Presidential elections in Taiwan are scheduled for Jan. 13, 2024. Political parties have started battling for votes in an event that holds high geopolitical stakes and is expected to set the course for future U.S.–China relations.
Experts tell The Epoch Times that young voters in particular are seeking answers to the many problems facing the self-ruled island. With various political parties in the fray, they have ample alternatives.
Although Taiwan's elections are democratic, influence operations by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are working overtime. Influence operations have evolved in recent years, using sophisticated techniques to affect voters' perception of their reality in order to influence their choices.
"Taiwan is the frontline of all-out infiltration," James Lee, a Taiwan expert and highly placed source within the country, told The Epoch Times in an email.
By "all-out infiltration" Lee is referring to a disinformation campaign that operates across "military, society, media, metaverse."
"There's clear CCP influence everywhere. The government is trying to fight but it is a difficult battle nevertheless."
In this complicated situation, Lee believes that Taiwanese voters who continue to hold the baton of democracy are incessantly threatened by China's influence operations.
Mr. Lee characterized the Taiwanese election process as "very clean." In this context, the lead agenda of the CCP's cognitive warfare against the Taiwanese is to alter their perception of reality for the island democracy.
This type of cognitive warfare leads voters to ask questions such as "Is the U.S. really the good guy? Is China Taiwan's only option out? Can Taiwan defend itself?"
Disinformation like this is "designed to sow distrust in the society," Mr. Lee said.
"When people are used to [discarding] logic and can't agree on facts, democracy destabilizes," he added.
Candidates Vying for PresidencyEach of the candidates who has thrown his hat into the ring displays a different viewpoint vis-a-vis cross-strait relations, experts say. This forms the context for Chinese influence operations in Taiwan.
Fang Tien-sze, a sociology professor at Taiwan's National Tsing Hua University, notes that there are two doctors, one policeman, and one businessman contending in the upcoming elections. The diverse list not only denotes the vibrancy of Taiwanese democracy but also showcases the varied alternatives available to voters.
Lai Ching-te, 63, known in the English-speaking world as William Lai, is Taiwan's current vice president, chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and former premier (2017-2019). Before entering politics, he practiced medicine.
Hou Yu-ih, 65, of the Kuomintang (KMT)—Taiwan's largest opposition party—is the current mayor of New Taipei City, the former head of Taiwan's Central Police University, and the former director-general of the country's National Police Agency.
Different Outlooks for Cross-Strait RelationsAt a session organized by the New Delhi-based Center for China Analysis and Strategy on Aug. 21, Mr. Fang told the audience that each of the candidates projects a different outlook for the future of cross-strait relations.
If Mr. Lai wins it would mean a "continuous and conflictual relationship" with China.
Mr. Lai has been very vocal about peace in cross-strait relations. The country's current vice president has a stable lead in opinion polls, but Mr. Fang feels Mr. Lai would find it difficult to secure more than 40 to 45 percent of the vote.
He noted that Mr. Lai has been talking more about "pragmatism" than independence. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek on Aug. 15, Lai said he had no plans for Taiwan to declare independence if he is elected in the upcoming elections.
"We must abide by the truth—which is what I mean by pragmatism—which is Taiwan is already a sovereign, independent country called the Republic of China [ROC]. It is not part of the People’s Republic of China [PRC]," Mr. Lai told Bloomberg Businessweek.
"The ROC and PRC are not subordinate to one another. It is not necessary to declare independence."
Intimidation By Beijing and the '1992 Consensus'Simone Gao, a member of the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue University, told The Epoch Times in an email that the CCP has always used the occasion of national elections to “intimidate the Taiwanese people into believing that war is imminent if they elect someone who advocates so-called ‘Taiwan independence.’”
Ms. Gao underlined that "Xi Jinping thought" doesn’t accept Taiwan’s independence and instead talks about the island’s reunion with China.
“Beijing has favored those candidates who are for political and economic engagement with China, support the ‘1992 consensus’ that emphasizes the one-China stance, and, finally, strongly advocate avoiding war with China,” she said.
The "1992 consensus" refers to the outcome of a 1992 meeting between semi-formal authorities on each side tasked with managing cross-strait relations. Supposedly, the two sides reached a tacit understanding, with each acknowledging that there was "one China," but each maintaining their own interpretation of what the term means.
The 1992 consensus is a contentious concept, with critics maintaining that it failed to incorporate the will of the Taiwanese people.
According to Mr. Fang, Mr. Hou accepts a version of the 1992 consensus that conforms to the Taiwanese constitution, and has said he opposes interpreting the quasi-agreement as "one country, two systems."
