- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 28, 2019

Taipei, TAIWAN — Accusations of foreign collusion by a conservative political party. Talk of fake news. Dire warnings that the upcoming presidential election may be the country’s last.

No, not (just) in America. Taiwan, that feisty enclave of Chinese democracy, is being riven by internal politics that rival our own in viciousness.

Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, faces a challenging re-election battle in January. Ms. Tsai, of the liberal Democratic Progressive Party, is detested by the regime in Beijing, which has punished tiny Taiwan since her election in 2016.

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Beijing, outraged by Ms. Tsai and the DPP’s perceived sympathy for Taiwanese independence, has unofficially sanctioned Taiwan for the past three years, blocking Chinese tourism to the island as economic punishment, engaging in cyber warfare, and initiating a campaign to kick Taiwan out of the few international organizations it still has access to. Beijing also has been plucking off Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic allies. A mere 17 countries now maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei, and most are small and insignificant. (Sorry, Tuvalu.)

The conservative-leaning Kuomintang (KMT), traditionally the Chinese Communist Party’s most hardened foe, blames Ms. Tsai for mucking up Taipei’s most important economic relationship. In a series of meetings here arranged by the East-West Center and Ming Chuan University, KMT officials, including a foreign minister in the prior presidential administration, castigated Ms. Tsai for being needlessly “provocative,” citing, among other actions, her demand last year that Beijing recognize the Republic of China government. Two months later, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a remarkably provocative speech in return, raising the specter of “one country, two systems,” the promise that Beijing made when it absorbed Hong Kong and Macau.

Whether Ms. Tsai has harmed her country’s interests during her tenure is a perfectly legitimate question for the DPP and the KMT to debate in the coming year. Her attitude toward Beijing has undeniably harmed Taiwan’s economic and political prospects. On the other hand, there’s a strong case that she is correct not to submit to the Chinese Communist Party’s bullying. Beijing, after all, should not have a veto over the legitimate democratic choices of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens.

What’s disturbing, therefore, is that the ruling administration all too often refuses to have the debate on those terms. Officials instead blame the media for Ms. Tsai’s troubles and even suggest darkly that the KMT is somehow in league with Beijing.

A meeting this week at the Mainland Affairs Council, the government department responsible for managing cross-strait relations, was instructive. Deputy director Chen Ming-chi suggested that Beijing is “using channels of influence developed [during the previous KMT] presidency” to “penetrate our society” and “take over Taiwan.” They’re doing this, Mr. Chen suggested, by boosting KMT candidates, such as Han Guo-yu, the Kaohsiung mayor widely expected to challenge Ms. Tsai later this year. Mr. Han just embarked on a controversial trip to Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China, where he actually met with Communist officials. He makes no secret that he wants to improve Taiwan’s economic ties with China.

Mr. Han has been heavily touted in several Taiwanese media outlets because, some say, those outlets’ owners have significant business interests on the mainland. Mr. Chen is scathing about the Taiwanese media’s role in society, which he says is unfairly slanted against the government. “We want our side of the story to be heard,” he said, even suggesting “requiring the media to give [the government] equal space,” an unsettling suggestion in the Asian country with the freest media culture.

China also has been blamed for spreading disinformation on social media channels to undermine the DPP’s reign, such as a viral (and fake) story about Taiwanese farmers, beggared by the government’s economic policies that have stifled agriculture exports to the mainland, dumping their fruit in a river to increase prices. All in all, Mr. Chen says, should the “wrong” candidate win in January, “next year’s election will be Taiwan’s last meaningful election, [because] 2020 will be the beginning of unification.”

It’s a stark warning, if a mite demagogic. As Americans know all too well, political debate becomes impossible once a major political party is accused of doing the bidding of a hostile foreign power, rather than having legitimate policies.

Should Han Guo-yu win the presidency in January, one might even expect a “collusion” investigation to arise. The good news is, Robert Mueller now has some free time.

• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.

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