China confronts a new political reality in Taiwan: No friends

Taiwanese politics has shifted decisively away from China, according to opinion polls. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Taiwanese politics has shifted decisively away from China, according to opinion polls. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)


Interviews with the top candidates in a volatile three-way presidential race point to rising skepticism toward Beijing—whatever the outcome.

TAIPEI—A drawing of Taiwan at the presidential campaign headquarters of the island’s ruling party shows strikingly little concern for north and south. Instead, the island is shown turned on its side, with China and the Taiwan Strait conspicuously absent.

The drawing reflects the worldview of the Democratic Progressive Party, which over the past eight years has sought to carve out an identity for the self-ruled island that is separate from mainland China. But it also represents a broader change in Taiwan that sits uneasily with Communist Party leaders 1,000 miles to the northwest in Beijing.

With voters set to cast their ballots for a new leader in a volatile three-way election next month, Taiwanese politics has shifted decisively, and perhaps irrevocably, away from China. The change in mood is evident in public-opinion polls—and even in the campaign of the opposition Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang.

Once an aggressive promoter of closer political and economic ties with Beijing, the KMT is striking a markedly different tone these days.

“I’ve never had an unrealistic idea about mainland China’s attitude toward us," the party’s presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, said in an interview, one of three that The Wall Street Journal recently conducted with the leading candidates. “The most important thing is to handle our defense and economy in a way that at least prevents the other side from casually launching a war."

At the campaign headquarters of the ruling party’s candidate and the current leader in the polls, Vice President Lai Ching-te, the word “China" is nowhere to be seen at all.

Instead, on a recent visit, volunteers from Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party beckoned passersby to witness denim-clad members of a local line-dancing team step, kick and spin to American country music under a green LED sign reading “TEAM TAIWAN." Further back, a cartoon mural told the story of Lai’s adventures with his pet dog.

Taiwan’s election next month has drawn nervous attention from capitals around the world for its bearing on the most sensitive point of friction between the U.S. and China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made taking control of Taiwan a centerpiece of his quest to restore his country as a great power. It is a task, the 70-year-old Xi has said, that “should not be passed down from generation to generation." On Tuesday, Xi told senior officials “We will resolutely prevent anyone from making Taiwan secede from China by any means."

During a summit between Xi and President Biden in California last month, the two leaders spent substantial time discussing Taiwan.

In Taipei, Lai paints a picture of a Taiwanese public far less preoccupied with Beijing’s designs than political leaders in the Western world. Despite three years in which China’s military has sent jet fighters—often in the dozens—on nearly daily sorties in the airspace around Taiwan, many on the island have come to greet it all with a shrug.

“Taiwan is relatively calm—the stock market is going up and everyone’s living a normal life," Lai said in an interview. “People view this situation with calmness and reason."

The shifting political winds in Taiwan represent a cold new reality for Communist Party leaders in China. After Beijing crushed dissent in Hong Kong, there is little appetite in Taiwan for an arrangement in which China would peacefully assume political control of the island in exchange for a high degree of autonomy.

The proportion of people in Taiwan who identify primarily as Chinese has plummeted to below 3%, prompting even the party that had most ardently pursued peaceful political union with Beijing to do everything it can to shed its “pro-Beijing" label.

“Young people in Taiwan neither feel they are Chinese, nor do they have affection for anything Chinese—quite the contrary," said Andrew Hsia, deputy head of the KMT.

While past Taiwan elections have turned on the question of whether to move toward or away from eventual unification with China, the candidates in January’s contest all agree that Taiwan’s only choice with China now is to play for time. The debate is over how.

In an interview in the southern city of Kaohsiung, home to Taiwan’s largest naval base, the KMT’s Hou accused the DPP of underplaying the deterioration of cross-strait ties and the risk of war.

“It wasn’t until the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza that people started paying attention," he said. “Taiwan needs to prepare—quickly."

Hou, a charismatic former head of Taiwan’s national police agency, leans on his police experience in describing how he would use the party’s credibility with Beijing to buy time for Taiwan to build up its military deterrence.

“Facing an opponent, on the one hand, you have to be able to negotiate, while on the other hand, you need the power to fight," he said.

KMT officials concede that the party is seen as old-fashioned by Taiwanese youth, who turned away from the party in 2014. That is when the last KMT president in office put his support behind a trade agreement with China that would have bound the two sides even more closely together—to a degree that turned off many younger voters.

Now, a new generation of younger voters has gravitated toward a third-party candidate, Ko Wen-je, whose views on China fall somewhere in the middle.

Ko, a doctor and former mayor of Taipei, has capitalized on disillusionment with the two traditional parties by positioning himself as a pragmatic politician focused on bread-and-butter issues such as high home prices and low wages. He described the KMT as “too submissive to China," but, like Hou, he said that he thinks most Taiwanese underestimate the risks of war.

Even with hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese working in China—a legacy of last decade’s era of cross-strait engagement—official communication between Beijing and Taipei is virtually nonexistent, Ko said, adding: “This is really weird."

Strong support from young people gives Ko some heft, but he has lost ground since an incipient deal to team up with Hou fell apart last month. In a Dec. 22-26 survey conducted by Formosa, a DPP-leaning pollster, 38.7% of respondents said they would vote for the DPP’s Lai, versus 29.7% saying they prefer the KMT’s Hou and an additional 16.6% backing Ko.

Lai was once an open supporter of Taiwanese independence—a history that makes leaders in both Beijing and Washington nervous—but has said he would stick to the status quo established over the past eight years under his boss, President Tsai Ing-wen, which rests on cultivating closer economic and military ties with the U.S. and other “like-minded countries" as a form of deterrence. Like Tsai, who can’t run again because of term limits, Lai holds open the possibility of communication with Beijing, though with caveats.

“In the interest of global peace and the mutual benefits of all countries in the world, Taiwan is willing to engage with China," Lai told the Journal, as long as that dialogue is carried “under the premise of equal dignity and through the procedure of democracy."

Under Tsai, the DPP has tried to calibrate its warnings about the threat from China to avoid scaring away international investors and otherwise undermining the Taiwanese economy. Some critics have said that the strategy contributes to a sense of complacency among Taiwanese people about the threat from China, which Lai denies. 

None of Taiwan’s presidential candidates said how long they thought the island might need to hold out for the Chinese threat of forceful unification to dissipate.

Peace ultimately requires commitment from both sides, Lai said. “It’s not just Taiwan. China is also responsible."

Write to Josh Chin at and Joyu Wang at

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