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Taiwan's upcoming election attracts the attention of China, the U.S. and others

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The people of Taiwan go to the polls tomorrow to pick a new president and legislature. It's an election that people in the region are closely watching because democratic Taiwan works closely with the U.S., but it is also claimed by China, which eventually wants to control the island. We're joined now by NPR's Emily Feng, who is in Taiwan covering the election, and John Ruwitch, who covers China and was recently in Beijing. Emily, let's start with you. They've only been directly electing leaders since the '90s, so how has this election been going?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, A. Yeah, this has been a raucous election, but that's normal. And I just want to give you a taste of what campaigning is like in Taiwan. I just came back from a rally in front of the presidential office, and it was a real party.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting in non-English language).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

FENG: You can hear from this rally how excited people are. But this has also been a dramatic election because for the first time in Taiwan's young democracy, we've seen a real third-party candidate compete with the two main contenders, the traditional KMT party and the DPP party, which is still in power. Also, this time around, there's been the usual mudslinging, there's been a few leaked sex tapes, there's been debates over housing policy and the economy. But the issue that's looming over everything, of course, is what to do about China.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, China, that's the big question. And Beijing, of course, considers Taiwan a part of China and wants to gain control of it eventually. So how has that factored into the campaigning and the election so far in Taiwan?

FENG: It is one of the biggest issues in the election. As usual, all the parties running in this election say Taiwan needs to strengthen its military, improve military training. But the difference is the KMT wants to strengthen trade with China. They want to open up cultural and academic exchanges because they see this exchange as the best way towards peace.

By contrast, the DPP, which is in power right now, says it wants to move trade away from China. And they're working on building up diplomatic ties against China because they believe this will strengthen their deterrence. But perhaps what matters most, arguably, is not what Taiwan does but the perception in Beijing of what Taiwan is doing. And in Beijing, leaders see that DPP's presidential hopeful in particular, William Lai, who's currently the vice president of the island, they see him as a genuine believer of Taiwan independence. And they fear if he's elected, he will end Beijing's aspiration of one day having control over Taiwan.

MARTÍNEZ: John Ruwitch, how is Beijing seeing all this?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Yeah, as you can imagine, the ruling Communist Party is watching things very closely. I mean, historically, they have, as Emily alluded, had a preference for the KMT. It's ironic because they fought a war against the KMT, which ended in 1949 with the KMT fleeing to Taiwan and setting up the government there. But in the modern political landscape, it's a more palatable party to Beijing. Beijing has called the DPP candidate, William Lai, a troublemaker and a separatist. His vice-presidential running mate has actually been sanctioned by China. And Beijing's describing this as a choice between war and peace. There are also allegations that the government in China has been waging an unprecedented campaign to try to influence the election in Taiwan through misinformation, cyberattacks, military saber rattling and even trade threats.

MARTÍNEZ: And, John, you were recently in China. Are people there paying much attention to this?

RUWITCH: Yeah, it's kind of a mixed bag, you know? It's, first of all, a really hard issue to gauge, right? The media in China is controlled by the state, the internet is censored, it's a highly sensitive topic. I did speak with a handful of people there about the election in recent weeks. Some flat declined to discuss it, some said they just weren't paying attention. They didn't see any relevance to their lives that this island separated by this small body of water was having an election. Others did say they were quietly following the issue. You know, NPR spoke with a woman who goes by the name Mary (ph). She didn't want her full name used because it's a sensitive topic. She lives in Wuhan and here's what she said to me.

MARY: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: She's saying she envies the freedoms that the people in Taiwan have, really, to vote, to openly advocate for their rights. You know, clearly there are loads of people in mainland China, obviously, who believe that Taiwan is a part of China and want to see it reunified with the mainland. But nobody we talked with, nobody I talked with, wants to see a war over the issue.

MARTÍNEZ: Nobody wants to see a war. Wow. OK, so I mean, will this election then change the cross-strait dynamics? Emily, you go first on that.

FENG: It really depends on who wins. If the opposition parties win in Taiwan, Beijing might feel a little relieved. But if it's a DPP win, if William Lai becomes the next president, tensions could escalate in the short term. This worries people in Taiwan, it also worries people in Washington, D.C., because they're worried China might use the election as an excuse to ramp up military exercises around Taiwan. I talked to Fang-Yu Chen, who's a political science professor at Soochow University here in Taipei, about his view on cross-straits issues after the election.

FANG-YU CHEN: Xi has to show that he's still able to control and he's not losing Taiwan and he can punish Taiwanese voters. However, I think that even if Taiwan elect a pro-China leader, then China will still increase the pressure.

FENG: Increase the pressure, meaning no matter who wins, China is likely going to test out whether they can get Taiwan to make more political concessions after the election. Also, I want to note that it's quite likely Taiwan's legislature is going to be divided among several political parties. That means political gridlock on policy issues like the national defense budget, for example, which is a gridlock that Taiwan might not be able to afford.

RUWITCH: Yeah, and on that bigger issue of cross-strait ties, it does seem quite possible, depending on who wins, that Beijing is going to ratchet up pressure. But the Chinese leadership may not be eager at this point to take it beyond that. Shelley Rigger is a political scientist at Davidson College who follows this stuff, and I asked her about the Chinese leadership's calculus here.

SHELLEY RIGGER: They have not yet decided that there's no chance for a peaceful outcome in alignment with their preferences. Nor, I think, is the PRC confident that if it were to, you know, use military action that it would be successful.

RUWITCH: But what she and others have told me is that a lot of this is going to hinge on the words of the president-elect, what he says on election night, what he says at the inauguration in May and beyond.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR international correspondents John Ruwitch and Emily Feng in Taipei. Thanks, you two.

FENG: Thanks, A.

RUWITCH: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF RRAREBEAR'S "BACKPACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
John Ruwitch
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.