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SAIS Students Observe Taiwan’s Election

SAIS students in Taiwan

On January 13, 2024, Taiwan’s voters elected a new president, vice president, and legislature. Continuing a tradition dating back to 2004, Johns Hopkins SAIS sent 17 students and two faculty members to observe the most recent election and talk with local experts.

The students who made the trip this year prepared for it by taking the 2023 fall semester course, The Turbulent Triangle: Taiwan, China and the United States. Adjunct Lecturer David Keegan, who was teaching this course for the seventh time, led the trip.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, D.C., facilitated the seven-day itinerary. However, some of the most interesting events were organized by SAIS students, including the group’s first meeting—with the Taiwan Hotline Association, a nongovernmental organization working to support Taiwan’s LGBTQ+ community. That evening, another student arranged a dinner with a group of Western journalists covering the election, dining with them in one of those outdoor restaurants not usually listed in travel guides but beloved by Taipei residents.

The next day, the group visited the American Institute in Taiwan, which represents U.S. interests in Taiwan. Twenty years ago, Keegan was deputy director of AIT and led the conversation with SAIS students. “This year,” Keegan said, “I was thrilled to discover that two of the AIT officers we spoke with, Suzanne Wong and Tom Wong, were SAIS alumni who had participated in SAIS’ 2004 trip. A third SAIS alum working at AIT, Nicole Kuo, also joined the conversation. They were a reminder of the responsibilities this year’s students will be taking on.”

That evening, SAIS alumni living in Taipei, led by Ed Dunn, sponsored a dinner with the students and with Andrew Mertha, the George and Sadie Hyman Professor of China Studies and director of the SAIS China Global Research Center, who joined the trip.

 On the final two evenings before election day, the two major Taiwanese political parties held their concluding outdoor election rallies, each of which attracted more than 120,000 loudly chanting participants. Both gatherings were “re-nao”—a Taiwanese compliment for an event that is “hot and noisy.” The rallies also gave the students a deep sense of the intensity of emotions felt by candidates and voters, particularly around the central campaign issue of national identity and varying attitudes toward the idea of political unification with mainland China.

The highlight of the trip came on January 13 when Keegan led the students to a polling station to watch the voting. After the polls closed, election workers welcomed the public, including SAIS students, to observe as they counted the votes—lifting each paper ballot for everyone to see as they tallied them in a methodical and transparent manner.

Zhuoran Li, a PhD student, captured what many in the delegation felt: “As someone who has never been to Taiwan, witnessing [this] election was nothing short of majestic, breathing life into the theoretical knowledge gleaned from our semester-long readings. We were forging connections with our Taiwanese counterparts that will last a lifetime, opening previously unknown opportunities and inspiring me to return to Taiwan in the future.”

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