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On the Ground

China isn’t the only problem facing Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te

The international community has praised Taiwan’s democratic elections in the face of pressure from Beijing. But, as William Yang finds speaking to voters in Taipei, they are worried about a lack of jobs and affordable housing

Sunday 14 January 2024 14:17 GMT
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In the market for change: the newcomer TPP gathered strong support among young people disillusioned by the ruling and main opposition parties
In the market for change: the newcomer TPP gathered strong support among young people disillusioned by the ruling and main opposition parties (Getty)

For millions of Taiwanese people, this weekend’s presidential and parliamentary elections were an example of a vibrant democracy at work, despite the ire in Beijing that Lai Ching-te – also known as William Lai – had won an unprecedented third term in power for the pro-sovereignty Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“I think the result is a loud and clear message, from us to the rest of the world, that democracy is our preferred way of life and that Taiwan should be viewed and treated differently from China,” Angus Lai, a 23-year-old delivery worker, tells The Independent in the Taiwanese capital Taipei.

China sees Taiwan as part of its territory, and in the wake of the result, its foreign ministry put out a statement claiming: “The Taiwan question is China’s internal affair. Whatever changes take place in Taiwan, the basic fact that there is only one China in the world and Taiwan is part of China will not change.”

On Sunday, Taiwan’s own foreign ministry hit back, saying that such statements are “completely inconsistent with international understanding and the current cross-strait situation”. It added: “It goes against the expectation of global democratic communities and goes against the will of the people of Taiwan to uphold democratic values ... Such cliches are not worth refuting.”

While many Taiwanese people share this sentiment, some citizens remain concerned that the approach favoured by the government led by the DPP, which has tried to highlight the “Taiwan identity” as something that is unique and different from that of China, will continue to put the island under threat from Beijing, which has upped its military exercises around Taiwan in recent months.

A military-themed mural at a public park on Pingtan Island, the closest point in China to Taiwan’s main island, in China’s southeastern Fujian province (AFP/Getty)

“I really don’t think it’s a good idea for a small island like Taiwan to keep going against giant countries like China,” says Chin Szu, a 38-year-old engineer. “Instead of continuing to buy weapons from the US, I think the Taiwanese government should focus on maintaining business exchanges with China... like how the US and Russia engage with each other.”

Apart from concerns about Beijing’s military manoeuvres around Taiwan, some Taiwanese voters also worry that China may decide to adopt more forceful measures if its domestic problems, including a slowing economy, persist.

“What I worry about is, if China’s economic development and social problems can’t be resolved smoothly, Beijing may consider doubling down on the threat against Taiwan to divert the Chinese public’s attention from those domestic problems,” Emma Lin, a 47-year-old high school teacher, says.

One thing that she says she has witnessed in this election is how Beijing tries to influence Taiwan’s younger generation through content on social media platforms. She is worried that Taiwan is not well equipped to cope with such endeavours.

“To me, Taiwan faces a major problem of how to handle the challenges that come with China’s influence campaign against Taiwan’s civil society through false narratives,” she says.

Local newspapers mark the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s victory in the presidential election (AFP/Getty)

Despite the DPP winning an unprecedented third consecutive presidential term, its failure to secure a majority in the legislature, where no political party ended up having a majority, means it may struggle to implement certain policies, according to experts.

“It is possible that the Taiwan People’s Party [the TPP, whose candidate finished third in the presidential election] will work with the main opposition party Kuomintang [KMT] to win control over the legislature, and in the next two years, KMT and TPP will exercise their power to scrutinise whatever [the] government does and [will] try to claim credit for any political scandal they find,” Austin Wang, an expert on Taiwanese politics at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells The Independent.

In his view, the DPP may have to make some compromises in order that key social policies can be implemented. “Some compromises, such as increasing some key social welfare spending, may be made eventually ... but the [political] cost may be lower spending on defence," Wang says.

“The KMT [has] opposed increasing the national defence budget, and the TPP didn’t consider it the most urgent issue,” he adds.

Apart from facing potential pushback against efforts to strengthen Taiwan’s defence capabilities, other experts think the DPP also needs to properly address the economic issues that some young voters are most concerned about, including the low wages and unaffordable housing prices. During the elections, the newcomer party, the TPP, gathered strong support among young people disillusioned by the ruling and main opposition parties.

“The DPP needs to realise that the voters who supported the TPP in this election will remain a social force in Taiwan, so if the DPP fails to address their concerns properly in the third term, they may further lose support from this group of voters in the next presidential election,” says Yen Wei-ting, a political scientist at Franklin and Marshall College in the US.

Lin, the high-school teacher in Taipei, agrees that one of the new government’s first tasks should be tackling issues such as the rising cost of buying or renting a home, and the dwindling birth rate. “Young people’s anxieties, the unaffordable housing and Taiwan’s low birth rate are all issues that will continue to affect the younger generation in Taiwan, and I think the government should find a way to properly address them,” she says.

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