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Supporters of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen celebrate outside the campaign headquarters in Taipei on January 11, 2020.

SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen swept back into power Saturday, riding a wave of support among voters persuaded that she represented their best chance of defending against Chinese economic and political influence.

Ms. Tsai won a record number of votes for a Taiwan presidential election. On Sunday, results showed she had exceeded the popular support she achieved four years ago, after a campaign in which she emphasized threats to Taiwan’s democratic liberties from an increasingly powerful China. A stronger mandate for the China-skeptical Ms. Tsai raised the spectre of renewed hostilities across the tense Taiwan Strait, although she immediately emphasized her commitment to peaceful and stable relations with Beijing.

But the election, a closely watched barometer of attitudes toward China, marks the second repudiation of Beijing by voters in recent months after Hong Kong in November overwhelmingly cast ballots for pro-democracy candidates in local elections.

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“The results of this election carried an added significance, because they have shown that when our sovereignty and democracy are threatened, the people of Taiwan will shout back our determination even more loudly,” Ms. Tsai said on Saturday night.

Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own territory, has frozen out the region since Ms. Tsai was first elected four years ago, threatening it with displays of military force and exacting some forms of economic punishment. But Chinese efforts to put pressure on Taiwan appear to have resoundingly backfired.

China said Sunday that the world should abide by the idea that there is only one China, ruled by the Communist Party.

“We hope and believe that the international community will continue adhering to the One China principle, understand and support the just cause of Chinese people to oppose the secessionist activities for ‘Taiwan independence’ and realize national reunification,” a statement from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said.

Shortly after winning re-election Saturday, Ms. Tsai called for a restart to relations, on the condition that they be based on principles of peace, parity, democracy and dialogue. “Our democratically elected government will not concede to threats and intimidation,” she said. “Positive cross-straits interaction founded in mutual respect are the best way to serve our peoples.”

Ms. Tsai’s opponent, the charismatic populist Han Kuo-yu, had advocated closer ties with China as a way to bolster economic fortunes in Taiwan, which has been plagued by low growth and wage stagnation, with large numbers of its people leaving for better employment opportunities in the mainland. Mr. Han won nearly 39 per cent of the popular vote, after a campaign in which internal infighting hurt his Nationalist Party.

But voters in Taiwan decisively sided with Ms. Tsai, who argued that the threat posed by an authoritarian China exceeds the benefits of closer ties. Her Democratic Progressive Party maintained a majority in the country’s legislature.

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"A party that is seen as dangerous on cross-Strait issues lost to a party that is seen as having safe hands,” said Jacques deLisle, director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In the past, that party was seen as Mr. Han’s Nationalists. “Now, it’s the DPP.”

Under President Xi Jinping, China has grown more confident in its governance and economic model, openly rejecting what it calls Western principles while it imposes increasingly strict Communist Party control at home – and offers its economic strength as reason for greater integration with the territories on its fringes.

Chinese Party theoreticians and scholars see China’s economic might as such a magnetic force that unification with Taiwan has become inevitable. Last year, Mr. Xi held out the Hong Kong model of “one country two systems” as a model for Taiwan as well. It’s an idea that few in Taiwan support, and many Taiwanese watched with fear the subsequent outbreak of violent protests in Hong Kong, which some saw as a dark preview of Taiwan’s future if it falls under Chinese rule.

“Taiwan is at the forefront of resisting Chinese Communist Party infiltration,” said Teng Biao, a prominent Chinese lawyer and human-rights activist who came to Taiwan for the election.

Mr. Xi’s proposal, and the subsequent Hong Kong protests, “greatly increased the sense of crisis – or national doom – among people in Taiwan.”

In China, too, there was acknowledgment that Mr. Xi’s policies may not have won support in Taiwan, but no indication that those policies will change.

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“The one country, two systems policy is one of our major policies on the Taiwan issue. It may have caused an undesirable effect on Taiwan’s political situation,” said Li Zhenguang, deputy director of the Institute of Taiwan Studies at Beijing Union University. “But in the long run, it is the right direction, and is also in line with the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation as well as the highest interests of our country. So this will not change.”

The assertiveness China has shown under Mr. Xi has raised concern in Western capitals, and in particular Washington, as the United States uses economic and diplomatic levers to constrain expansion of Beijing’s influence.

Ms. Tsai presented herself as the candidate most willing to defend Taiwan as a bulwark of democratic freedoms against an imminent threat from a “dictatorial” China.

Her political opponents accused her of opportunism at the expense of stoking tensions with Beijing – but her message resonated widely.

“Taiwan’s situation is truly very precarious,” said Alex Su, 50, who works on semiconductors in Hsinchu, in the heartland of Taiwan’s high-tech industry. He pointed to China’s pointed refusal to renounce the use of its military to forcibly unify with Taiwan. “My most important concern is protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty,” he said.

Worry was strong enough that more than 5,000 overseas Taiwanese applied to vote, twice four years ago. It’s an unusually strong show of democratic concern, since under Taiwan law, voters can only cast ballots in their registered hometowns, meaning those overseas must fly home to vote.

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“We should not abandon our hard-earned freedoms and democracy for economic gain,” one voter who had flown back from Germany said. The Globe and Mail is not revealing her identity to protect her from retribution by Chinese authorities.

But China is Taiwan’s chief trading partner, buying 40 per cent of the island’s exports, and Prof. Li warned that victory for Ms. Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party could damage its economic interests. “I think Taiwan under their rule will continue to fight against the mainland, in which case relations are very likely to worsen,” he said.

With reports from Milo Hsieh, Alexandra Li and the Associated Press

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