TAIPEI, Taiwan — Just a few weeks ago, President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan was struggling politically. Her party had lost in key local elections, imperiling her run for a second term next year.
But then she got help from an unlikely source: the president of China.
In a speech this month to the people of Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy that Beijing considers Chinese territory, President Xi Jinping said the island “must be and will be” united with China and warned that independence efforts could be met by armed force.
Mr. Xi’s speech raised anxieties in Taiwan that Ms. Tsai was able to tap into by delivering a rebuke of Mr. Xi’s proposal, in a rare departure from her usual cautious ambiguity.
“Democratic values are the values and way of life that Taiwanese cherish,” she said, “and we call upon China to bravely move toward democracy.”
Ms. Tsai’s approval ratings surged after her speech, according to Taiwanese news reports. She also appeared to reassert her influence within her party with the appointment of an ally, Cho Jung-tai, as chairman this month.
The revitalization of Ms. Tsai’s political prospects highlights the challenge that the increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing faces in offering a political formula for unification that would be attractive to Taiwan’s vigorous democracy.
Most of Taiwan’s 23 million people are in favor of maintaining the island’s de facto independence without taking any formal moves that might bring a military response from China. Still, Taiwan has tended to push back against threats from Beijing.
Ms. Tsai’s response “looked very presidential” to many Taiwanese, said Hans H. Tung, an associate professor of political science at National Taiwan University. He said it also earned Ms. Tsai greater support from her Democratic Progressive Party, which leans toward independence.
It was a notable turnaround after Ms. Tsai’s party lost several crucial mayoral elections in November to the opposition party, the Kuomintang, or K.M.T., largely because of unhappiness with how her government has handled economic issues.
The losses led Ms. Tsai to resign as party chairwoman, making her less certain to be the party’s candidate in the presidential election next year.
But Ms. Tsai’s firm rejection of Mr. Xi’s speech has earned her the support of voters like Li Imte, a resident of Taipei. Ms. Li said she had until recently been disappointed with Ms. Tsai’s unwillingness to prioritize same-sex marriage, an issue she had campaigned on before she was elected in 2016.
“In terms of changing Taiwan’s situation for the better, I really can’t think of anyone out there more capable than Tsai Ing-wen,” Ms. Li said.
Expressions of encouragement for Ms. Tsai have flooded Taiwanese social media, with one viral post portraying her as a mother defending her child from a bully. Hundreds of female doctors from across Taiwan took out a front-page advertisement in two local newspapers urging readers to support Ms. Tsai.
In a joint declaration last week, representatives of Taiwan’s aboriginal peoples also challenged Mr. Xi’s assertion that Taiwan is part of China.
“Taiwan is the sacred land where generations of our ancestors lived and protected with their lives,” their letter read. “It has never belonged to China.”
Mr. Xi’s speech also helped Ms. Tsai by dealing a blow to the opposition Kuomintang, which favors closer ties with China and is Beijing’s preferred dialogue partner.
At the heart of the Taiwan dispute is the so-called 1992 Consensus, an unwritten agreement between Beijing and the Kuomintang government that monopolized political power in Taiwan at that time. That agreement holds that there is only one China, which includes Taiwan, but that both sides can define “One China” in their own way.
For Beijing, that means the People’s Republic of China. For the Kuomintang it is the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name.
Ms. Tsai has refused to endorse the 1992 Consensus at all, leading Mr. Xi’s administration to suspend official contacts with her government.
In his speech, Mr. Xi also said that in the event of peaceful unification Taiwan would be administered under the “one country, two systems” political model China uses to govern Hong Kong, a territory where there are concerns about shrinking freedoms under Mr. Xi’s rule.
Analysts say Ms. Tsai skillfully used Mr. Xi’s speech to equate the 1992 Consensus with Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula. That has put the Kuomintang on the defensive over its support for the 1992 Consensus.
“The K.M.T. doesn’t want to be tagged as defending Xi’s mode for unification that has led to the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The “one country, two systems” arrangement has been used in Hong Kong since it was returned from British colonial control in 1997. The model provides the territory with some autonomy from Beijing, allowing Hong Kong residents more freedom than citizens in the rest of China. But the space for pro-democratic activism and freedom of expression has shrunk in recent years.
In China, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for the Taiwan Affairs Office, said Wednesday that the 1992 Consensus and the “one country, two systems” model were not the same thing. “The leadership of the D.P.P. has mixed up these two purposefully to misguide the Taiwanese people,” Mr. Ma said, referring to Ms. Tsai’s party.
Zhu Songling, director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University, said that a “one country, two systems” arrangement for Taiwan would not have to replicate the one in Hong Kong.
“The ‘two systems’ for Taiwan can be negotiated,” Professor Zhu said. “How do you know that ‘one country, two systems’ does not suit Taiwan even before starting a negotiation?”
But Ms. Tsai’s rejection of “one country, two systems” appears to have support in Taiwan that stretches across party lines. The Kuomintang’s chairman, Wu Den-yih, said in a speech last week to party members that the 1992 Consensus was “unrelated” to the “one country, two systems” model proposed by Mr. Xi.
Wayne Chiang, a Kuomintang legislator whose great-grandfather, Chiang Kai-shek, was the longtime president of the Republic of China, praised Ms. Tsai’s emphasis on the need for Beijing to respect Taiwan’s democracy and freedom. For that, Mr. Chiang was criticized by fellow members of the party and its supporters.
Mr. Chiang also dismissed Mr. Xi’s proposal. “Taiwan is not Hong Kong,” he told reporters last week. “The majority of Taiwanese people also find it impossible to accept ‘one country, two systems.’”
Another Kuomintang legislator, Jason Hsu, went even further, saying in an interview that Mr. Xi’s speech showed that the 1992 Consensus was no longer viable for his party as an approach to relations with China and that the Kuomintang needed to think of a new strategy.
It is unclear if the current wave of support for Ms. Tsai will improve her chances at re-election, given that it changes little about the domestic challenges she still faces.
“The question is whether the boost in Tsai support will be only temporary,” Ms. Glaser said.
But she noted that China’s threats against Taiwan tended to benefit the party that is more critical of Beijing.
“The people want a government that can protect them from outside threats when they feel insecure,” she said.
Orignially published in NYT.