COM 01/2020

The Taiwan 2020 Election: How Tsai managed to regain Taiwan and reject China

By Dr Strobe Driver , War, Conflict and Asia-Pacific security independent researcher and writer, and an Adjunct Researcher at Federation University, Australia.  He can be contacted at: and   



Taiwan, Republic of China (ROC) can be summed up as a robust independent country of approximately 23 million people, which comprise a mix of Taiwanese, Chinese, and Indigenous peoples—estimated at 2018 to comprise 23.69 million people.[1]  The voting schematic comprises a liberal-democratic, one-person, one-vote method of political representation.  Voting in Taiwan is compulsory; and all citizens over 20 years of age must vote in an election, although there is no facility for an absentee-vote. Taiwan is an island country and its location is 25°03’N latitude and 121°30’W longitude.  As per many island nations and countries, Taiwan has historically experienced visitations from sea-faring peoples which has comprised varying degrees of influences and colonisation from foreign cultures—it would be the Portuguese which would bestow the title ‘Formosa’ (beautiful Island) and the contemporary title of Taiwan, Republic of China being officially designated by the British and Americans during World War Two (WWII) through the Cairo Declaration.[2]  The Dutch, Japanese and (mainland) Chinese, is to name only several cultures that have impacted on Taiwan,[3] although it is pertinent to mention that Japan would occupy and rule Taiwan—referring to it as their ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier … from which invasions of Southeast Asia could be launched’[4]—for decades prior to having their power relinquished after the end of the Pacific phase of WWII (1945).  The Chinese Nationalists, also referred to as Chinese Nationalist—the Kuomintang (KMT)—upon their defeat by Mao’s guerrilla forces in a civil war on the Chinese mainland would also impact heavily on Taiwan (1949), as an estimated 1.2 million people exit the mainland and enter Taiwan.  The Nationalists’ retreat to Taiwan in the hope of regrouping, re-launching and re-taking mainland China.  The strategy however, would not come to fruition and the Nationalists would remain on the island; and establish an authoritarian regime under the control of Chiang Kai-shek.  Taiwan would be self-ruled and self-governed through Chiang’s dictatorship and the corresponding martial law, until the populace transitioned to a liberal-democracy (1986).

The complexity of Taiwan: A brief political history

From a domestic political perspective and regarding the progress and processes towards democracy, the first congressional elections for the National Assembly were held in 1991 and the elections for the Legislative Yuan in 1992—it can be argued however, the most important election from a liberal-democratic perspective, that of directly electing a President and Vice-President, was held for the first time in 1996.  There are two main political parties that comprise the power-base to date, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the KMT—headed by Han Kuo-yu; and Tsai Ing-wen, respectively.  A succinct understanding of Taiwan’s ‘road to democracy’[5] is able to be summed up as the National Assembly electing Lee Teng-hui (KMT) as president in 1990.  Lee then becomes the first directly-elected president by the entire voting-age population in 1996; Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is elected in 2000; Chen wins a second term in 2004; Ma Ying-jeou (KMT) is elected in 2008; Ma is returned to power in 2012; Tsai Ing-wen (DPP) wins the 2016 election[6]; Tsai wins a second term in 2020.[7]  In summing up the 2020 election President Tsai is considered to have won the election by a ‘landslide victory over her [KMT] opponent … and her party maintained its majority in the legislature [securing]  57.1%’[8] of the vote.

