In Taiwan, presidential election brings long-simmering tensions with China to the surface

JUDY WOODRUFF: Voters in Taiwan elect their
next president on Saturday. For decades, the island’s status has been
a contentious issue between the United States and mainland China. The communist government
in Beijing considers Taiwan a breakaway province that needs to ultimately come under its control.
The United States considers the island a real democracy, and has pledged to defend it against
a mainland attack. The results of the upcoming election could
determine the fate of Taiwan and have a major impact on U.S.-China relations. “PBS NewsHour” special correspondent Divya
Gopalan has the story. DIVYA GOPALAN: Chanting victory, the crowd
welcomes Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in one of her last rallies before voters go
to the polls in a campaign dominated by two political parties, one vying for closer ties
with the United States and the other with China. TSAI ING-WEN, Taiwanese President (through
translator): Safeguarding our autonomy and democracy is what I have been doing during
the past four years. DIVYA GOPALAN: Pulling away from China, Taiwan’s
powerful neighbor and biggest trading partner, has been the cornerstone of the president’s
campaign. TSAI ING-WEN (through translator): Let’s expand
our tourist base in Taiwan, so we won’t have to rely too much on visitors from China. DIVYA GOPALAN: Tsai’s stance has infuriated
Beijing. MAN (through translator): I think she’s courageous,
and that she’s been a president with a road map for Taiwan’s future. MAN (through translator): Do you Taiwanese
want to be ruled by China? Impossible. DIVYA GOPALAN: China has never had sovereignty
over the island, which was a Japanese colony until 1945. Yet Beijing keeps calling for
its reunification, a suggestion Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party have flatly rejected. There’s a real festive atmosphere here. It’s
hard to believe that, less than a year ago, many people had written off Tsai Ing-wen’s
chances of winning a second term. And that’s mainly due to her administration pushing through
unpopular social and labor reforms. But in the past few months, several events
outside of Taiwan, like the U.S.-China trade war and the Hong Kong protests, have boosted
her popularity. The prospect of another Tsai term doesn’t
sit well in Beijing, which has attempted to exert control by both trying to lure Taiwan
with economic incentives and threats of invasion and isolation. Under Tsai’s tenure, seven countries have
given into pressure from Beijing and broken diplomatic ties with Taiwan, leaving only
15 nations still recognizing the government of Taipei. Even the United States doesn’t
have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Yet Washington is Taipei’s most important
ally, due to a longstanding agreement to help defend the nation from attack or invasion.
Last year, Washington passed multiple bills to enhance relations and approved $2.2 billion
in arm sales. Aligning with Taiwan is a strategic way for
Washington to counter China’s growing influence in the region. JOSEPH WU, Taiwanese Foreign Minister: We
view the Chinese threat as real. They have been gearing up their military preparations
against Taiwan. You have seen the military exercises along the Taiwan Strait, and not
just air force, but also their navy. DIVYA GOPALAN: Joseph Wu is Taiwan’s foreign
minister. JOSEPH WU: The Chinese also build up their
missile capabilities, and they are very threatening. And we understand the Chinese also have that
ambition of take Taiwan over, and we need to be prepared for that. DIVYA GOPALAN: Minister Joseph Wu says there
is also concern that China is trying to intervene in these elections. JOSEPH WU: The Chinese are using modern technology,
going through the Facebook or Twitter or a telecommunications mechanism called Line.
They try to infiltrate into these mechanism or platforms by creating false information
to make the public believe the current government is not trustworthy. DIVYA GOPALAN: Social media platforms are
a key battleground, with an estimated 90 percent of Taiwan’s population active online. The government recently passed a law against
political interference and foreign infiltration. While bigger companies like Google and Facebook
have agreed to police their platforms, civil society groups have also joined the race to
expose misinformation. Billion Lee co-founded the nonprofit open
source site CoFacts. Questionable information is highlighted by volunteers around the world.
She says their site has been awash in misinformation about the president, the posts mostly originating
from China. She points out one of many trying to discredit
Tsai Ing-wen’s doctorate from the London School of Economics. BILLION LEE, CoFacts: “She is a president
without a Ph.D. degree. She has no personality. She cannot becoming leader. Shame on the country.
