Lai Wins Taiwan Election in Upset to China

Lai Wins Taiwan Election in Upset to China
Credit: Dilok Klaisataporn via iStock/Getty

The Lede: On Saturday, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) defeated his opponents to become Taiwan’s next president. China expressed dissatisfaction with the results of the election as it favored Lai’s rival candidates for their more amicable positions on cross-strait relations amid stronger signals from Beijing on reunification.

What We Know:

  • With 40.1% of votes, former Vice President Lai defeated Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang (KMT), a legacy party that favors friendly-relations with China, and Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), which debuted in this election cycle. Lai’s running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, who previously served as Taiwan’s top envoy to the U.S., was elected Vice President. Lai replaces the now out-going President Tsai Ing-wen.
  • U.S. President Joe Biden said after the election that Washington does not support the independence of Taiwan. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Lai on his victory. He said Washington looks forward to working with Taiwan’s leaders. Meanwhile, China condemned all foreign messages of congratulations for Taiwan’s election. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) disputed the DPP’s representation of popular opinion on the island highlighting Lai’s failure to win half of the total vote and his party’s loss of the majority in the parliamentary elections. 

The Background: Lai is seen by Beijing as a ‘troublemaker’ and his party as a dangerous separatist threat to its reunification aims. Hou of the KMT was formerly the mayor of New Taipei and a police officer. Ko of the TPP had been mayor of Taipei and a physician. Chinese President Xi Jinping has linked his reputation on the reunification of Taiwan, a lost sacred territory in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, with the Mainland. China has been bolstering its rhetoric regarding Taiwan reunification and has increased military pressure on the island with regular drills and exercises in recent months. The U.S. and China have been holding high-level meetings in recent months with the most significant being a November summit between Biden and Xi in San Francisco on the sidelines of APEC. 

Likely Outcomes:

  • The results of the election signal that there is still significant resistance against China despite the Mainland’s economic and military pressure on the island. Taiwan likely will experience enhanced efforts by Beijing to intimidate the island that include past approaches such as trade restrictions and shows of force by air and sea. China may target key industries that will inflict economic pain on the island. In the past, agricultural products have been popular targets, but this may grow to include more sectors. The show of force that the Chinese military demonstrated in response to then-U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island may be indicative of what may be in store. 
  • Lai was likely Washington’s preferred candidate as a leader who aims to continue the path set out by his predecessor to pursue closer relations with the U.S. and act in defiance of Beijing. Observers can expect to see increased cooperation and bolder engagement with Washington. This will likely make Taiwan even more provocative in the rivalry between the superpowers. China may also try to gain influence with Lai and the DPP's opposition by interfacing with them directly to leverage the lack of a majority in the legislature. At any rate, it will be tough for Lai and his party to push agendas without the input of other parties.
  • China and the U.S. have both moved toward increased dialogue and high-level meetings in the past year. Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a meeting with senior Chinese official Liu Jianchao in Washington the day before the election with stability in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea being top issues. Both sides will likely continue to maintain this trajectory of communication in order to manage their rivalry and to smooth out the contentiousness of the Taiwan issue. It remains to be seen if each side will act in good faith or if sentiments cannot uphold the status quo. 


“The reunification of the motherland is a historical inevitability. China will surely be reunified,” according to the official translation of his speech. All Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait should be bound by a common sense of purpose and share in the glory of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” - Xi Jinping, President of China

“The election has shown the world the commitment of the Taiwanese people to democracy, which I hope China can understand.” - Lai Ching-te, President-elect of Taiwan

“Taiwan is China’s Taiwan. This election cannot change the basic pattern and the development of cross-Strait relations, nor can it change the common desire of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait to draw closer.” - Chen Binhua, the spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council

“Just because the DPP is in power doesn’t mean China’s going to war. The last eight years have obviously been uncomfortable with the DPP in power, but it hasn’t led to war, they’ve been able to find an uncomfortable middle ground. And the hope is that even with a Lai presidency that we can continue to have this sort of uncomfortable silence without having to go to war.” - Lev Nachman, political science professor at National Chengchi University

“Beijing has been turning a blind eye, so the question is: What size of that presence will cross the Rubicon? Hopefully each additional step will not be seen as overtly provocative to elicit or justify a massive Chinese reaction.” - Wen-ti Sung, political scientist at the Australian National University’s Taiwan Studies Program

Good Reads:

Taiwan's voters rebuff China and give ruling party third presidential term (Reuters)

China Failed to Sway Taiwan’s Election. What Happens Now? (NYT)

War of words after Taiwan election highlights the intractable divide over the island’s fate (AP)

Taiwan Election Live Results (Bloomberg)

Taiwan's Lai faces tough road ahead after historic election win (Nikkei)

Taiwan voters dismiss China warnings and hand ruling party a historic third consecutive presidential win (CNN)

China says DPP 'cannot represent' Taiwan after Lai's election win (Nikkei)

Blinken discusses human rights, Taiwan Strait with Chinese official (Reuters)

‘Taiwan is China’s Taiwan’: Beijing says Taiwan’s ruling party is not representative of popular opinion (CNBC)

China’s Xi says reunification with Taiwan ‘inevitable,’ ahead of crucial vote on island (Politico)