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.
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.)
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.”