- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2020

The growing threat posed by mainland China and the challenge to Beijing’s reunification policy seen in mass protests in Hong Kong are providing the backdrop as voters in Taiwan go to the polls Saturday to pick the island’s next president.

Once down by 30 points, President Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has surged in polls and is now favored to win a second four-year term in a race with opposition Kuomintang (KMT) Party candidate Han Kuo-yu.

Taiwan’s past presidential elections were more focused on domestic issues such as health care, mass transit, graft and corruption, pension reform and taxes. But Beijing’s mishandling of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy mass demonstrations, which have stretched over six months and show no signs of abating, has brought the threat posed by China to the forefront for voters.

The result is that the candidate China most opposes because of her pro-independence policies has garnered widespread popular support.

Before the onset of the Hong Kong protests in June, Ms. Tsai was hurt by charges of cronyism in political appointments and her push for legislation legalizing same-sex marriage.

Then in December, a hard-line speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping triggered fears of mainland coercion in Taiwan. Mr. Xi warned that reunification of the mainland and Taiwan, where Nationalists fled during a civil war decades ago, is inevitable.

“We are willing to create broad space for peaceful reunification but will leave no room for any form of separatist activities,” Mr. Xi declared. “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of using all necessary means.”

The means include an estimated 1,200 Chinese missiles deployed within range of Taiwan that are a potent reminder of a potential conflict.

The Xi speech was seen as a blunt rejection of Ms. Tsai’s promise that Taiwan would never adopt the Chinese reunification formulation known as “one country, two systems.” Ms. Tsai noted in an October speech that the policy had left Hong Kong on the edge of disorder.

“China is still threatening to impose its ‘one country, two systems’ model for Taiwan. Their diplomatic offensives and military coercion pose a serious challenge to regional stability and peace,” Ms. Tsai said. “When freedom and democracy are challenged, and when the Republic of China’s existence and development are threatened, we must stand up and defend ourselves.”

That message appears to resonate with Taiwanese voters, who polls say favor the anti-communist policies over those of the KMT’s more accommodationist stance.

Opinion polls show Ms. Tsai leading Mr. Han 53% to 20%. A third candidate, James Soong of the centrist People First Party, which is politically close to the KMT, is polling at around 8.5%.

Hong Kong fallout

Mass protests in Hong Kong were set off in June when Beijing sought to encroach on the former British colony’s legal system. Draft legislation would have allowed for judicial extradition to China, where the Communist Party controls the courts.

The Hong Kong protests have set back Beijing’s efforts toward reunification.

A senior State Department official said this week that the Trump administration was concerned about Chinese meddling in the Taiwanese election but added that the process appears stable.

“We haven’t seen any indications — at least certainly not from the Taiwanese — of any nefarious activity,” the senior official told reporters, adding that the U.S. policy goal is “to encourage a functioning and proven democratic process in Taiwan.”

“The U.S. takes no interest in who wins,” the official added. “The fact that the process stays sacrosanct is what’s important, as it is in our own election process.”

The key to addressing external election interference is to educate the population. “As far as I can tell, the Taiwanese are aware of the potential for that sort of interference,” the official said.

Observers say revelations of Chinese election meddling have hardened voters’ views against such activity.

John Tkacik, a former State Department official closely involved in Taiwanese issues, said Chinese intelligence agencies and the United Front Work Department, Beijing’s influence agency, have aggressively sought to influence voters in Taiwan through disinformation and social media. That produced unexpected political setbacks for the DPP in local and municipal elections last year.

“In these last days of Taiwan’s 2020 general election, voters are now well aware of what the Chinese did,” Mr. Tkacik said. “They are far more sophisticated about fake news than in November of 2018. And Taiwan opinion polling reflects that voters won’t be fooled again this time.”

Mr. Tkacik said China has not abandoned its efforts to sway opinion in Taiwan but that its cyberwarfare and social media disinformation campaign is becoming more sophisticated and subtle.

“And no doubt the Chinese, as well as others, will attempt similar infiltration of American media in the coming months,” he said.

