In a private meeting with the Financial Times last May, the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, was far from confident she would secure her party’s nomination, let alone win a second term.
But on Saturday she led her Democratic Progressive party to crushing victory with a landslide in presidential and legislative elections. The person Ms Tsai should thank above all others is the embattled chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam.
Almost as soon as Hong Kong’s massive pro-democracy protests erupted into violent confrontations between demonstrators and police in June, Ms Tsai began to rise in the polls.
The more harshly Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed government cracked down on the protests, the more her popularity increased.
The demonstrations were initially triggered by Ms Lam’s plan to introduce legislation that would have allowed a man who murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan to be extradited to the self-ruled island. But it would also have allowed people wanted in mainland China to be sent to face Communist party-controlled courts that are notorious for miscarriages of justice and political prosecutions.
Ms Lam’s real intention was revealed when she insisted on pushing ahead with the legislation even after Taiwan announced it would not co-operate or accept the accused murderer’s return under the proposed law.
After months of increasingly violent and chaotic protest Ms Lam finally withdrew the bill, but by then the demonstrations had evolved into a much broader call for universal suffrage in the territory.
On the self-ruled island of Taiwan, the only place in the Chinese-speaking world with real democracy, Ms Tsai’s political resurrection was by then complete.
Before the Hong Kong demonstrations began she was polling around 30 per cent, while her main opponent, Kuomintang candidate Han Kuo-yu, who is seen as friendlier to China, was sitting above 50 per cent. On Saturday, Ms Tsai secured 57 per cent of the vote while Mr Han received around 38 per cent.
This astonishing swing was helped by very shrewd messaging that played on Taiwanese fears of being absorbed into an increasingly totalitarian People’s Republic of China.
“Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan,” was Ms Tsai’s warning to the Taiwanese people, contrasting her tough stance with her opponent’s appeasement of Beijing.
“The young people of Hong Kong have demonstrated with their lives, blood and tears that the ‘one country, two systems’ framework does not work,” Ms Tsai said at her final campaign rally on Friday night. “Tomorrow will be our turn to show the people of Hong Kong that the values of freedom and democracy will conquer all difficulties.”
It is clear the Communist party’s dream of using the former British colony as a model for Taiwan’s political future is now completely dead.
But that raises the question of whether Beijing would at some point try to take the island by force, something it has vowed to do if “necessary”.
Taiwan is already regarded as a key support base for the protest movement in Hong Kong. If the situation should escalate into a more violent insurgency it is likely Taiwan would continue to provide support, thereby raising the chances of a Chinese attack on the island.
There is no doubt Ms Tsai’s landslide is a victory for the forces of liberal democracy. But it has probably also made the region just a bit more dangerous. [email protected]