The onlookers are greying professors and teenaged students, a publisher of banned books, a sportswear salesman and more than a few people intent on undermining the Chinese Communist Party. They have flown to Taiwan on the eve of an election set to dethrone a party that has cultivated warmer ties with Beijing, and elevate instead a party with a history of seeking independence from China – led by a woman who, if polls are to be believed, will become the first female leader of a Chinese nation in modern history. For the Hong Kong activists and Canadian Taiwanese amid the foreign spectators, Taiwan’s Saturday ballot marks a chance to witness history and get swept up in the boisterousness of a campaign, but also to draw inspiration. Taiwan is the only mature democracy in the Chinese world, and for those seeking the same elsewhere, it offers as vision of what is possible.
“It’s sort of a psychological boost. They come to Taiwan and they see that elections can change things,” said Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor from Hong Kong who now leads the New School of Democracy, which trains young Chinese activists. “This doesn’t happen in Hong Kong. This doesn’t happen in China.”
The Taiwan election comes at a fraught time for the territories at China’s edge. In Hong Kong, the 2014 Umbrella Movement failed in its demands for Beijing to give voters the right to select their own chief political leader. In the time since protesters occupied the city’s downtown, Hong Kong media outlets have been bought by mainland Chinese companies and several publishers and sellers of controversial books have vanished, amid suspicion they were seized by Chinese authorities.
In Taiwan, meanwhile, the November meeting between President Ma Ying-jeou and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a historic first, capped eight years of rule by a Kuomintang party that sought rapprochement with the mainland, raising fears about China’s rising influence.