Millions of Taiwanese are preparing for key elections this weekend — and some are even flying back by plane to vote.
Taiwan does not allow absentee voting, so those abroad have to return to the exact county where they were born, or where they have a registered household, to cast their ballot.
Saturday's presidential and legislative elections feel particularly urgent for many citizens both on the island and abroad. China's leaders have repeatedly vowed to annex self-ruled Taiwan. The vote has become a tense referendum on how forcefully Taiwanese authorities should counter the Communist Party in Beijing. While Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party have taken a firm stance against Beijing, some of their opponents advocate for closer ties.
"For a lot of people overseas, when they're coming back, and when they're voting, it's about securing Taiwan. It's about defending democracy," says Wei-Ting Yen, an assistant professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. She says she extended a recent visit with family in Taiwan so she could vote.
A total of 5,328 overseas Taiwanese have applied to vote in the upcoming elections, more than twice the number in 2016, according to Taiwan's cabinet-level Overseas Community Affairs Council. Of this year's total, 5,100 ultimately qualified to vote. (Many other Taiwanese abroad spend enough time visiting the island that they don't need to register as overseas voters.)
Separated from the mainland by a narrow waterway, Taiwan broke away politically from the mainland in 1949 after Chinese Nationalist leaders retreated to the island following defeat to the Communists. Many countries recognized the new authority in Taipei as China's legitimate government.
But as communist China's economic and geopolitical power has grown, all but 15 of Taiwan's formal allies have left it for Beijing. The U.S. government says it does not support Taiwanese independence but maintains "strong, unofficial relations with Taiwan."
Chinese President Xi Jinping has urged Taiwan to seek peaceful unification but warned he would not "renounce the use of force" if needed.
Beijing has also pressed Taiwan to follow a similar step toward unification as Hong Kong.
But more than seven months of protest in Hong Kong have hardened even mainstream Taiwanese public opinion against the "one country, two systems" model that China uses to govern Hong Kong.
Yen, who researches and teaches about politics, says Taiwan's unification with China used to seem "like an empty threat ... a fantasy." She says, "But what's been happening in Hong Kong basically shows us a very explicit example of how 'one country, two systems' can play out in the long run."
Tsai's ruling Democratic Progressive Party has rattled Beijing by becoming increasingly forthright in its pro-independence stance. Tsai's opponent, Han Kuo-yu, of the opposition Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, has drawn criticism by advocating for closer cultural and economic ties with Beijing and by employing campaign language criticized for offensive remarks about women and migrants.
Populist, pro-Beijing candidates like Han mobilized Liu Feng-yi, a doctoral candidate in social work at Rutgers University, to create a series of videos that encourage Taiwanese abroad to go home and vote. The videos feature figures including veteran activists and graduate students urging others to "stand with Taiwan."
"You want to be Taiwanese, not Chinese, and that identification needs to be protected," says Liu, explaining why this election feels like a live or die moment for Taiwan.
Wen Liu, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Albany, also flew back to Taiwan to vote. "[Voting] is a way for people who care about politics to pay attention, particularly in Taiwan, which is such a young democracy," Liu says.
Liu, who teaches and researches sexuality and gender studies, says her priority was to vote in legislative elections in which dozens of activists are running as first-time candidates on progressive issues such as gender equality and LGBTQ rights. "The election now feels much more personal. ... That's why I also feel more engaged with electoral politics in Taiwan," Liu says.
Ellie Chang, a tech worker in the San Francisco Bay Area, used her vacation days to vote in Taiwan. Her family is solidly pro-Kuomintang, which leans more in favor of Beijing. Chang says she grew up ambivalent about how aggressively Taiwan pushed back against China, because candidates across the political spectrum supported Taiwan's political status quo: de facto separation from Beijing.
"Whenever I voted, I never really considered too much about unification versus independence because it feels like whoever we voted [for], it wouldn't really change anything," Chang says.
But this year, the Hong Kong protests against Beijing's overreach and the detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in China's Xinjiang region have jarred Chang so much that she now believes Taiwan needs to protect its de facto independence or even explore options for formal independence.
"I think China has changed their attitude," Chang says, "so people think the status quo is no longer an option."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Taiwan is holding presidential elections this week, but according to the country's laws, citizens who live abroad aren't allowed to vote absentee. So this year, thousands of Taiwanese around the world are flying home to cast ballots. NPR's Emily Feng explains why.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The video begins with a sweeping shot of Taiwan, cuts to a shot of Hong Kong police beating protesters, then flashes to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Taiwan is Taiwan.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Taiwan is Taiwan.
FENG: The video ends with a simple message.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Speaking Mandarin).
FENG: Go home and vote, the video repeats because Taiwan requires voters to return to the exact county they are registered in to personally cast their ballot. Liu Fengyi is the man behind the series of popular videos. He's now a doctoral student in social work at Rutgers University in New Jersey but plans to make the commitment in time and money to fly back to Taiwan for the vote. He says this election is a live-or-die moment for Taiwan and the ability to identify as Taiwanese, not Chinese.
FENGYI LIU: This identification needs to be protected.
FENG: Every election in Taiwan feels dire. The young democracy is painfully aware that China claims Taiwan for itself. Taiwan has also been watching nearby protests in Hong Kong anxiously. And given that Beijing has said it wants to govern Taiwan the same way it runs Hong Kong, the race this year's become a tense referendum on how forcefully Taiwan should counter China. Liu fears Beijing already has too much influence over Taiwanese politicians.
LIU: They have a very close relationship with Chinese government and you will feel very scary.
FENG: Liu believes that fear will motivate voters to go back home to cast their ballots. More than 5,300 overseas Taiwanese have registered to vote in the upcoming presidential and legislative elections. That's more than twice the number in 2016's election. It's also almost certainly a small fraction of the actual number of returnees because many maintain their Taiwan residency by visiting frequently and don't need to register as an overseas voter. One such voter is Ellie Cheng, who works in the tech sector in the Bay Area. Her family supports the opposition KMT party, which leans more pro-Beijing but, like most parties, favors Taiwan's political status quo - de facto independence.
ELLIE CHENG: So whenever I voted, I never really considered too much about, like, unification versus independence because it feels like whoever we voted, it wouldn't really change anything.
FENG: But this year, the Hong Kong protests against Beijing's overreach and the detention of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in China's supposedly autonomous region of Xinjiang has led her to believe Taiwan needs to be more aggressive in charting a path towards independence.
CHENG: I think China has changed their attitude. People feel like maintaining status quo is no longer an option.
FENG: Wei-Ting Yen, an assistant professor of government at Franklin Marshall College, says many returnees like her care only about one issue rather than one candidate.
WEI-TING YEN: For a lot of people overseas, when they're coming back and when they're voting, it's about securing Taiwan. It's about defending democracy.
FENG: In other words, voting isn't just a civic duty. It feels like a matter of political survival. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.