chien-jen’s previous career as an epidemiologist played well with the public. Tellingly, Tsai devoted much of her second inaugural address to praising Taiwan’s response to COVID-19.
The contrast between Taiwan’s democracy, autonomy, and order, and the circumstances in Hong Kong, and between Taiwan’s methods for containing COVID-19 and China’s draconian lockdown and pervasive surveillance, served Tsai well. Both phenomena cast the PRC in a poor light abroad (among fellow democracies), and enhanced Taiwan’s image and stature. These twin-crisis-driven effects strengthened Tsai domestically, given that her reelection victory — like all wins in Taiwan’s democratic-era presidential elections — had depended on the candidate’s ability to persuade voters that he or she could safeguard Taiwan’s status and security adequately, and better than rival contenders would.
These advantages do not, however, portend an easy second term. Tsai’s 2016-echoing vote share and the DPP’s retention of a legislative majority in 2020 are less of a mandate than they may appear. Polling and anecdotal evidence indicate that Tsai’s victory did not demonstrate great enthusiasm for the DPP (especially among the youth who voted massively for Tsai) and reflected intense negative partisanship. The DPP’s legislative majority shrank, with voting for the non-geographic, proportional representation seats splitting nearly equally among DPP, KMT, and other parties and the third-largest share going to the ideologically ambiguous but generally centrist Taiwan People’s Party (newly founded by independent Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je). Tsai’s and the DPP’s success in 2020 were primarily the failure of the KMT, burdened by internal disarray and an establishment-challenging and erratic standard-bearer. With failed KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu now recalled as mayor by the voters in Kaohsiung, along with youthful, reformist, and promising new party chairman, Johnny Chiang Chi-chen — not to mention democratic-era Taiwan’s quarter-century-long pattern of alternation of the party in power every eight years — the KMT is likely to be a more formidable opposition party.
Elected or reelected Taiwanese presidents often do not get extended political honeymoons. The KMT’s dismal showing in local elections during Ma Ying-jeou’s second term presaged Tsai’s and the DPP’s sweeping victories in 2016. When the DPP suffered a similar blowout in 2018, it was widely — although ultimately incorrectly — seen as a harbinger of defeat for Tsai and the DPP in 2020. The 2022 nine-in-one vote, and the risk of a politically damaging implicit referendum on the incumbent party, is not far off. With Tsai term-limited, her future lame-duck status and a possibly divisive intra-party struggle among potential successors (including Vice President Lai Ching-te, from the DPP’s more fundamentalist wing) loom as additional weaknesses.
Tsai’s second-term agenda includes items — some carried over from her first term — that are difficult, controversial, or both in areas such as industrial policy, social welfare, defence reform, and transitional justice (addressing legacies of KMT authoritarian rule), as well as dealing with an increasingly difficult China. Two likely key challenges are more closely related to the crises that earlier had helped her. First, Taiwan’s economy: its relatively good state was another factor in Tsai’s 2020 win, but, as her inaugural address articulated, sustained growth likely depends on ambitious reforms. Taiwan’s preexisting economic difficulties are compounded by the COVID-19-driven global recession and the attendant drop in demand facing economies that, like Taiwan’s, remain significantly dependent on exports of goods. Prospects for Tsai’s second term are made still more complicated by the U.S.-China relationship, already conflictual but deteriorating sharply amid the pandemic. With acrimony over COVID-19 reinforcing already-overheated calls to “decouple” the U.S. and China, Taiwan faces uncertainty and risk. Although early the Trump-era U.S.-China “trade war” initially brought some economic benefits to Taiwan, perils lie ahead for deeply cross-Strait-linked Taiwan if the U.S. seriously pursues eliminating supply chains’ vulnerabilities to disruptions from China. Washington’s expanding restrictions targeting disfavored Chinese firms pose threats to major Taiwanese companies, such as TSMC which depends heavily on relationships with the U.S. tech sector and sales to the PRC’s Huawei.
Second, Taiwan’s democratic autonomy. The Hong Kong crisis dramatically underscored its importance to Taiwan’s voters and indicated the multifaceted ways that Beijing can intervene in internal politics along its periphery. Tsai’s second inaugural agenda’s small-ball democratic reforms (lowering the voting age, restructuring antiquated government institutions, judicial reform, a human rights commission) steered clear of bigger, more complicated issues. Taiwan’s 2018 and 2020 elections raised the alarm about China-sourced efforts to influence Taiwan’s electoral outcomes by methods ranging from fake social media accounts sowing discord and disinformation, to China-backed traditional media, to illicit payments to political actors. While some measures to address such threats are relatively anodyne (such as fact-checking of social media by NGOs or Facebook, restricting PRC media ownership, or banning foreign donations to candidates and parties), others are more fraught. Attempts to restrict the dissemination of ill-informed or antidemocratic opinions held or promoted by Taiwanese citizens (even if influenced and manipulated by China), government investigations of pro-China Taiwanese media for fake news, and the “Anti-Infiltration Law” (prohibiting receipt of funding or instruction from “hostile” external sources for broad categories of political activities), adopted on the eve of the 2020 election and denounced by critics as dangerously broad and vague, threatening to civil liberties, and prone to partisan abuse — these all pose acute dilemmas for a liberal democracy facing an external existential threat.
Jacques deLisle is the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, professor of political science, and director of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. This article is part of special issue on the President Tsai’s second term.