Election of a New President of Free China Represents a Victory for Democracy in Face of Threats From the People’s Republic on the Mainland

Lai Ching-te, though, wins by only a plurality in a hard-fought three-way race in which the Nationalists emerge with control of the legislative yuan.

AP/Chiang Ying-ying
Supporters of Free China's 2024 presidential election candidate, Taiwan vice president Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, cheer after Mr. Lai's victory, at Taipei, Taiwan. AP/Chiang Ying-ying

The election of Lai Ching-te as president of the Republic of China represents a victory for democracy in the face of threats from Beijing to invade the province of Taiwan to which Free Chinese forces fled in 1949 as Mao’s Red Army was conquering the mainland.

The stunning aspect of the election is that it was a referendum on distinct approaches to dealing with Beijing’s claims to an island that stands as an exemplar of freedom and democracy in a restive region. Mr. Lai, who has been vice president of the Republic of China under the outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen, has made clear he will govern Taiwan as a sovereign, independent entity.

Like Ms. Tsai, however, he will avoid challenging Beijing by declaring Taiwan’s “independence” as a nation separate from the People’s Republic of China on the mainland. Mr. Lai’s leading opponent, the candidate of the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, Hou Yu-ih, has called for moderation and dialogue with Beijing. At the same time, he rejected a scheme for national “unity” that President Xi seeks as a step on the way to Beijing rule — and a ruthless repression of democracy. 

Beijing may not live up to its rhetorical nonsense about the election as a choice between war or peace, but we may expect Mr. Xi to order periodic intimidation by air and naval exercises.  One goal will be to deepen divisions between Mr. Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party and Mr. Hou’s Kuomintang, which won a slim majority over the DPP in Taiwan’s legislative yuan, or parliament. 

Beijing will also count on the failure of Mr. Lai to win a majority of the votes for president. Let us not forget that Mr. Hou might have won had a third-party candidate, Ko Wen-je, not insisted on campaigning as leader of his own Taiwan People’s Party. The final tally shows Mr. Lai with 40.1 percent of the votes versus 33.5 percent for Mr. Hou and 26.5 percent for Mr. Ko, who’s all for  dialogue with Beijing but not at the expense of Taiwan’s “autonomy.” 

The vote count for both the presidency and the legislative yuan means Mr. Lai will have to be extremely careful in dealing with political foes at home as well as with Beijing.  In his quest for popularity, he may prefer to give an appearance, at least, of prioritizing domestic issues, including wages, rising prices, and youth unemployment.

If push does come to shove with Beijing, Mr Lai will have one advantage in the form of his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim.  Vice President-elect Hsiao served for three years as “Taiwanese representative to the United States,” a title reflecting the fact that Taiwan and Washington have lacked diplomatic relations since 1979, when President Carter recognized the People’s Republic of China and withdrew recognition from the Republic of China. 

American-educated and the daughter of a Taiwanese father and an American mother, Miss Hsiao was highly effective as Taiwan’s de facto ambassador. She may be expected to tighten the bond with Washington while Mr.  Lai fends off Beijing’s demands. That’s even more reason to cheer his — and her — victory in a classic exercise of democratic freedom. It presents a stark contrast with the way the Communists rule the mainland without the consent of the governed.


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