Why these Taiwanese Americans flew home to vote

Confetti flies over the stage and crowd as Taiwan's Vice President and presidential-elect from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Lai Ching-te and his running mate Hsiao Bi-khim speak to supporters at a rally at the party's headquarters on January 13, 2024 in Taipei, Taiwan.
Image caption,A riot of pink and green as William Lai emerges aa the winner in Taiwan’s presidential election

By Shaimaa Khalil

BBC News, Taiwan

“I shouted his [William Lai’s] name so much on the night of the election, I lost my voice the next day,” says Nancy Yang, who flies home to Taiwan from San Francisco every four years so she can vote.

William Lai Ching-te won Taiwan’s presidential election on Saturday, giving his ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) a third, unprecedented term. And Ms Yang is one of a few thousand Taiwanese living overseas who returned last week to vote in an election that China had framed as a choice between war and peace.

In Taiwan, where voters must cast their ballots in person, many travelled to their hometowns – even Mr Lai went to Tainan in southern Taiwan to vote. Others, like Ms Yang, flew across the world.

“The rallies, the noise – you feel the excitement being here,” she says. “You feel like you’re making a difference on the ground.”

It’s unclear how many of the voters were Taiwanese Americans, but some 4,000 citizens living abroad registered to vote, according to the Central Election Commission. Relations with China were a major factor for the Taiwanese watching from afar, and especially those who live in the US, which has long been Taipei’s most powerful ally.

“China thinks it owns Taiwan. We don’t think so. We don’t belong to you,” Ms Yang had declared the night before the election, when the BBC had met her while she was volunteering at a DPP rally. Clad in the party’s green varsity-like sweater and surrounded by green and pink flags, she was all smiles, talking to voters and other volunteers.

The former IT manager has lived in the Bay Area for 40 years. She said this election felt different, compared to the last one in 2020: “This time we had three parties, and it was a close race.”

Nancy Yang
Image caption,Nancy Yang was all smiles at the DPP rally the night before the vote

The DPP was battling dissatisfaction over poor wages and high cost of living, while emphasising the threat that China posed. The main opposition Kuomintang or KMT campaigned on better relations with Beijing, while the third player, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), positioned itself as an alternative to the other two, especially on improving cost of living.

The TPP did far better than polls suggested, emerging as a serious future contender – evidence perhaps of how much the economy weighed on the minds of voters here, unlike those who live on the other side of the world.

“It’s not the outcome that we are satisfied with,” says Jason Hsu, an advisor to the KMT and a Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School.

Mr Hsu is at Taipei’s Da’an Forest Park – the soft strings of a guitar and the calming Tai Chi exercises are a contrast to the energy of the election from the previous night.

Next to him is Jen Tsao, who travelled from her home in San Francisco to vote, and Chiaoning Su, who teaches journalism and communication at Oakland University.

Ms Tsao supports the KMT, which is traditionally seen as being closer to Beijing, and Ms Su voted for the DPP.

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They weren’t all happy about the result. But they were all proud of the way the world saw Taiwan.

“This is something we fought for. We enjoy it, we celebrate it, but we can also lose it… it’s hard-earned,” Ms Su says, explaining that it was the reason she picked the DPP.

Ms Tsao says the election is an opportunity for her to come home and soak up the atmosphere and excitement. She says several of her family and friends also flew from the US to vote: “We do appreciate the process of democracy. That’s the main difference between Taiwan and China.”

Taiwan’s is a young democracy – this is only the eighth presidential vote since 1996 – and its elections are joyful.

On Saturday, millions of Taiwanese went to the polls, including parents who brought their children, many too young to vote themselves. But they said they wanted them to experience the polling stations. First-time voters spoke of their thrill. Still others turned up with their pets in tow, taking advantage of the sunny, clear skies.

The rallies were like carnivals – a mix of motivational speeches, music and chants, sometimes all at once, in a sea of flags. Some enthusiasts added their own personal touch to the party colours. But the euphoria aside, there was also anxiety and urgency.

(L-R) Jen Tsao, Chiaoning Su and Jason Hsu
Image caption,(L-R) Jen Tsao, Chiaoning Su and Jason Hsu all flew home from the US to vote

Ms Yang said China’s warnings in the lead-up to the vote filled her with dread: “Taiwan needs strong leadership to protect it. To keep it safe. We feel that very strongly.”

But she adds that the fraught situation has also put the island on the geopolitical map, not least because it’s a vibrant democracy and the world’s largest producer of semiconductors.

“Twenty years ago, people didn’t know much about Taiwan. When I talked to someone about it, they thought I was talking about Thailand. Now they know. I feel so proud. I feel like America recognises how important Taiwan is and its responsibility to protect it.”

Ms Su says Taiwan is now a “key word” in international news. And China’s authoritarian grip over Hong Kong, which has firmed since Taiwan’s last election, convinced her she had to vote: “We are sending the right message to the international community that we want to safeguard our way of life. And we want to keep fighting for democracy.”

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Ms Tsao, who voted for the opposition KMT, is worried Mr Lai will inflame an already tense relationship with Beijing, pushing Taiwan closer to a confrontation no-one wants.

“I think the current government has not done a very good job to protect the best interests for our people. So, I wanted to be here [and voice my concern].”

Mr Hsu agrees. He congratulated Mr Lai but also warns of a “very tumultuous four years” ahead.

“But I think the victory really belongs to the people of Taiwan – we’ve made a choice.”https://cekikikan.com/

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