When the islanders on the windswept Taiwanese archipelago of Matsu go to the polls this Saturday, Lii Wen, the enthusiastic young candidate for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, knows he has little chance of winning a seat. But he still considers his electoral race a victory.
Matsu’s 13,000-strong population will make their free choice between the DPP and opposition Kuomintang (KMT) parliamentary and presidential candidates within sight of China, where many have extended family in Fujian province, a few short miles away, who are not afforded the same rights.
“Merely by holding elections in Matsu, it’s a testimony to how Chinese culture and democracy are not incompatible and it’s not what some in the Chinese Communist Party would want people to think,” said Mr Lii.
Elections in Taiwan, an East Asian democracy of 23 million, are a joyful affair. After Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Nationalist leader, fled the Communists and retreated to the island with his Kuomintang forces in 1949, he ruled mercilessly, pursuing critics and imposing martial law that was only lifted in 1987.
Five election cycles since the first direct presidential poll in 1996, Taiwan now presents a dynamic, democratic alternative to China’s authoritarian police state, boasting one of the most free societies in Asia.
In contrast to its overbearing neighbour, which views Taiwan as its own territory to annex – by force if necessary – it enjoys a vibrant press and uncensored internet, has strong ties with the United States, and champions liberal values and human rights, moving recently to legalise same-sex marriage.
“A successful Taiwanese democracy shows that democracy can not only work in a Chinese-speaking country but it can thrive in a Chinese-speaking country. That is very important for 1.4 billion folks on the other side of the [Taiwan] Strait,” said Enoch Wu, another DPP candidate running in the capital, Taipei.
“That tells us that this part of the world can look very different for a lot of folks, not to mention our friends in Hong Kong. If we can imagine a democratic China, that would make life easier for a lot of people.”
Taiwan’s contested status and strategic importance as a close US ally in the Asia-Pacific region mean that its election will be closely, and nervously, observed from Beijing and Washington, as well as in other regional capitals.
It exists in limbo, formally recognised by only 15 diplomatic allies but operating like any other nation and maintaining de facto independence, in part thanks to political support and weapons sales from the US.
In broad terms, voters are being asked to choose between a closer relationship with the US or China.
Tsai Ing-wen, the incumbent president seeking a second term, is regarded by the White House as a steady hand who will back US interests in a volatile region, but she is mistrusted and frozen out by Beijing who suspect her DPP will pursue a path towards full independence.
Her KMT opponent, populist Han Kuo-yu, is an unknown factor on the global stage and his views on US and China relations have been inarticulate. He advocates for closer trade ties with China without conceding political ground, but his critics claim he cannot be trusted not to sell out Taiwanese interests.
China’s increasing military, diplomatic and economic pressure on the island put Taiwan in a unique position to offer insights on how to deal with Chinese expansion, argued Enoch Wu.
“Taiwan has been on the frontline against Chinese aggression, influence, infiltration over the past few decades. This is something a lot of the rest of the world and our regional friends now experiencing firsthand,” he said.
“We have a lot of knowledge to share. Everything from the way the Chinese government wields its economic influence to achieve political ends, intelligence operations, military operations around the region.”
But the outcome of this weekend’s election and its implications for Taiwan’s future direction could also have global repercussions from an economic and security point of view.
Taiwan was a major exporter and trading partner with the US, as well as a vital tech hub and one of the world’s most significant semiconductor producers, pointed out Kharis Templeman, a political scientist and Taiwan expert at Stanford university.
“They are an important link in production chains that criss-cross the entire Pacific and if Taiwan were to be further enveloped in an exclusive PRC-led economic sphere in the region that would have a significant negative impact on US interests,” he said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
He added: “Given the rising concerns about high technology imported from China and the possible security implications of that, Taiwan is a much preferable supplier as long as it remains a free, open, democratic ruled-by-law society.”
Meanwhile, from a hard, strategic point of view, Taiwan is at a critical midpoint of the so-called “first island chain,” a thread of major archipelagos off the East Asian continental mainland coast that runs from Russia’s Kuril Islands to the Malay Peninsula.
The first island chain is integral to both Chinese and US military doctrine.
Annexing Taiwan would grant China much desired open access to the Pacific coastline, presenting an additional challenge to Washington’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.
“As long as [Taiwan] remains outside PRC control it presents a real obstacle if the PRC were ever to try to move militarily to assert itself in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Mr Templeman. “It’s beneficial for the United States to have a friendly regime on this island.”