Whilst the political commentaries by both major parties differs and is responsive to domestic and international political machinations—especially with regard to China—a broad yet accurate summation of  the parties is and remains, the DPP strives for and favours formal independence from China, whilst the KMT is deemed to be more ‘Beijing-friendly.’[9]   Nonetheless, the current international standing of Taiwan consists of it being an independent country (although not a designated nation-state, having withdrawn from the United Nations in 1971[10]); remains a self-ruled liberal-democracy with presidential elections every four years; has a standing army, navy and air force; has an independent internationally recognized single currency and fiscal system; and has cultural and trade offices in many nation-states.  The complexities of international and domestic politics as per the aforementioned, Taiwan ROC, currently retains official ‘recognition from only 14 out of 193 United Nations member nation-states’[11] as being separate to, and independent of, China.  No commentary on Taiwan can be made without acknowledging the ‘one-China policy’ and the machinations that continue to take place and have taken place for many decades are centred on a single issue: reunification.  The substance of the issue is the National People’s Congress—the ruling body of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—maintains that Taiwan is a ‘renegade province’ of the motherland and therefore, must be returned to its ‘rightful place’ within China’s fold.  To be sure and placing the aforementioned in context, the rhetoric associated with Taiwan having to be returned to China was unable to be developed beyond simple demands.  During the post-World War Two decades of the twentieth century however, China began to develop its regional and international standing.  Since circa-1995 it can be safely argued, China has exponentially developed its regional- and international-standing and as a result has increased its intent toward Taiwan; and in turn makes ‘no promise to abandon the use of force … should it be required in reclaiming the island.’[12]   From a broader regional perspective as China has evolved from an isolationist country to a vibrant regional actor and therefore its irredentist claims toward Taiwan has increased; and their demands for the retrocession of Taiwan has also become more strident.  The increase in rhetoric is largely due to, and it can be safely argued, China having gained confidence in its territorial claims in the South China Sea; its Belt and Road Initiative and String-of-Pearls commitments and ambitions having been successful overall, or at the very least the projects have not incurred a forceful backlash from other regional or international actors.  Thus, China’s intent toward Taiwan remains unchanged.

In contemporary times, the Tsai administration has developed over its first term (2016 – 2020), a robust and continuing interconnectivity with the United States of America (US) and moreover, appears to have a sympathetic ear within the Trump administration.  The relationship in part, stems from having congratulated President Trump with a phone call upon his victory in 2016 which was fruitful for both as they noted their ‘close economic, political and security ties that exist between Taiwan and the United States.’[13]  The latest example of the relationship having been an overt recognition of the Tsai government and the ‘strength of its robust democratic system’ by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.  All of the aforementioned emphasise the enormity of the regional issues that Taiwan is faced with from its fraught relationship with China; the way in which it approaches interactions with the US; and its enforced-isolation by China.  The issues associated with Taiwan and the complexities of international relations aside, it is fair to argue what triggered the landslide win for the DPP was not due to Taiwan’s domestic environment but by events and happenings nearer to mainland China: the disruptions in Hong Kong.

Taiwan: The 2020 election and the ‘Hong Kong effect’

Whilst the ongoing threat of forced-unification by China strengthened the campaign of President Tsai and the DPP somewhat a major contributing factor and one which it can be argued, merged into the Taiwanese politico-psych was the draconian way in which China pursued its policy of extradition from Hong Kong to China for law-breakers.  This would trigger ongoing, organized and articulate responses to China; and it would take the CCP by surprise.  The months of protests that followed the initial extradition policy; the ignoring of what had been agreed to in the 1997 handover by the British; and the autocratic and disastrous way in which the Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam—under the auspices of China’s President Xi—would not only fail to placate and curtail the demonstrations but would send a comprehensive triad to the Taiwanese people: China’s autocratic rule can be confronted; its rule resorts to violence against the populace; and it can be resisted successfully.  Indeed, President Xi seemed flummoxed by the focus, tenacity and stamina, of the protesters, as did Chief Executive Lam.  The demonstrations also brought to the fore other components of China’s true intent: that its leadership had no allegiance to what had been agreed upon in the negotiations associated with the retroceding of Hong Kong by Britain (1997); and that the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong was to be brought under its authoritarian rule, as per all of China.  What happened in Hong Kong was to reinvigorate the DPP and offer it a more grandiose platform of being ‘the defender of the island’s democracy,’[14] and within the domestic sphere cause its KMT opposition scrambling ‘to justify their more friendly position on China.’[15]   President Tsai would opportunistically seize upon the ongoing troubles in Hong Kong and use them to the DPP’s advantage and moreover, the situation would supersede Taiwan’s ‘sluggish rate of economic development [and] the fact that finding employment is difficult for people even with substantial academic backgrounds,’[16] and allow President Tsai to gain a substantial victory.


