TAIPEI -- Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Thursday won her party's nomination for the 2020 presidential election, helped in part by her incumbent status and anti-Beijing stance as fears grow over China's role in Hong Kong.
Her pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party said Tsai gained about 35% of support in polls taken this week of citizens from any party affiliation, defeating her closest rival, former premier William Lai (27%). The surveys also put her ahead of Han Kuo-yu, the Kaohsiung city mayor from the China-friendly Kuomintang, and Ko Wen-je, the independent Taipei city mayor.
The Kuomintang had until recently held the upper hand in public support, but the China-skeptic DPP has gained momentum amid the Hong Kong government's attempts to pass a controversial extradition law in the face of mass protests.
"The recent image of Tsai's firm stance to protect Taiwan's sovereignty as the president has gained a lot of people's support," Ian Tsung-yen Chen, an assistant professor at National Sun Yat-sen University, told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Many activists and politicians in Taiwan have given support to the protesters in Hong Kong. The slogan "Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow" has been reverberating around Taiwan in recent days, as warning of what a "one country, two systems" arrangement by Beijing would may look like.
After the protests turned violent on Wednesday, more than 50 Hong Kong students in Taiwan gathered in front of the Presidential Office in Taipei to present Tsai a petition seeking support from the Taiwanese government.
"It's maybe the fate of history that the DPP walks through a significant primary... at the same time that Hong Kong people also stand up and have the great courage to fight for their next generation," DPP party chairman Cho Jung-tai told reporters in Taipei on Thursday. "We value and cherish the precious democratic system."
Tsai shared posts on her Facebook page to support Hong Kong's protests, with one of them saying: "The free Taiwan will support Hong Kong's freedom." Her party opponent, Lai, also said Taiwan will stand by Hong Kong.
While Lai takes a stronger stance against Beijing, Sean King, a scholar at the University of Notre Dame Liu Institute for Asia & Asian Affairs, told Nikkei that "citizens tend to rally around their leader in times of turmoil, so long as that leader's perceived to be on the right side of the issue."
"Hence the current Hong Kong crisis should help Tsai even if Lai is more openly anti-Beijing than she is," King said.
Tsai has garnered more U.S. support for the island than any Taiwanese leader since Washington recognized Beijing over Taipei in 1979, King said, adding that it counts for a lot with voters who support the Hong Kong protesters.
Former KMT chairman Eric Chu has also said Hong Kong is the living example of the failure of the "one country, two systems" arrangement.
National Sun Yat-sen University's Chen said the developments in Hong Kong has triggered the sentiment of losing sovereignty in Taiwan. This, he said, has given the ruling DPP the upper hand against Kuomintang in the presidential campaign.
"Once the possibility of a country's survival battle emerges during the campaign, the sovereignty issue will trump the consideration of a country's economic interests," Chen said.
Relations between Taipei and Beijing have deteriorated since Tsai took office in May 2016.
China, which views Taiwan as a wayward province, has pushed several countries to cut diplomatic ties with the self-ruled island, constantly conducted military drills, and slowed down issuing tourist visas to Taiwan. This decline in economic ties with China also led to Tsai stepping down as party leader after the DPP suffered a landslide defeat in local elections last November.
However, Tsai regained some popularity after Chinese President Xi Jinping made a speech in January that urged unification with Taiwan without giving up the option of seizing the island by force.