“1/11: I’m going home!”

Emma J. Teng, Professor at M.I.T., and Wen-hui Anna Tang, Professor at National Sun Yat-sen University Taiwan, discuss democratic values in Taiwan’s election.

Election rally for Tsai Ing-wen, Jan. 10, 2020, Kaohsiung. Photo: Wen-hui Tang

In the lead up to Taiwan’s election on January 11, 2020, a television ad featuring young voters promoted a heartwarming narrative exhorting busy 20-somethings to put aside their daily routines to travel home and vote, to protect their democracy and to show pride in their freedom.

The tagline, “January 11: your home is waiting for you; your country is also waiting for you,” underscored the repetition of “home” (jia) in the Chinese word for “country/homeland (guojia).” Since Taiwan does not permit absentee balloting, voting day thus means a crush of travel home, not only for students and military servicemen, but also Taiwanese living abroad, thousands of whom returned to exercise their treasured right to vote.

The evocation of home was meant to appeal to the younger generation’s sense of pride in Taiwan’s democracy and their desire to uphold the island’s democratic way of life. Yet, the notion of “home” also begs the question that has to some degree been at the center of this presidential election: what to Taiwan’s voters is “home” and how does “home” relate to “country”?

Whereas DPP incumbent, Tsai Ing-wen, pitched her campaign to voters who embrace Taiwan as home, KMT contender, Han Guoyu and People First Party candidate, James Soong, targeted those who favor closer ties with China, the ancestral homeland of the majority of Taiwan’s population, and the current domicile of some 1 million Taiwanese businessmen and their families. Identity issues thus once again animated this election — though a KMT campaign truck blaring the slogan “oppose Taiwanese independence, oppose gay marriage” (pictured below) is a reminder of the multiple layers of identity issues in Taiwan today.

KMT campaign truck, Taipei, Jan. 9, 2020. Photo credit: Emma Teng

Unfolding against the backdrop of the escalating protest movement in Hong Kong, as well as ongoing trade tensions between the US and China (not to mention Beijing‘s usual election-year saber-rattling in the Taiwan Strait), the “China factor” loomed large in this election cycle — further complicated by suspected Russian-style election meddling by Beijing.

Concerns over China’s influence gave rise to the biggest buzzword of the campaign season: “dried mango” (mangguo gan). A play on words for “wangguo gan,” the fear that if the opposition wins the election the whole country will be doomed for destruction, this trending internet phrase expressed the mood of existential anxiety over Taiwan’s future that permeated the election. “Dried mango” and related memes went viral among Taiwan youth in response to the escalating protest movement in Hong Kong. Media images of police violence against Hong Kong activists, many of them students or recent graduates just entering the workforce, particularly impacted the younger generation, prompting some to reflect on whether Taiwan might one day find itself in a similar situation: “Today, Hong Kong; tomorrow, Taiwan?” Which candidate could best secure Taiwan’s future thus emerged as a key question of this election.

The two leading candidates offered very different visions. With her campaign slogan “Resist China, Defend Taiwan,” Tsai trumpeted her efforts to reduce dependency on China and face Taiwan toward the global stage. In contrast, Han’s campaign promised “Safety for the Country, Money for the People” through increased engagement with China. These dueling visions exemplify what political economist Shirley Lin has called “Taiwan’s China dilemma”: that is, “how to preserve a country’s democracy and freedom while maintaining economic relations with a neighboring giant that wants to subsume it.”

While Tsai has consistently rejected Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model, Han came under attack for failure to take a clear position on this question. Mounting public concern over Hong Kong compelled Han to backpedal on his pro-China stance, leaving him open to accusations of flip-flopping. The fierce contest over the China dilemma led both parties to be charged with “selling dried mango”: in other words, fear mongering to win votes.

That “dried mango” could become such a crucial keyword in this election indicates the growing influence of younger voters. Taiwan’s media increasingly relies on the internet and social media to gauge popular trends, and these domains are largely dominated by the young generation. Ads aimed at galvanizing the youth vote indicate recognition of their importance as a voting bloc. And as political scientist Shelly Rigger has shown, the native-born “Sunflower Generation,” named after the student protests of 2014, overwhelmingly sees itself as Taiwanese. Polling conducted in late November and early December 2019 showed that 63% of respondents in the 20–29 age cohort favored Tsai, with only 24% favoring Han.

Tsai’s popularity with this cohort can be explained by several factors: her support of Taiwan’s same-sex marriage bill; younger voters’ rising sense of nationalism in response to Hong Kong’s anti-extradition bill protests; and her generally progressive and environmentalist policies. Considering these strands together shows how complicated Taiwan identity issues have become. This election also saw a record number of young candidates for the legislature, across the three parties.

As we wrote for this blog four years ago, Tsai Ing-wen’s election as president in 2016 was historic as the election of Taiwan’s first female president, a triumph not only for Tsai but also for women throughout East Asia, and indeed across the world (we note that the U.S. has yet to elect a female president). Her landslide victory in the 2020 election, with over 57% of the vote (versus 38.6% for Han), sets yet another historic record as the largest margin of victory in Taiwan’s presidential elections: a major step forward for women in politics in East Asia, though it raises questions about future relations with China, and hence the US.

Whatever the implications for China-Taiwan relations, this is also a good moment to pause and reflect: amid global events such as Brexit, mounting tensions in the Persian Gulf, and ongoing protests in Hong Kong, the fact that this small island of 23,000,000 people quietly and routinely carried out a democratic election for president, with approximately 19,311,105 (nearly 75% voter turn-out) traveling home to their polling stations by planes, trains, and automobiles, is a bright spot in our world today.

As we heard a number of Taiwan voters say: “it doesn’t matter which candidate you vote for, what’s important is that in a democracy we all have the freedom to make our individual choice.”

Emma J. Teng is T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations and MacVicar Faculty Fellow at M.I.T., and Wen-hui Anna Tang is Professor in Si-wan College at National Sun Yat-sen University, Kaohsiung, Taiwan.