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A preview of the Taiwan presidential election


Voters in Taiwan choose their next president in just one week. They care about issues familiar to U.S. voters, like affordable housing, but they also have another concern - China. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Save (ph) Taiwan.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Save Taiwan.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: It's election season in Taiwan. Rallies like this one are being held in every major city. And at this one, Su Tseng-chang, a former premier, warns voters of the invisible enemy, by which he means China.

SU TSENG-CHUNG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Su is a founding member of Taiwan's current ruling party, the DPP, and he reminds voters their democracy came from decades of activism and sacrifice and that it's under threat from China, which considers Taiwan a province it controls because Beijing's threatened to invade if Taiwan does not eventually submit.

KATHLEEN LIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Kathleen Lin, a waiter, has brought her two teenage children with her to the rally to support the DPP's presidential candidate, William Lai. She says she and her parents grew up with threats from China.

LIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Which is why she says she's voting for the DPP again, which she believes has struck a middle ground, minimizing ties with China without overly antagonizing it. But how to maintain peace is a hotly contested question. At a rally a few hours south in Taiwan, the opposition KMT party welcomes its presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, to the stage.

HOU YU-IH: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: His party has promoted reviving a trade agreement with China as one way to better ties while also boosting Taiwan's defense against China.

HOU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: And at the KMT rally in the city of Miaoli, there is much less concern about China. Here's Hua De, a retired repairman.

HUA DE: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says international relations are of no importance to Taiwan. He wants to focus on the economy. And refusing to trade with China, he says, will lead to economic ruin. That's because much of Miaoli relies on agriculture, and a lot of it is sold to China.

HUA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: A retired journalist wants a full resumption of trade with China. By selling to China, he says, Taiwan and cross-strait relations can greatly improve. Not everything is about China in this election, however. For the first time since Taiwan democratized in the 1990s, a serious third-party candidate, the TPP's Ko Wen-je, has emerged. He's attracted younger voters, like 33-year-old Hao Lu, who wants political change of any sort.

HAO LU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Hao cites a change in power as his number one priority and believes sky-high housing prices and low average salaries to be the most important issues. He's a sign of voter fatigue with the DPP and KMT parties and wariness with the China debate. Once a rebel alliance of underground activists, the DPP is the establishment now and under fire for bureaucratic bloat, and the KMT remains under the sway of septuagenarian politicians who younger voters have little in common with. This split electorate means no party will likely win a sizeable majority in the legislature, meaning political gridlock in the next four years.

CHEN HUIJUN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: One of the independent candidates is Chen Huijun (ph). I met her handing out surgical face masks to voters. She is campaigning for the legislative spot in one of the outlying island counties far away from Taiwan's bigger cities like Taipei.

CHEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says her voters care about ease of transportation to Taiwan's main island and ready access to advanced health care. China, for them, is an afterthought. But whatever the outcome, Taiwan does expect a peaceful transition of power. Here's Miao Poya, a city councilor who was running as a DPP legislative candidate.

MIAO POYA: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says no matter their differences, Taiwanese hold democracy and freedom as core values. That's what makes Taiwan special in Asia and the world, she says. It's a democracy that is less than four decades old, and, despite its twists and turns, one that is not doing too badly for its age. Emily Feng, NPR News, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.