On May 20th, 2020, Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ying-wen from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), started her second term in office. At the elections held on January 11th, 2020, Tsai clearly beat male surprise candidate Han kuo-yu from the Kuomintang (KMT), taking almost 20% more votes (57.13% to 38.61%).
Like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to whom she likes to compare herself, Tsai comes from an academic background. She attended Taipei’s second best, female-only high school, graduated from National Taiwan University’s law department in 1978, earned a Master of Laws at Cornell University near New York in 1980, and a PhD in law at the London School of Economics in 1984. Back home, Tsai taught at several local universities.
In 2000, Chen Shui-bian, the island’s first successful DPP candidate for the presidency, appointed her as chairperson of the Mainland Affairs Council, which deals with all China-related issues. Since she herself joined the DPP in 2004, she started an impressive career. Being almost immediately elected legislator at large, in 2006 Tsai was appointed Vice Premier.
Replaced due to a cabinet reshuffle in 2007, she was voted DPP chairwoman in 2008. Tsai ran for mayor of Taipei in 2010, but KMT opponent Hau Lung-pin won. Then she became DPP presidential candidate in 2012, but lost to incumbent president Ma Ying-jeou from the KMT. Returning as party chief in 2014, Tsai led the DPP to an historic victory in local elections later that year and became the front-runner in the 2016 presidential elections. She won by a landslide, obtaining 56.12% against KMT Chairman Eric Chu’s 31.07% of the votes. In 2018, she resigned as party leader after the DPP suffered heavy losses at local level, though since today she’s also back in that position.
Under Tsai, military spending has risen considerably. Compared to 2019, the defense budget for 2020 represents an 8.3% increase in total. A key aspect is the development of a new fighter jet, recently presented to the public, and locally-build submarines. For a left-wing government this is rather unusual, and due to Taiwan’s precarious international standing. Most countries refuse to sell arms to the island out of fear of Chinese reprisals, which have happened in the past. On the contrast, US President Donald Trump last summer approved an important package worth 2.2 billion US dollars for Taiwan.
Tsai’s promise to make Taiwan nuclear-free by 2025 was unrealistic form the very beginning, and a try to echo similar fashionable demands in the West. After an energy blackout in 2017 and a rejection of the plan by referendum in 2018, amendments related to the Electricity Act were dropped in 2019. However, postponed isn’t cancelled!
The amendments to the Labor Standards Law in January 2017 were later criticized for their lack of flexibility and an overly complicated scheme for calculating overtime pay, which resulted in a net decrease in total pay. They had to be revised again. At the same time, the number of national holidays was reduced from 19 to 12. All of these measures were met with public protests.
Tsai wants to preserve regional and aboriginal languages, to put them on an equal footing with Mandarin by creating more broadcast services, guaranteeing access to public services in each language, and introducing elective language classes in primary schools. On the other hand, the old problem of random romanization, which created a lot of confusion among foreigners in the past, will only increase.
Taiwan’s former pension system was due to default by 2030 for civil servants as well as schoolteachers, and 2020 for the military. Now both groups upon retirement still can choose between receiving pensions in monthly instalments or via a lump sum, though the preferential interest rate has been cut significantly. It’s estimated that these drastic reforms affected 63,000 military veterans, whose minimum monthly pensions are set at 38,990 New Taiwan dollars, as well as 130,000 public servants and 140,000 schoolteachers, who receive 32,160 New Taiwan dollars per months. In fact, many of these persons do have additional income from rental or stocks.
In December 2017 a Transitional Justice Commission was set up to come to terms with a difficult past. It was often marked by the antagonism between those that came to Taiwan in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek, commonly known as Mainlanders, and those that lived there already during the Japanese colonial period between 1895 and 1945. The new body has exonerated political prisoners from the authoritarian era, which lasted from 1949 to 1987, made recommendations on the general removal of authoritarian symbols related to Generalissimo Chiang’s autocratic rule, and declassified sensitive government documents from that time. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t turn out to be a rather one-sided matter.
The Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee, established in July 2016 as an independent government agency, is responsible for the investigation and returning of ill-gotten assets of political parties and their affiliated organizations before the lifting of martial law on July 15th, 1987. As the only legal party in the decades before, the KMT became the main target of this investigation and called it a political witch-hunt.
In May 2019, same-sex marriage was legalized exactly two years after Taiwan’s highest court, the Council of Grand Justices, ruled that the ban barring gay couples from marrying violated “the people’s freedom of marriage” and their right to equality”. This development is insofar interesting as gay marriage was rejected by a large majority of Taiwanese in two referendums hold in November 2018.
Nonetheless, the government confirmed that the Court’s ruling would be implemented and that the referendums could not support laws contrary to the Constitution. Exactly as in the West, progressive political forces respect the people’s will only if it fits into their concept.
Part of her domestic record is definitely controversial. However, her weak point remains foreign policy. Since her initial inauguration in May 2016, Sao Tome and Principe, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati all broke off diplomatic relations and (re)established them with China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, and won’t give up the questionable idea of a “reunification” between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits.
As Peking considers Tsai to be a separatist like the Dalai Lama, it has further reduced Taiwan’s little international space at all levels, blocking its access to institutions for which statehood is needed. The World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, just finished its virtual meeting without allowing Taiwan to participate, not even as an observer.
This is particularly outrageous as the country response to the plague has been extraordinarily efficient. For the last 13 days, no new cases have been reported! At least, Washington has made a very strong statement about this unfortunate situation, and other nations like Australia expressed their support for Taiwan’s future participation.
To avoid further isolation by China, since September 5th, 2016 Tsai has been promoting the New Southbound Policy, an initiative to improve relations with 18 countries in Asia and Australasia who actually don’t recognize that Taiwan is an independent State.
This ambitious project promotes cooperation and exchanges in the areas of agriculture, education, medicine, technology, tourism and trade with Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, India, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
At age 63, she is not married and does not have children, but two pet cats, one of which could be seen on a recent election poster. As I am myself a childless bachelor, as well as a fervent cat lover and also have two (which I brought from Taiwan to Spain), we have more things in common than I thought.