TAIPEI, TAIWAN — Watching the Hong Kong protests from its nearby perch all summer long and into the New Year, Taiwan has seen up close how China keeps its promises to respect liberties. And it quite understandably doesn’t want any of what China has to promise, as I saw on a no-strings reporting trip partially financed by the Taiwanese government.
That makes Saturday’s general election on this island, just off the southern coast of China and home to more than 23 million people, more important than ever. The geopolitical ramifications have the potential to be massive.
The constant menace is a Communist China bent on stamping out democracy and individualism. Beijing doesn’t care if Taiwan has governed itself independently since 1949 — and prizes that self-rule. The Communist regime wants Taipei to step in line, become part of its “two countries, one system” model and do what it’s told.
Taiwan categorically refuses, and so China has tried to isolate the island further, slowly picking away at Taiwan’s allies; all but 16 side with Beijing in the decades-long cold war between the two. Even the United States, Taiwan’s biggest ally, doesn’t recognize it as a country.
But China isn’t stopping there. It’s also sowing discord by trying to influence free and fair elections through a campaign of digital disinformation. There are so many absurd falsehoods circulating on Taiwanese social media, it’s hard to keep them all straight.
From nonexistent protests outside the presidential residence to warnings that votes for the pro-China opposition party, known as Kuomintang, or KMT, will be automatically invalidated, to rumors that the never-married President Tsai Ing-wen is homophobic.
Tsai and her ruling party were ready, however, and in December, they enacted a controversial “anti-infiltration” bill that criminalizes political activities backed or funded by “hostile external forces.”
Tsai said in October: “When freedom and democracy are challenged, and Taiwan’s existence is under threat, we must stand up and defend ourselves. As president, standing up to protect national sovereignty is not a provocation — it is my fundamental responsibility.”
The whole world has now watched China challenge fundamental democratic values: from police brutality against peaceful protests over a bill that would make Hong Kongers subject to mainland kangaroo courts to sending millions of Muslim-minority Uighurs to concentration camps — or, as Beijing calls them, “vocational training centers.”
No wonder Taiwanese are determined to keep a tight hold on their tenuous sovereignty. That includes the more than 5,000 overseas Taiwanese, more than twice the number last time around, who are flying back to Taipei to cast their ballots; Taiwan doesn’t allow absentee voting.
Citizens’ voices being heard is always essential but especially so in an election in which a foreign power, Beijing, seems to have a horse in the race: Tsai’s presidential opponent, Han Kuo-Yu, is a local mayor and a member of the pro-China KMT.
In a speech after his nomination last year, Han said: “The election is a choice between a peaceful Taiwan Strait or a Taiwan Strait filled with crisis. The election is about the life and death of the Republic of China and Taiwan’s next generation.” Put another way: Embrace your Beijing overlords — or else.
Except that any crisis will be the direct result of Beijing and the future of Taiwan’s next generation to those who defend and support freedom.
China, after all, doesn’t need more land mass or people to lord over. And America surely shouldn’t want it to gobble up Taiwan’s military or have access to the billions of dollars in arms America has sold the Taiwanese — last year, 108 Abrams tanks and other armored vehicles and equipment transporters, plus Stinger antiaircraft missiles.
US support for Taiwan is also popular. Congress has passed unanimous pro-Taiwan legislation, like the 2018 Taiwan Travel Act, which allows high-level officials from both countries to visit the other.
“Taiwan wants to contribute more to make the world a better place,” Vice Premier Chen Chien-jen told our delegation in December. And “it is very important to have the United States on our side and to strengthen our own democracy.”
We should be on Taiwan’s side. Full stop.