Politics & Law

Tsai Ing-wen: A woman for Taiwan's time

03 July, 2024

The presidency of Taiwan’s first female president is likely to be remembered for its competence, resilience, relative stability and some significant economic and social achievements

By Jerome F Keating

How does one evaluate Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s first woman president? If pressed to put it in one sentence I would say: “She took the helm when Taiwan’s democracy was buffeted by strong geopolitical winds and swirling inner currents. Yet she kept an even keel, stayed the course and advanced the nation.”

On 20 May this year, Tsai Ing-wen stepped down after two consecutive four-year terms as president. Throughout, she proved to be competent, steady, and a trendsetter.

I have personally known Tsai for over a decade. We first met face to face when I hosted her at the Taiwan “Breakfast Club” in 2011. At that time she was running for president and facing the popular incumbent from the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Ma Ying-jeou.

Without notes, Tsai spoke in English to an overflow crowd of 85 expatriates and Taiwanese. After presenting her platform for about 45 minutes, she took a break, and then fielded questions for another hour.

That was impressive, but what impressed me more was that this was not a business chamber or political party event. Tsai was willing to get out and meet all types of people, even when the majority could not vote for her. Her prime concern was to make the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) platform and goals known to all.

Tsai did not win that 2012 election, but she drew a respectable 45.6% of the vote. Back in 2008, Ma had won the presidency with 58.45%. In 2012, however, he garnered only 51.6% and his party lost its veto-overriding majority in the Legislative Yuan. Thanks to Tsai, the DPP was back in the game.

Tsai proved to be resilient. She ran for president again in 2016, and won, this time drawing 56.12% of the vote. That victory came on the heels of the Sunflower Movement’s lengthy protest against the passage of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, a treaty between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (Taiwan) that was signed in June 2013 but never ratified due to opposition from the Sunflower Student Movement, which rejected the CSSTA on the grounds that the KMT leadership in Taiwan negotiated and attempted ratification of the treaty in an undemocratic manner. A growing number of Taiwanese now realize the dangers of having too close economic and trade ties with the PRC. This had been Tsai’s consistent message.

While the 2016 victory was probably Tsai’s most significant achievement, numerous smaller things that she did also impressed me. For example, in 2015, when serving as a greeter at the wake of former human rights activist, Lynn Miles, I was surprised to see Tsai show up to pay her respects. Miles had been involved in human rights, Amnesty International and related peace movements in Taiwan since the 1960s although, by the time he passed away, he was long retired. Yet, Tsai knew of this history and came. I don’t remember any KMT members being in attendance.

Despite her mild and almost shy demeanour, Tsai has also had a lengthy and increasing involvement in political service. She was initially appointed as a trade policy advisor under former KMT president Lee Teng-hui in the early 1990s; her dedicated work there proved instrumental in getting Taiwan into the World Trade Organization. She also helped draft Lee’s state to state doctrine, which gained notoriety in his famed
Deutsche Welle interview (English translation available here).

Tsai’s contributions were also recognized by the next president, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian, so that he appointed her Chair of the Mainland Affairs Council in 2000.

Tsai would officially join the DPP in 2004 and become its first female party chairperson in 2008, a time when the party was reeling from the corruption scandals of the Chen administration. Tsai would nonetheless guide the party free from those scandals and thus be selected as its presidential candidate in 2012.

That year was not the first time that Tsai ran for office; she had run for mayor of New Taipei City in 2010 against KMT Eric Chu and lost. Ironically, Chu would be her opponent in the 2016 presidential election, and she would turn the tables and win.

Tsai has never been a flamboyant politician; her strength has been that she is purposeful, does her homework, and comes prepared. This showed in her increased public popularity.

When running for president in 2012, she got 6,093,578 votes. In her 2016 victory, that increased to 6,894,744 and finally in 2020 when running as an incumbent, her tally broke 8,170,231 votes, the most ever received by any presidential candidate in Taiwan’s history. Her popularity never faded.

On the international scene, Taiwan similarly gained increased recognition under Tsai. Her presidency began with a breakthrough phone call from then US president-elect Donald Trump. Later she would host another breakthrough with the first European Union delegation to visit Taiwan. These realities and her position that Taiwan and China were separate states would of course consistently draw the ire of China.

Cross-Strait tensions reached their peak in August 2022, with the visit of Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives. The PRC not only continued in its sabre rattling but also conducted numerous threatening military exercises around Taiwan.

Tsai was also in vogue internationally. She made the cover of Time Magazine in 2015 and was recognized as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2020. This helped promote Taiwan’s image and name recognition worldwide.

One questionable item that could be seen as a downside to her presidency was that the PRC resumed its poaching of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. Ten were lost during Tsai’s eight years.

However, depending on one’s perspective, not bowing to Beijing’s dollar diplomacy could be seen more as a badge of honour and strength in convictions. Tsai refused to bow to any PRC suggestion that Taiwan consider accepting its one country-two systems proposition. In her annual presidential addresses, she always proclaimed that the two sides of the Taiwan Strait were separate entities. And she never bought into the 1992 consensus, which both the KMT and the CCP accept and advocate.

There were numerous other areas where Taiwan steadily advanced under Tsai. Taiwan took a leadership role in promoting LGBT rights and approved same sex marriage. Transitional justice and reclaiming stolen state assets also advanced, although slowly.

A separate question that always appears when a nation has a female president, is how she handles military matters. Tsai admits that she chose Margaret Thatcher, a former UK prime minister, as her role model. Thatcher was prime minister during the UK’s Falkland Islands war; and she was a leader that no one would accuse of being weak or retiring. With this role model, Tsai worked to strengthen Taiwan’s military by increasing its budget and articulating a clear policy towards China.

In the healthcare field, when Covid-19 hit the world in 2019, Taiwan, under the Tsai administration, was better prepared than many other countries. Thus, even given its proximity to the PRC where the virus originated, Taiwan managed the pandemic better than most countries, had comparatively fewer deaths as a proportion of the population by refraining from imposing extended lockdowns within the country (although borders were closed for a lengthy period), allowing businesses to remain open and children to attend school in person (except for a few short periods).

In trade and economics, Tsai reinvigorated former president Lee Teng-hui’s “go south” policy by promoting trade development with numerous Southeast Asian nations. Taiwan’s economy never faltered and in fact benefitted from the pandemic by supplying many of the goods for which demand exploded as a result of increasing digitalisation and the switch to remote working.

Taiwan is not out of the woods politically since Tsai stepped down. The current Lai administration has its hands full in dealing with the new opposition-controlled legislature. In addition, the PRC is still sabre-rattling, while Taiwan faces numerous other socio-economic challenges, such as a record-low birth rate, shrinking workforce, ageing population, stagnant wages and a lack of affordable housing, to name a few.

Nonetheless, during the Tsai years, Taiwan never lost ground, nor did it take a step backwards. Tsai not only kept the nation on an even keel but made progress in many areas as it moved forward.

All this stands as a credit to Tsai Ing-wen.

Jerome F Keating is a consultant, educator, and writer who lives in Taiwan.

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