With the spotlight on Taiwan and China, the rise of Tsai is a sign of shifting political times in East Asia.
Bestowed with its own hashtag and seen as “historic,” the electoral victory of President-Elect Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has shaken up the political landscape in Taiwan. But it’s not just the island-nation that is holding its breath in anticipation of change. The results of the general election on January 16 have inevitably shifted political tectonics for China and East Asia.
The DPP’s decisive win against the former ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), by a margin of more than 20% was not completely unprecedented. Its victory had been predicted to be “easy,” due to its plans of slowing down the state’s reconciliation with Mainland China.
Throughout incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou’s terms in office since 2008, numerous pro-China agreements were signed to promote greater trade, tourism and investment between Taiwan and China. To top it off, Ma had a historic meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Singapore last November.
The pro-China policies of the Ma administration, however, were only hurting the Taiwanese economy. China is Taiwan’s biggest export market, accounting for 25% of products shipped. In 2015, Taiwan’s economy shrunk for the first time in six years as a result of Beijing’s economic slowdown and currency devaluation woes.
The game-changing term that spurred Taiwanese voters even at the eleventh hour was the desire for economic and social change; change that can only be set in motion if Taiwan does not move closer to China. This was what Tsai and the DPP promised to deliver if voted into power.
What contributed to the KMT’s expected defeat on January 16 was its lackluster, uninspiring presidential campaign. The party offered few new policies to alleviate socioeconomic grievances on the ground, such as housing prices and a questionable pensions system. Its basic emphasis on deepening relations with China was one that was clearly out of sync with young Taiwanese voters, and not even the replacement of Tsai’s opponent, Hung Hsiu-chu, with Eric Chu could help.
Tsai and the DPP, on the other hand, listened to most of the Taiwanese people—especially the young generation—and proposed many ideas to enforce social justice, fairness and the rebuilding of Taiwan’s economy. More importantly, she had the support of the New Power Party, which was formed just 11 months ago by young Taiwanese who were part of the 2014 Sunflower Movement. The party has emerged as an unlikely star in the elections, with one of its candidates, heavy-metal musician Freddy Lim, winning a legislative seat.
The Rise of Tsai and the Potential Ripple Effects in Asia
With astounding academic credentials and policy experience, President-Elect Tsai is not someone who should be taken lightly. A graduate of Cornell University and the London School of Economics, she served as chair of the Mainland Affairs Council between 2000 and 2004 and was the main driver of reform within the DPP after its electoral defeat in 2008.
She does, however, face an uphill task of implementing the reforms she promised during her campaign. Her administration will have to find ways to decrease Taiwan’s economic dependency on China and improve the country’s military preparedness, which has been lax in recent years due to Ma’s pro-China policies.
Tsai’s time as president will not be without pressure and tension. During Taiwan’s previous sole DPP presidency under Chen Shui-bian in 2000-2008, relations with China were often tense. The world is not watching with bated breath. The Tsai presidency is now an additional foreign policy grievance for Beijing, especially after a year of shaky relations with Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and the US over the South China Sea.
The rise of Tsai, however, is a sign of shifting political times in the wider region. Unlike other female leaders in Asia—such as Aung Sung Suu Kyi of Myanmar or President Park Guen-hye of South Korea—Tsai does not hail from a political family.
Despite not having any political connections, she has proved her ability to commit strongly to her principles. Throughout her election campaign, she emphasized the need to reexamine cross-strait negotiations and rules with China, and she has not backed the so-called “1992 consensus.” Officials from Beijing and the KMT government, at that time, created the consensus to promote a public understanding that there was “only one China,” without truly defining what that meant in practical terms.
Tsai’s stance toward China makes her someone that Taiwanese and Hong Kongers will scrutinize, given that Hong Kong’s political future remains uncertain after the Umbrella Revolution that took place in 2014.
The president-elect’s quiet, pragmatic approach of listening to young Taiwanese voters, and her solid stance toward matters that have become benchmarks of social justice and openness such as LGBT rights are political tactics that politicians in countries such as Singapore should take note of. In June 2015, she acknowledged in a Center for Strategic and International Studies speech that she is attempting, through her bid for presidency, to help Taiwan become the forefront of crafting “new Asian values.”
These values are needed now more than ever in not only Taiwan, but in Asia. The wave of economic turbulence Asia has faced over the last two decades has resulted in “unsustainable results in resources.” Revamped Asian values that promote innovation, sustainability, equitable distribution and social justice have to be enforced.
Some may argue that Tsai has succeeded in doing so because Taiwan is one of the strongest and more open civil societies in Asia. But the fact that she chose to place LGBT rights prominently in her campaign—despite the taboo associations it has—is a sign of Taiwan’s current generation of politicians acknowledging that it’s only a matter of time before such issues become political matters on an equal footing with housing, education and health care in East Asia.
Until then, Tsai’s presidency over the next four years will be an interesting one as she paves the way for a less confrontational approach to counter China’s quest for unification, while dealing with domestic socioeconomic concerns that her voters want solved.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.