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  • Hamsini Hariharan

'Wan Wan' is at home in herself

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on January 13, 2020 and can be accessed here.

A television anchor looks soulfully into the camera, “湾湾, 回家吧” she says kindly (“Wan Wan [Taiwan], come back home”). This is not an appeal to a truant child running away from his mother. This was CCTV anchor, Hai Xia’s appeal to her Taiwan in November 2019 when China had announced the 26 measures to attract Taiwanese talent and companies to the mainland.

It seems, however that Wan Wan has already found home in herself. Or at least that’s what the Taiwanese presidential and parliamentary elections on Saturday seem to suggest. Incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic People's Party (DPP) was voted in with the highest majority ever since elections began to be held on the island nation since 1996. It incidentally also saw the highest voter turnout at 74.9 per cent. The election was not only for the President but also the 113 members of Taiwan’s legislative assembly. Here the DPP held on to its majority with 61 seats, only four more than the requisite 57 seats needed for a majority vote — the main mechanism by which bills are passed in parliament is a simple majority.  

 Reactions across the world have been three-fold: joy and reiterations by Taiwanese people who assert that this is an indicator of their own identity, support from Western scholars who believe that this is a rebuff to China and the Chinese mainland which urges reunification and pragmatism. Over the last year, China has tried to reach out to Taiwan in a number of different ways and this has borne fruit: seven of Taiwan’s 22 diplomatic allies (mostly countries in Africa or the Pacific Islands) flipped over to China by recognizing the ‘One China’ policy.

Apart from the 26 measures mentioned above, the PRC also banned individual Chinese tourists from visiting the small island from August onwards, leading to a decline in tourist numbers. But this fell in line with Chinese policy of reunification, stressed again by Premier Xi Jinping in a speech in January 2019. It also favored Tsai’s opponent, the Kuomintang Party’s Han Kuo-yu who was more amenable to cross-strait ties. It’s important to remember that the local government elections of 2018 and gave Han his popular base and saw the Kuomintang win a majority in major cities dealing a severe blow to the DPP. The 2018 mid-term elections mainly voted in favour of the pro-China party because of the dissatisfaction with the DPP’s policies. However, Tsai and her party seem to have learnt lessons from their defeat nearly two years ago.

Since then Tsai has taken an even more pointed stand against unification. The Hong Kong protests that have stretched over the second half of 2019 and the pressure from the mainland seem to have strengthened Taiwanese identity. Indeed, National Chengchi University’s Election Study Centre conducted its annual polls, which saw an upsurge in people identifying as Taiwanese, and a preference for status quo in relations between Taiwan and the mainland not only for the future, but also indefinitely.  

But what of the future? How is Taiwan going to fare in a world where the United States is an unreliable partner and its diplomatic allies are being whittled down to a handful? What can President Tsai Ing-wen do to ensure Taiwan’s economic relevance? With differences in political identity widespread even among her supporters, Tsai will need innovative policies to unite Taiwan and forge ahead.


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