A few days before the Taiwanese election, Chou Tzuyu, a 16-year-old Taiwanese performer was forced into a humiliating mea culpa on camera, apologising for the 'crime' of waving the Taiwanese national flag on a Korean TV show.
The visibly distressed teenager read a prepared script to atone. She said: 'There is only one China,' and 'the two sides of the strait are one, and I have always felt proud to be Chinese'. Mainland Chinese nationalist tabloids and netizens hailed the event as a great success over Taiwanese independence.
In Taiwan, however, the apology was greeted with dismay and anger. All three presidential candidates denounced the heavy-handed treatment and, more significantly, many younger Taiwanese used Saturday's election to vent their anger at the pro-Beijing Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
In fact, some election analysts and commentators believe the ‘Tzuyu' factor turned the inevitable defeat of KMT into a rout. The pro-Independence Democratic Progress Party won a landslide victory with 56.1% of the vote meaning DPP leader Dr Tsai Ing-Wen will soon become the first female head-of-state in the Chinese-speaking world.
The KMT candidate Eric Chu, received just 30.1% of votes. The ruling party is deeply unpopular with the electorate and the approval rating for out-going President Ma Jing-jeou’s had dipped below 20%, thanks in large part to growing scepticism about President Ma’s China engagement policy.
The president-elect is riding high on the anti-KMT sentiment as well as the desire of the younger generation of Taiwanese to forge a new identity, one which is separate and distinct from the increasingly irrelevant notion of Republic of China on Taiwan.
Tsai’s party also has an absolute majority in the legislative yuan, the country’s parliament. The overwhelming popular mandate plus parliament majority means the incoming president has both political capital and legislative freedom.
However, this could yet become a double-edged sword. Among Tsai’s parliamentary colleagues are some whose desire for independence is stronger than her own. This group could team up with 'deep green' supporters of DPP in calling for a hard-line stance on the issue of sovereignty. As Douglas Paal, the vice-president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the former unofficial American ambassador to Taipei has warned, this 'could get messy’.
Tsai will have to walk a tightrope between reflecting and respecting the popular will in Taiwan while maintaining stable relations across the Taiwan Straits, which means observing the political fiction that Taiwan and the Mainland belong to the same mystical and inseparable China.
The new president will have not just Beijing to keep onside; Tsai has to get Washington to support her cross-strait policy too. The US is a key security guarantor of the country through the Taiwan Relations Act as well as supplier of arms. Paal argues it is in the US interest that Tsai 'continue the moderate, even conservative and reassuring approach to cross-strait affairs that she adopted before the election'.
To Tsai’s credit, she has adopted a much more constructive tone on the China policy than the previous DPP party leader and president Chen Shui-bian. His confrontational approach with Beijing generated considerable tensions between Taipei, Beijing and Washington. Even the Americans regarded him as a troublemaker.
The bottom line for Beijing is that Tsai has to come around to the so-called ‘1992 consensus', which says both Taiwan and Beijing recognise there is one China, but they can interpret it differently. The Chinese authorities have attached great importance to this formula, especially after the historic meeting between the outgoing President Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping last year.
The president-elect has made it known she will not use the term ‘1992 consensus'. But it is not clear if that means she will not agree to the substance of the formula, which is about maintaining the legal fiction of 'One China’. Much hinges on her choice of language and many will be listening carefully to both what she says and how she says it at the inauguration ceremony.
So far, Beijing has restrained from interfering or even commenting too much on Taiwan’s internal politics. However, if Tsai decides to take a more radical approach, we can expect a potentially hostile reaction from a more muscular and militarily confident Xi administration. We should bear in mind that Beijing passed an anti-secession law a decade ago that is aimed squarely at Taiwan.
So far, the evidence points toward a moderate and constructive approach by Tsai. She won tacit approval of her cross-strait policy (as well as her candidacy) during a visit to Washington in 2015.
It may well be that Beijing will have to accept Tsai favouring a formula it likes less than the ‘1992 consensus.' Amid territorial disputes and other quarrels around the region, the last thing China is looking for is another hostile neighbour right on its door step.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Nekonomist