Ray Burghardt, a former chairman of the board of trustees at the American Institute in Taiwan, said the recent Hong Kong elections that swept pro-Beijing legislators out of office have had a profound impact on Saturday’s vote.

“Beijing’s ‘one country, two systems’ was already unpopular in Taiwan,” Mr. Burghardt said. “The Hong Kong situation has left that formula totally discredited. Even Han Kuo-yu has rejected ‘one country, two systems,’ but the Hong Kong situation has made his enthusiasm about improving relations with mainland China [look] much less appealing to Taiwan voters than it did in 2018 when he was elected Kaohsiung mayor.”

Under President Trump, the United States has increased ties with Taiwan by authorizing greater travel by high-level U.S. officials and selling billions of dollars in new weapons, including the first sales of F-16 jets since the 1980s.

The KMT’s Mr. Han, who was elected mayor of the southern city of Kaohsiung in November 2018, has battled criticism that he and the KMT are too accommodating to China, and details about covert Chinese election support from a Chinese defector in Australia have fueled further suspicions.

Mr. Han has come under fire for advocating closer ties with China despite denouncing the “one country, two systems” formulation.

Mr. Han initially gained widespread support and emerged as a more populist candidate, but he has been unable to dispel concerns about his pro-Beijing views, which many fear will lead to a mainland takeover of Taiwan.

As Kaohsiung mayor, he has sought to build stronger tourism and business ties with China. His campaign slogans emphasize the Chinese “family” and that the island, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province, is safe and prosperous.

Ms. Tsai’s policy toward Beijing “is like a runaway train,” Mr. Han told Taiwan News in October. “Tsai’s cross-strait policy is simply ‘hatred of China, self-harm to Taiwan.’”

Chinese support

The Chinese defector, Wang Liqiang, disclosed in a 17-page document obtained by The Washington Times that China’s military intelligence service provided $1.44 million to support Mr. Han’s campaign and other pro-China political activities in Taiwan. Mr. Han denied the accusations and said in response that he would withdraw from the presidential race if it were proved he accepted any money from the Chinese Communist Party.

The defector also said the Chinese have launched covert influence operations using Taiwanese news media and on social media platforms attacking the DPP.

“A most typical case was that donations were made to Han Kuo-yu through many so-called overseas donations,” Mr. Wang stated. “Over [$2.9 million] was donated in the name of overseas donations from Hong Kong,” and many of the funds “were sent out through me.”

The defector said that if the pro-mainland KMT wins the presidential election, the outcome will “boost China’s bargaining power in its trade war with the U.S.”

Taiwanese authorities are investigating the defector’s claims but have not commented publicly. A Chinese couple identified by Mr. Wang as the spy master and his wife behind the Chinese influence operations in Taiwan and Hong Kong have been detained in Taiwan.

China at one point shifted its backing of Mr. Han to Foxconn founder Terry Gou because Beijing believed he would be easier to control, the statement said. Mr. Gou pulled out of the presidential race in September.

Taiwan’s government has been closely monitoring Chinese election meddling. A September report by the National Security Council stated that Beijing “has recently carried out a relentless campaign of military, diplomatic, economic, and political threats and intimidation against Taiwan.”

The report said the stepped-up pressure was a response to Ms. Tsai’s rejection of reunification on China’s terms, China’s fears that Hong Kong protests would spread to China and growing sentiment in Taiwan against the mainland.

“Many feel that China’s attempt to sway this upcoming election constitutes the most serious challenge to Taiwan’s national sovereignty and democratic political system in the past several decades,” the report said.

Australia’s The Age newspaper disclosed Wednesday that Mr. Wang was pressured to recant his disclosures about Chinese election meddling and other covert influence operations. Mr. Wang was told through two intermediaries, one in Taiwan and one in China, that his family would be spared punishment and his debts repaid if he issued a public statement retracting his claims, which he first made in November.

The newspaper reported that the Chinese wanted Mr. Wang to go public in a video to falsely claim that the DPP had paid him to lie.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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