The eighth Taiwan presidential and Legislative Yuan (or Parliamentary) elections will take place in less than ten days on January 13, 2024, when around 20 million Taiwanese citizens will vote for their lawmakers and president after incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) completes her eight-year presidency coming May.
The three presidential candidates are the Democratic Progressive Party's (DPP) William Lai Ching-te, Kuomingtang (KMT)'s Hou Yu-ih and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP).
As election day approaches, allegations about China’s interference in the Taiwanese elections have flooded social media. Beijing has denied such claims and accused the ruling DPP of “hying up” and “stroking confrontation” across the Taiwan Strait.
The result of the elections will have significant implications for China and Taiwan’s cross-strait relations.
Since Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-Taiwan independent DPP began her presidency in 2016, Beijing has encroached on the self-ruled island with economic sanctions, military drills and diplomatic isolation as the DPP rejected the 1992 Consensus surrounding the “One China Principle” signed between the then-ruling KMT and China.
The One China Principle represents Beijing's view that the People's Republic of China (PRC) is the sole legitimate government of the state of China, which, in this narrative, also includes the island of Taiwan. This video gives a detailed explanation of this principle:
The 1992 Consensus can be best described as an attempt to agree to disagree: while Beijing and then KMT-led Taipei agreed to state publicly there is only One China, the interpretation of which China is referred to, that is CCP-led or KMT-led, is left open. However, China interprets the 1992 Consensus as a pathway for the reunification of Taiwan with China under the “One Country Two Systems” ideology — a political system that China has also applied to Hong Kong and Macau.
Historically, after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) gained victory in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the KMT of the Republic of China (ROC) fled to Taiwan while the CCP announced the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Both parties claimed themselves to represent “One China”. However, the DPP has refused to endorse the consensus.
Beijing's war talks
The DPP’s presidential candidate, William Lai Ching-te and vice-presidential candidate, Hsiao Bi-Khim, have rejected the 1992 Consensus and told voters they would follow Tsai’s diplomatic strategy in a pre-election televised debate, after which Beijing warned that Lai’s stance, supporting Taiwan's independence, could mean war. The DPP stopped short of publicly calling for Taiwan's independence, but many observers say they are favourable to the idea.
On the other hand, pro-Beijing KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih is obliged by the “One China” principle and is opposed to Taiwan's independence stance, while the TPP's Ko Wen-je stressed the necessity to maintain a peaceful relationship with mainland China to avoid the risk of war.
Although William Lai is leading the presidential race in most election polls, if Ko’s supporters shift to support Hou Yu-ih, the China-friendly clan may still have a chance to win, according to some election analysts.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s message to Taiwanese voters, as spelt out by the president of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, Zhang Zhijun’s 2024 New Year message, is that their votes mark the choice between war and peace:
The two elections (presidential and general elections) in Taiwan are a choice between peace and war, prosperity and regression, which implies two different futures. Voters in Taiwan should stand on the right side of history, insist on the One China principle and the “1992 Consensus”, and oppose Taiwan's independence, separatist movement and foreign intervention. Stay firm and make the right choice to convert the cross-strait relations back to a peaceful track.
Beijing's wish is not just mere talk. In the past few weeks, there have been various news reports alleging Beijing’s attempts to swing the voters’ choice in the upcoming elections.
Methods of promoting reunification
According to Taiwan security officials, Beijing is using a variety of methods to try to influence the election. They have even ramped up folk religious exchanges between rural Taiwan and mainland China ahead of the vote.
Our deep dive into China's United Front incursions into Taiwan ahead of the Jan. elections : deepening its penetration of the island's extensive Mazu ‘peace goddess’ temple networks incl remote areas w/@YimouLee https://t.co/4a5zsbjpdx
— James Pomfret (@jamespomfret) December 21, 2023
Authorities in mainland China have explicitly said that folk religions, particularly the worship of Mazu, a goddess who safeguards fishing communities, “play a vital role in strengthening the unity of Chinese and overseas Chinese” and “promoting peaceful reunification of the motherland”.
Mazu is the most popular folk religion in Taiwan, with 10 million worshippers. This year, Beijing has facilitated a few dozen exchange trips for Taiwanese worshippers to visit Mazu temples in mainland China. Some Taiwanese leaders of the folk religion have echoed Beijing’s political message and even explicitly told Mazu’s worshippers to oppose candidates that are pro-Taiwan independence and vote for peace in the elections, according to an investigative report by Reuters.
Last week, various media outlets, including Reuters and CNN, cited sources claiming that China pressured a Taiwanese rock band, Mayday, to make pro-China statements before the Taiwan elections to swing the young Taiwanese voters in favour of Beijing-friendly candidates.
China has pressured an influential Taiwanese rock band called Mayday to make pro-China comments ahead of Taiwan's key elections next month, according to sources with direct knowledge of the situation and a Taiwan security note reviewed by Reuters https://t.co/wizn4XjFFR pic.twitter.com/FqHi7ZpRtB
— Reuters (@Reuters) December 28, 2023
In early December, mainland Chinese authorities launched an investigation into an accusation made by a mainland Chinese video blogger that the band was lip-synching during their concerts in Shanghai in mid-November. The allegation, once established, could lead to a maximum fine of RMB 100,000 yuan (USD 14,000) and a ban on the band's future performance. Mayday dismissed the online accusation as “malicious attacks, rumours and slander” and fully cooperated with the mainland investigation.
As for the media reports about political pressure to make pro-China comments, Mayday neither confirmed nor denied it, while Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office slammed the related news outlets for “fabricating” news and accused the ruling DPP of spreading rumours. The KMT also accused the DPP of using governmental channels to stage the Mayday political scandal to overseas media outlets.
Military intrusion: Fighter jets, warships and spy balloons
China’s military threats to Taiwan have been ceaseless over the past few years. After US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, mainland Chinese aircraft have been regularly crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait.
Ahead of the elections, the military intrusion has intensified. Within 24 hours between December 23 and 24, 2023, 22 mainland Chinese aircraft and seven vessels were detected around Taiwan, and 11 of the detected aircraft had entered the Taiwan air zone:
11 of the detected aircraft (J-16*4, J-10*2, J-11*2, Y-8 ASW*1, Y-8EW*1, KJ-500 AEW&C*1) had crossed the median line of the Taiwan Strait or entered Taiwan’s SW ADIZ.
— 國防部 Ministry of National Defense, R.O.C. (@MoNDefense) December 24, 2023
The latest intrusions are from mainland Chinese spy balloons. Taiwanese authorities reported six incidents in December.
In response to allegations of military threats, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson stated that the People’s Liberation Army would “take all necessary measures to firmly safeguard our national sovereignty and territorial integrity”, but dismissed the accusation of election interference and accused the ruling DPP of “hying up” and “stroking confrontation” across the Taiwan Strait.
Chinese President Xi Jinping also stressed in his New Year address that reunification with Taiwan was “inevitable”:
China's ‘reunification’ with Taiwan is inevitable, President Xi Jinping said in his New Year's address, striking a stronger tone than he did last year with less than two weeks to go before the Chinese-claimed island elects a new leader https://t.co/90ltGDcSHn pic.twitter.com/7MPKAmeTpt
— Reuters (@Reuters) January 1, 2024
Xi told US President Joe Biden in a face-to-face meeting during the APEC Summit in November 2023 that Taiwan was the most important and dangerous issue in the Sino-US relationship.