Tsai Ing-wen tallied up 56 percent of the vote to become Taiwan’s first female president on Saturday. Her election also marks the end of eight years in power for the Kuomintang Party, which was much more favorably aligned with China than Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party.
This led Beijing to muse ominously about the “grave challenges to cross-strait relations” resulting from Taiwan’s elections. Those musings appeared in an editorial from China’s state-run Xinhua news agency, which actually put the word “presidential” in scare quotes, lest anyone doubt the contempt Beijing holds for the legitimacy of Taiwan’s government.
“As the cornerstone of cross-Straits relations, the consensus insists there is only one China, of which both the mainland and Taiwan are a part, though the meaning of ‘one China’ is open to interpretation by both sides,” Xinhua lectured the new Taiwanese president. “For a Taiwan leader, whether to accept the consensus or not decides which direction he or she would lead the island in: peace and stability, or conflicts and tension. The issue bears no ambiguity.”
The Xinhua editorial goes on to demand Tsai live up to her “reportedly expressed wishes” about Beijing and Taipei working together for peace across the Taiwan Straits.
And if she gets any funny ideas about interpreting “one China” in a way Beijing does not like, Xinhua sternly warns that “under no circumstance should the differences be used as excuses to seek Taiwan independence, which means war, as the mainland’s Anti-Secession Law suggests.”
“The bottom line shall never be tested,” Xinhua’s editors declared. “Any attempt to steer the island closer to independence will be a fool’s errand.”
CNN notes the Taiwan Affairs Office in China echoed the state-run paper’s editorial stance by warning Tsai’s government to avoid “any form of secessionist activities seeking ‘Taiwan independence.'”
Tsai’s voters sound considerably more independence-minded than China would like, and they are not all excitable youths. “I voted for DPP, because it’s very critical time for the Taiwan people. We have our own democracy systems, we will not be influenced by China,” 55-year-old Taipei professor Tsai Cheng-an told CNN.
One young person who did have a significant impact on the Taiwanese election is Chou Tzuyu, a 16-year-old from Taiwan who sings in a South Korean girl group called Twice. Chou was appearing in an online variety show when she was seen waving the flag of Taiwan’s Republic of China, prompting accusations that she supported Taiwanese independence. A lucrative New Year’s Eve engagement for Twice in China was canceled, and Chou’s production company felt obliged to cancel her other Chinese appearances.
This was only a prelude to the young singer’s galvanizing effect on the Taiwanese election. Presumably at the urging of her panicked production company, Chou posted a humiliating “hostage video” online, in which she read a groveling apology for waving the ROC flag, declared herself fully supportive of “one China” dogma, and announced she would take some time off to “seriously reflect” on her actions.
As the BBC reports, the “apology” backfired, and although election analysts thought Tsai was already the likely winner, the backlash may have increased her margin of victory by a few points: “Many Taiwanese people waking up on election day watched the video and ignited in united anger – they felt it was humiliating and a sign of Taiwan’s predicament that Chou had to apologize for expressing her Taiwanese identity and for showing her ‘nation’s’ flag.”
The video went on to rack up 5.7 million views, with 300,000 “dislikes” versus only 22,000 “likes,” and a whopping 140,000 comments on social media.
Tsai even referred to the Chou incident in her victory speech, and it’s not at all what Beijing wanted to hear from Taiwan’s new president:
Over the past few days, we have seen news that has shaken Taiwanese society. An entertainer – a young 16-year-old girl – working in South Korea – recently attracted opposition after she was filmed holding the Republic of China flag. This incident has angered many Taiwanese people, regardless of their political affiliation
This particular incident will serve as a constant reminder to me about the importance of our country’s strength and unity to those outside our borders. This will be one of the most important responsibilities for me as the next president of the Republic of China.
Another sign of an increasingly independent mood among Taiwanese youth cited by the BBC was the backlash against a celebrity named Show Luo, who was asked about working with mainland Chinese entertainers at a movie premiere last week, replied simply “We are all Chinese”… and almost instantly lost 10,000 fans from his website, some of them departing with invitations for him to move to mainland China, if he liked it so much.
However, Fortune advises against reading too much into Tsai’s election, suggesting that her personal style is not firebrand agitation (she is compared in appearance and demeanor to a librarian) and Taiwan’s anemic economy, heavily dependent on trade with China, does not give it much leverage for confrontation.