The people of Taiwan elected their first female President on Saturday — a bookish technocrat who has vowed to put domestic concerns above deepened ties with China, which are increasingly seen here as a poisoned chalice.
Tsai Ing-wen, a U.S.- and U.K.-trained scientist, and leader of the Beijing-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), took some 56% of the vote to end eight years of Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) rule blighted by anemic growth and soaring inequality.
“We will put political polarization behind us and look forward to the arrival of an era of new politics in Taiwan,” Tsai said after her victory. “The people expect a government that can lead this country into the next generation, a government that is steadfast in protecting this country’s sovereignty.”
Tsai has pledged to revitalize the sluggish economy of this de facto nation of 23 million by diversifying trade with South, Southeast and East Asia, thus breaking with the KMT’s policy of greater integration with China — the world’s second biggest economy — in the hopes that it would boost Taiwan’s own.
Beijing still claims Taiwan as a “renegade province” to be reclaimed by force if necessary — a relic of China’s civil war and the flight across the strait in 1949 by the defeated Nationalist forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Because of Chinese pressure, Taiwan is only officially recognized by a handful of nations and has no U.N. seat. Many in Taiwan fear that the last decade of rapprochement between these longtime foes is merely a prelude to Beijing’s soft annexation of the island.
Attention to detail has become the hallmark of the former university professor Tsai. Born into an affluent Taipei family, the 59-year-old studied law in Taiwan before earning her masters at Cornell and a doctorate at the London School of Economics. Beneath a decidedly wonkish demeanor, confidants say Tsai has a droll manner, and party officials have worked hard to cultivate a softer image, posting photos to social media of the now most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world with her two cats, Think Think and Ah Tsai.
It is a message that chimed with younger voters, who stood at the vanguard of the DPP victory. At the party’s final election rally outside Taipei’s presidential palace on Saturday, heavy-metal bands, one clad in menacing Peking opera masks, entertained the thousands that braved pelting rain to wave banners bearing the party slogan “Light Up Taiwan.”
The DPP has promised a raft of stimulus measures, including five industrial and innovation hubs across the island, a shake-up of the education system, and efforts to boost tourism. The party also wants to encourage Taiwanese businesses that have invested in China to consider moving operations home.
For now, Taiwan’s people can relish in a vibrant democratic process — it is the only one in the Chinese world — as well as the fact that they have elected the first female leader of an Asian democracy who is not following in the footsteps of a previous male relative. Tsai is a self-made woman for a self-made people.