Thousands Fly From SoCal To Taiwan To Vote In High-Stakes Presidential Election

Southern Californian Taiwanese, including those pictured in green jackets, have returned to the island to vote in the contest for president. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Yang)

In the early 1990s, Wendy Yang left Taiwan with her family. She was a young teen then. And Taiwan was a baby democracy, governing itself even as China claimed sovereignty.

Now 43 and a lawyer in Torrance, Yang has flown back to her home country as voters prepare to pick their president for only the seventh time Saturday. Yang's kept her Taiwan citizenship so she can vote.

"All that we fought for — so hard and so long ago — could be lost easily if we don't choose the right leader for the nation," Yang said.

Yang is among the estimated 6,000 Taiwanese in Southern California who have crossed an ocean to vote in a presidential contest that is viewed in large part as a referendum on the island state's relations with China.

The Communist regime has been ramping up claims that Taiwan is China's and says reunification would happen using a "one country, two systems" model. To that end, China has isolated Taiwan internationally. The United States, like almost all of the world, does not recognize the island diplomatically, although it does sell arms to Taipei, angering Beijing.

But China's reunification plan is a non-starter for the pro-independence incumbent, President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic Progressive Party. Taiwan evolved into a democracy after 38 years of martial law imposed by the opposition Kuomintang party that was founded by Chinese Nationalists from the mainland.

Taiwan's current president and Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, gestures on stage during a Taoyuan rally ahead of Saturdays presidential election. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Raising the stakes around the Taiwan election are the Hong Kong protests which have fanned fears that heavier involvement by China could disrupt the peaceable way of life on the island of 24 million.

Meanwhile, the Kuomintang and its presidential candidate Han Kuo-Yu have called for closer ties to China. Herman Chen, a 40-year-old portfolio manager from Torrance, supports Han and believes easing tensions with the mainland is wise.

"That doesn't mean I want to be part of the People's Republic of China," Chen said. "The reality is, it's a strong country (located) just next to us."

Chen said he would have made it to Taiwan to vote — he has dual U.S. and Taiwanese citizenship — had he not just started a new job.

Yang, the lawyer from Torrance, also has dual citizenship. She backs President Tsai, and is stumping for her at rallies around Taiwan along with a group of about 150 other expats. More than half, she said, are from southern California, home to the largest Taiwanese American community in the country.

Many, she said, have felt their desire to help Taiwan grow the longer they live in the U.S. and enjoy its mature democracy.

"We, as ordinary citizens, can make so much change in the system," Yang said. "I want that for Taiwan."

Kuomintang (KMT) party's presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu attends a briefing at the Taiwan Foreign Correspondents Club (TFCC) in Taipei on November 14, 2019. (SAM YEH/AFP )

Dennis Lu Chung Weng, assistant professor at Sam Houston State University, said that many overseas Taiwanese are more invested in their native country than other immigrants because of Taiwan's precarious geopolitical state.

"The future is always uncertain," Weng said. "Overseas Taiwanese, we always worry about Taiwan and always think about Taiwan."

Supporters of Taiwan's current president and Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, at a rally on January 8 in Taoyuan. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Weng, who studies Taiwanese politics, says that the diaspora is split over who should lead the island. U.S.-based supporters of the independence-leaning DPP are more outspoken but Weng said there is a quieter, strong cadre of Kuomintang backers here as well. Many Kuomintang-supporting families, Weng said, were more recent arrivals to Taiwan, having left China with the Nationalists who lost a civil war with the Communists in 1949.

"Most of them believe Taiwan is losing the connection with Chinese culture and they don't like to see that," Weng said.

Weng said he does not affiliate with either the DPP or Kuomintang but given a choice between their candidates, he prefers Han. He said the president's party has too much power and blamed her for picking corrupt and incompetent deputies.

Overseas Taiwanese supporters of President Tsai Ing-wen pose together as a group in Taoyuan. (Wendy Yang)

In contrast, Tina Lee, a supply analyst in Irvine, said that she does not consider Han, a former mayor, qualified to be president and is alarmed by his friendly stance toward China.

"China's intentions (for reunification) have become more obvious," said Lee, who's kept close tabs on Taiwanese politics since moving to the U.S. seven years ago.

She is hopping on a red-eye to Taiwan tonight and will touch down on the island Saturday morning — just in time to make it to the polls.

"If I don't come out," Lee, 33, said, "then people won't hear my voice."

Across the U.S., more than 5,000 overseas Taiwan have registered to vote in the presidential election, said Abraham Chu, Director General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles.

But he said that number does not tell the full picture because thousands more visit Taiwan frequently enough to maintain residency and don't need to register.

He said carriers like EVA have added flights to accommodate the crowds flying back for the election.