They say all politics is local, but in Taiwanese elections, there’s always a very interested party that doesn’t cast a vote.
Around 57 per cent of Taiwan’s voters have re-elected President Tsai Ing-wen for a second term, who ran partly on a platform to protect the island’s democracy and autonomy from the superpower across the water.
China’s Government has made little effort to conceal its dislike of the 63-year-old, who spent much of her first term resisting Chinese pressure.
For four years, China’s state media has mocked her, China’s foreign ministry has thwarted her efforts to maintain a Taiwanese presence at international forums, and Chinese nationalists have gleefully pursued any international brand that dared to list Taiwan separately on their websites.
In her victory speech, Ms Tsai said she hoped the landslide win would “send the right signal” to China — that Taiwan won’t give in to coercion and threats.
She also expressed hope that the two sides could restart talks that have been shelved by Beijing since 2016, so long as China can respect Taiwan’s democracy.
In the lobby of Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry in Taipei, the flags of 15 diplomatic allies are a reminder of just how aggressive Beijing has been in the past four years.
There were 22 flags when Ms Tsai was elected in 2016.
It must be pitiful for the officials tasked with removing the flags each time a country flips — the latest one tiny Kiribati, which switched to the People’s Republic in October last year, and whose President was given the red carpet welcome in Beijing just days before the election.
China’s leader Xi Jinping rubbed it in, praising Kiribati for being “on the right side of history”.
In the lead up to the vote, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu accused China of orchestrating online disinformation campaigns, on top of more traditional ways to meddle.
“The fake news situation seems to be quite serious,” he said, while noting that other forms of interference are blatant — like a ban on individual Chinese tourists to Taiwan, which Mr Xi’s Government implemented six months before the poll in an effort to squeeze the island’s tourism sector.
Clearly, such tactics only aggravate concerns about how China’s Communist Party would one day rule Taiwan, and the widespread anger in Hong Kong at Beijing’s “One Country, Two Systems” style of governance helped propel Ms Tsai towards her victory.
“President Tsai is a very trustworthy political leader, she won’t do anything to try to stir the relationship with China,” said Fan Yun, a newly elected Legislative Yuan member of Ms Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party.
But during the first term, it was Mr Xi doing most of the stirring.
Poaching diplomatic allies, cutting tourism, sending aircraft carriers around the island and unleashing nationalist fury on international brands — most of which issued apologies and fell into line, including Qantas.
As Beijing narrows the space for Taiwan’s existence as an independent state, it’s seemingly making little progress on winning over the Taiwanese themselves, many of whom vote on domestic issues, but clearly aren’t turned off by the frosty ties across the strait.
As China’s “red revival” under Mr Xi deepens, with “socialism” and “Xi Jinping thought” being entrenched, the political and cultural gap between the two sides is as wide as ever.
The idea that Beijing could peacefully convince 23 million people that semi-autonomous rule under the Communist Party is worth abandoning democracy for seems increasingly remote.
Which raises more worrying concerns about the use of force, especially as Mr Xi has abandoned term limits on his presidency and will want progress on the “Taiwan issue” within his lifetime.
But it’s nothing the Taiwanese themselves aren’t familiar with, and it’s understandable that some feel frustrated that their elections are so often viewed through the prism of China relations.
They may be on the wrong side of the cross-strait power imbalance, but they have the vote — and they’re determined not to have their destiny written for them.
By Bill Birtles