Please forward this to your friends as much as you could.” DIVYA GOPALAN: China’s preferred candidate
is Han Kuo-yu. He’s been described as Taiwan’s Donald Trump. HAN KUO-YU, Taiwanese Presidential Candidate
(through translator): The Taiwanese people are no longer happy; 23 million people in
Taiwan now all feel heavy and suffocated. We are confused about our future. Young people
are left behind by the international community, and the world has gradually forgotten about
us. DIVYA GOPALAN: The 62-year-old blames the
ruling party for deteriorating relations with Beijing and describes himself as the president
for the common people. MAN: He is trying to bring all the poor people
to upgrade their living standard. WOMAN (through translator): China has become
a superpower now. If we can help each other, we will both rise up. DIVYA GOPALAN: Han represents the opposition
Kuomintang Party, which favors closer ties with Beijing, arguing it would bring more
economic benefit and security for Taiwan, a view supported by much of the older generation. SHELLEY RIGGER, Visiting Scholar, National
Taiwan University: On average, there seems to be a pretty big generation gap. Why do
you think that is? DIVYA GOPALAN: Shelley Rigger is a visiting
scholar at the National Taiwan University. She has been holding focus groups as part
of her research on the political attitudes of Taiwanese youth. TONY YANG, Student: I believe that a lot of
old people, they think that it’s important to focus on economy more than identity. DIVYA GOPALAN: All in their early 20s, the
participants are students or research assistants at the university. THOMAS WONG, Student: What U.S. current relationship
really gives to Taiwanese people is a new hope for rejoining the global society. That’s
something really exciting for us, especially for the younger generation. DIVYA GOPALAN: Topics covered include international
relations, identity issues, and the Hong Kong protest, which has impacted the elections. KENNY FANG, Student: We have this kind of
connection with those protesters, not only emotionally, but also practically. DIVYA GOPALAN: Hong Kong has been rocked by
more than seven months of protests. The demonstrators are calling for more democracy and less interference
from Beijing in Hong Kong’s affairs. The city operates under China’s one-country/two-systems
model, which Beijing is touting as example for Taiwan if it comes under Chinese control. SHELLY LU, Research, National Taiwan University:
It motivated many originally politically apathetic young people to vote. We see the videos from the Hong Kong protest
and police violence. And that makes many people think that, would we want this kind of lifestyle,
if possibly we are invaded by China? DIVYA GOPALAN: Tsai Ing-wen has been vocal
in her support for the demonstrators. And Taiwan has become a safe haven for dozens
who have fled Hong Kong fearing arrest, like this 20-year-old former student who wanted
to remain anonymous. He arrived just before the new year. MAN (through translator): I think of suicide
sometimes. The other protesters with me were arrested one by one. It is very painful, torture
for me. DIVYA GOPALAN: The upcoming elections are
adding to his anxiety. MAN (through translator): If the opposition
wins the elections, they are like the pro-China politicians in Hong Kong. I would probably
have to go back to Hong Kong. DIVYA GOPALAN: Also adding to China’s ire
was the Taiwanese government’s move to capitalize on the U.S.-China trade war. Syaru Shirley Lin is a professor at the University
of Virginia, and the author of the book “Taiwan’s China Dilemma.” SYARU SHIRLEY LIN, University of Virginia:
And in recent years, with the U.S.-China trade war, what the rivalry between the U.S. and
China has done, of course, is to accelerate some of these manufacturers’ move, because
of policy incentives to leave China and move back to Taiwan. DIVYA GOPALAN: And a different kind of trade
war has been brewing in Taipei’s bubble tea shops. Consumers of Taiwan’s favorite drink,
frustrated by China’s ownership claims and those sympathetic to the Hong Kong protesters,
are boycotting outlets seen as pandering to China. SU HSIEN TI, Bubble Tea Fan (through translator):
Some companies label their brands are from Taiwan, China, implying that Taiwan is part
of China. So we avoid those places as a political stance. SUI KAI XIANG, Bubble Tea Fan (through translator):
I don’t normally boycott the shops, but, whenever possible, we will choose bubble tea shops
which support the Hong Kong protests. DIVYA GOPALAN: China’s growing might and American
interest in expanding influence in the region have left those on the island voting not just
for their future, but also casting ballots for the interests of the world’s two most
powerful countries. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Divya Gopalan
in Taipei.

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