Barely a year after her party's crushing defeat in Taiwan's local elections, President Tsai Ing-wen not only survived a cigarette smuggling scandal and accusations of a campaign of spreading disinformation, she rose like a phoenix from the ashes with a landslide victory in last week's presidential election.
Many think Tsai has Chinese President Xi Jinping to thank for this reversal of fortune. His overtures to Taiwan advocating "one country, two systems" for the island allowed Tsai to reinvent herself as the "Taiwanese Spice Sister" by rejecting the framework outright.
She should also thank young Taiwanese voters, who have developed a knee-jerk aversion to communist China and are anxious to be heard.
But have the Kuomintang and Chinese government heard them? China's one country, two systems model has suffered two major setbacks in the past two months, first in Hong Kong's district council elections, then in the Taiwanese presidential and general elections. While the nature of these elections differ materially, they reveal how young voters are shaping the politics of both societies.
The KMT's fall from grace again was fast and furious. Only a year ago, Han Kuo-yu, the future KMT presidential candidate, scored an upset victory in the mayoral race in Kaohsiung, traditionally a Democratic Progress Party stronghold. He created such a following among non-partisan and young voters that it helped the KMT clinch 15 mayoral seats in total.
But Han's popularity rating took a beating as Hong Kong's anti-extradition-law protests raged on in the summer. As one media commentator observed, his approval rating among the younger generations was especially low.
Young voters drove the record 75 per cent turnout in the presidential election. Reportedly, Han's closing rally at the Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei, which according to his camp drew more than 1 million people, spurred youngsters to get out and vote. Millennials bought into the DPP's argument that Han was "selling out Taiwan to China".
Infighting has been a problem for the KMT. Tycoon Terry Gou, the candidate of choice for the party establishment, lost to Han in the bitterly contested primary and refused to endorse Han. Thus, as the nominee, Han had difficulty rounding up the support of some party heavyweights.
More critically, the KMT has yet to find a viable alternative to the "1992 consensus", which China has endorsed as the requisite basis for cross-strait relations but which, as these elections again showed, has lost traction among Taiwanese voters.
The 1992 consensus provides that both sides of the Taiwan Strait agree there is only one China - but which China? The KMT's formula has been "one country, two interpretations" - with "one country" referring to the Republic of China that was established in 1911 in the KMT's interpretation, and to the People's Republic of China in Beijing's interpretation.
But the KMT can no longer rely on such strategic ambiguity, as young voters simply do not buy it. Its lack of a clearly articulated position vis-A-vis China will continue to be its Achilles' heel.
As the population of Taiwan's "first-generation mainlanders" - those who went to Taiwan following the KMT's retreat during the civil war - shrinks, it is not surprising that the younger generations are at the forefront of an erosion of Chinese identity among Taiwanese.
A 2018 survey conducted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy found that among the group aged 20-24, the percentage of Taiwanese supporting authoritarianism was lower than that in Europe and the United States. Although the percentage of the group aged 25-34 accepting authoritarianism was higher than in Europe, it was still lower than in the US.
In both Europe and the US, young people support the authoritarian system more than the older generations; however, Taiwan is just the opposite: the younger a voter, the more opposed to authoritarianism. The 2020 election result bore out this observation.
According to the Central Election Commission of Taiwan, there were some 1.18 million first-time voters this year. Taiwan has 5 million voters aged between 20 and 35, accounting for one-quarter of the total eligible voters.
In past elections, the voting rates of young people aged 20 to 35 were generally between 50 and 60 per cent, about 20 percentage points lower than the rate for the older groups, according to the Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy. This is because young people tend to work away from home and do not return to their registered addresses to vote.
But this time around, a sense of urgency drove many youngsters to the ballot box. A campaign jointly organised by the Taiwan Youth Association for Democracy, the National Students' Union of Taiwan, and the student unions of 59 colleges raised funds for the bus fare to go home and raised awareness of the importance of returning to vote.
KMT chairman Wu Den-yih has heeded the calls for him to step down, but it is unclear whether the 100-year old party can reinvent itself. A weakened KMT could spell disaster for Taiwan's democracy as it would clear the way for the DPP to assume de facto one-party rule for the foreseeable future, benefiting from the strategic rivalry between the US and China.
There are signs that the DPP could be utilising "state apparatus" to quash dissent and free speech. National Taiwan University professor Su Hung-dah, who in 2018 criticised the National Palace Museum's planned "rebranding" to dilute its Chinese association, said he was recently investigated by the authorities for the comment.
With the DPP in power for the next four years, I expect China to step up its propaganda indoctrination and efforts to isolate Taiwan economically and politically, while simultaneously doling out incentives to lure talent from Taiwan.
But such an approach will inevitably further alienate Taiwan's young voters, as the KMT's defeat demonstrates. For the sake of Taiwan's democracy, the KMT must restructure itself around the needs of the young generation and rethink its narrative about the cross-strait relationship.
Chiu-Ti Jansen, with advanced degrees from Yale and Columbia, is the founder of multimedia platform China Happenings and a former corporate partner of international law firm Sidley Austin
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