Another scenario for cross-Strait relations, said the professor, is one proposed by Mr. Ko. Based on the idea that "the two sides of cross-Strait are one close family," this policy is based on "five mutuals," he said.
Mr. Fang defined the five factors as "mutual knowledge, mutual understanding, mutual respect, mutual cooperation, and mutual accommodation," whose purpose is to avert conflict and miscalculation between China and Taiwan.
The Dark Horse CandidateMr. Ko, whose subscribers and followers on social media surpass any other candidate—as well as current President Tsai Ing-wen—has been described as a “dark horse candidate” and Mr. Lai’s closest challenger in media reports. According to opinion polls, he lags behind Mr. Lai by 17 points but leads among voters under 40.
However, Mr. Lee cautioned that Mr. Ko requires closer scrutiny.
“Throughout his career, he's shifted positions several times. It's worth noting that in the metaverse, certain red outlets have shown support for him, and they seem to be influencing the Gen Z voters quite effectively,” he said.
Since Mr. Gou's announcement Aug. 28 that he was joining the presidential race, "the dynamics have progressed," Mr. Lee commented. "He will likely join with Ko to form an alliance, and now Hou must remain in the fight to ensure Taiwan will not flip the way of total pro-China," he added.
Bonnie Glaser, an American China expert, said during a panel discussion organized by the Brookings Institute on May 25 that Beijing would prefer Mr. Ko to win rather than Mr. Lai or Mr. Hou.
"They do know Ko Wen-je because he was mayor of Taipei, he went [visited China] and did a lot of collaborative things with the mainland for the Shanghai-Taipei conferences [and] meetings," she said.
Responding to Ms. Glaser’s remarks, Mr. Ko said on May 26 that he interprets her comments to mean that he’s "most capable of communicating with both China and the U.S."
Geoeconomics and ElectionsTaiwan’s multifaceted relationship with China means that China simultaneously represents a cultural connection, a security threat, and an economic opportunity—and all these are cross-cut in the minds of voters. The island’s geostrategic location and deep economic connections with China add a complex geoeconomic angle to its elections, according to experts.
“As the election approaches, Taiwan’s economy is expected to see a slowdown in growth, though this will likely be accompanied by a slowdown in price increases,” said Walters. “Meanwhile, Beijing is already using its trade relationship with Taiwan as a means to influence Taiwan’s election.”
Mr. Walters said Beijing’s use of economic tools as political coercion means Taiwan faced both “sticks and carrots” from China.
Beijing has used similar punitive tools before, not just limiting them to trade. Before the last elections, the Chinese regime imposed tourism restrictions on Taiwan.
The dynamics extend to the candidates' economic policies, vis-a-vis Taiwan's interests.
“Trade, wages, prices, and so much more affect Taiwan’s economy. Polling offers a roller coaster of opinions on how individuals perceive Taiwan’s economy, as well as the Tsai administration’s performance in managing it,” said Mr. Walter.
"It's a complete issue—you need to take into consideration that most Taiwanese businessmen made their money in or via China over the past 30 years. During the same period, the United States abandoned Taiwan to appease China. That forms a solid group of [KMT-led] pan-blue supporters," Mr. Lee said.
A Potential Alliance of 'Pan-Blues'Mr. Lee feels that a crucial factor would be a potential alliance between the "pan-blue" candidates. “If figures like Terry Gou of Foxconn were to align with others, it could create significant hurdles for Lai in the election,” Mr. Lee said.
The "pan-blue coalition" coalition of political parties view the Taiwanese government as the legitimate government of China. While initially, the pan-blue coalition favored reunification with China—in other words, incorporating the mainland into the ROC—it has modified its stance, rejecting immediate unification in favor of the status quo.
The Gen Z VoteOn the other hand, Mr. Lee noted, Mr. Lai's significant lead in the polls may reduce the need for his party to address pressing socio-economic issues. Those issues are what have particularly drawn younger Gen Z voters toward Mr. Ko, he said.
“As more of Gen Z and the upcoming Generation Alpha become politically active, this may pose challenges down the road,” he said.
Analysts and voter polls indicate that the DPP-led green coalition won a landslide victory in the past election largely through the support of young voters. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's 2020 victory came shortly after democracy protests in Hong Kong. Many feel that the protests galvanized younger voters.
“The new Gen Z cares more about domestic social-economic issues, which DDP unfortunately has failed to address for 8 years. That growing group of voters are accidental pro-China voters,” said Mr. Lee.