From a broader regional perspective and as stipulated, Taiwan has slowly but surely become the epicentre for the broader political ideologies of communism clashing with liberal-democracy, and through this a ‘David and Goliath’ contest has emerged.  With the continued remonstrating and irredentist policies toward Taiwan by China; input by the US and its overt support of Taiwan; the manoeuvrings of China in attempting to further its regional preponderance; and the ongoing independence rhetoric of Taiwan will ensure tensions remain high; and cross-Strait relations will stagnate.  The additional problems in Hong Kong it can be argued, highlighted within the Taiwanese people a deeply-rooted mistrust of China’s tutelage per se; confirmed that the CCP is insincere in its dealings with other countries; and is also unwilling or incapable of dealing with views that are incompatible to its strict remit of the non-questioning CCP authority.  The overwhelming victory of the DPP, which is essentially opposed to the so-called ‘one China’ policy has committed Taiwan to another four years of politico-, and possibly military-brinkmanship.  Nonetheless, such an astounding victory also reflects the majority of the Taiwanese people remain steadfast in the face of a bellicose China; and reflects a determination that they will not be deceived as the Hong Kong people were in the 1997 handover.  Had the Hong Kong situation not been as so dire and tension-filled and the ineptness of its leadership so obvious, it is possible to deduce the DPP would not have gained such a clear mandate and therefore, a moderation of current cross-Strait relations would have had a better chance of coming to the fore.  Notwithstanding the end result of the Taiwan elections, China it can also be argued, has been forced to acquiesce to an understanding that autocratic rule has distinctive and unforeseen repercussions.  The Taiwanese people have absorbed the lesson of China’s rule in Hong Kong and have taken a forthright step in rejecting the ominous outcomes that have been inflicted on the people of Hong Kong, for another four years.

[1] See:  World Population Review.

[2] The Official Website of the Republic of China

[3] A brief, yet concise history of Taiwan is able to be accessed.  See:  ‘Taiwan profile – Timeline.’  BBCNews.  9 Jan, 2018.

[4] Taiwan.  Self-governing island, Asia.’ Encyclopædia Britannica

[5] ‘Timeline: Taiwan’s road to democracy.’  Reuters, December 13, 2011.

[6] Richard Bush. ‘Taiwan’s election results, explained.’  Brookings Institute, January 16, 2016.

[7] Christina Zhou and Jason Fang.  ‘China slams congratulations after Tsai wins Taiwan general elections.’  ABCnews, January 13, 2020.

[8] Cedric Sam. ‘Taiwan 2020 Election Results.’  Bloomberg,  January 12, 2020.

[9] ‘China slams congratulations after Tsai wins Taiwan general elections.’

[10] The Official Website of the Republic of China.

[11] Tom O’Connor.  ‘Which Countries Still Recognize Taiwan?  Two More Nations Switch to China In Less Than A Week.’  Newsweek, October 20, 201.

[12] ‘China slams congratulations after Tsai wins Taiwan general elections.’  ‘

[13] ‘Tsai congratulates Trump on US presidential election victory.’ Taiwan Today, November 10, 2016.  Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China (Taiwan).

[14] Bill Birtles. ‘Taiwan’ Iron Cat Lady Tsai, Ing-wen and her ‘cute’ cat campaign to keep the presidency.’  ABCNews, January 12, 2019.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Shin Kawashima.  ‘Challenges in Taiwanese Society.’  The Diplomat, May 14, 2018.