What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

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

For decades, Taiwan's political status has been a contentious issue between the U.S. and China. The U.S. considers it a real democracy, while mainland China sees a rogue province that should be under Communist control. Taiwanese voters will elect their next president Saturday, in a decision with major implications for Taiwan and U.S.-China relations. Special correspondent Divya Gopalan reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • 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.

  • President Tsai Ing-wen (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.

  • President 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:

    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:

    "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 (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:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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:

    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 (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 (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.

Listen to this Segment