A Woman of Firsts:
President Tsai Ing-wen
By Samantha Su
It is May 20, 2016. The air is hot and humid outside of the Presidential Office of Taiwan, and reporters stand idly by, anxiously fidgeting with cameras and voice recorders. President Tsai Ing-Wen appears in a cream-colored suit and takes her place at the podium teeming with pink flowers. Despite stating that she is not the best public speaker, her voice is clear as she addresses the Taiwanese people. At this moment, she is not just a woman. She is not defined by her marriage status or the number of children she has. She is a leader.
President Tsai Ing-Wen has paved the way for a new type of leadership. As Taiwan’s first female president, Tsai Ing-Wen represents change in multiple ways. As a Hakka woman, she is the first president to represent the ethnic minority, and she is also the first president who is not affiliated with a prominent political family. She is also the second president representing the Democratic Progressive Party. All past presidents, other than Chen Shui Bian, were of the Kuomintang Party. She was elected on January 16th, winning against Kuomintang party member Eric Chu in a landslide.
Coming from humble beginnings, Tsai Ing-Wen grew up the daughter of an auto-mechanic. She was the youngest of 11 children and was often overlooked. With the encouragement of her father, she went to university to study law. An extremely bright scholar, she obtained degrees at Cornell, the National Taiwan University, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Upon returning home, she taught law at the Soochow School of Law and the National Chengchi University. In the early 1990s, she worked as a trade negotiator involved in Taiwan’s eventual entry into the World Trade Organization. She then went on to work as the Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council and chairwoman of the Consumer Protection Commission. In 2004, she became affiliated with the Democratic Progressive Party and later served as the DPP chairwoman.
Despite winning the election, President Tsai Ing-Wen still faced backlash from opposing sides. Chinese military officer Wang Weixing wrote in the state-run newspaper Xinhua that the president “[did] not have the emotional burden of love, of family or children so her political style and strategies are displayed to be more emotional, personal, and extreme.” With Taiwan and China historically known for having patriarchal societies, Tsai Ing-Wen faced more than just policy differences as causes for doubt and contention. The sexist remarks backfired, as many citizens, both Chinese and Taiwanese, were angered over the blatant discrimination and were quick to jump to her defense. Sun Xingjie, a lecturer at Jilin University in northeast China wrote, “It is discrimination against women and being single. Putin divorced during his presidency. Has Russia’s strategy changed since?” President Tsai Ing-Wen had already proved she did not need a husband in order to win the election and take the chance to create change within the Taiwanese society.
Facing a long-standing issue of Chinese and Taiwanese relations, specifically concerning Taiwanese independence, President Tsai Ing-Wen has had to straddle the line of appeasement of China while remaining steadfast and uncompromising in her beliefs. A moderate within a party not known for being moderate, her inauguration speech was crafted with a degree of ambiguity that sought to avoid alienating or provoking tension with China, while still asserting the importance of Taiwanese democracy. She has promoted a status quo policy with China, but also intentionally and noticeably chose not to address the 1992 consensus within her inauguration speech. The 1992 consensus stated that there is one China which has two states. The importance of the 1992 consensus is that it essentially affirmed that Taiwan belonged to China, but no one was sure of which China. There is one state, yet the interpretations of that state are purposefully unclear. In response to Chinese intimidation tactics of sending military ships and bombers to the island, Tsai Ing-Wen asserted that she wanted to make Taiwan indispensable and would earn the recognition Taiwan deserved on a global scale.
In terms of other policies, she has emphasized support for education initiatives and economic growth by way of free trade agreements. She has publicly endorsed same-sex marriage and LGBT rights. Despite her promotion of social change, the implementation of legal same-sex marriage faces opposition, and the approval of the November 24th referendum, in which the public would vote on same-sex marriage, was seen as a lack of actual, meaningful support for the LGBT community on the part of Tsai- Ing Wen’s government.
With issues of economic, judicial, and pension reform amidst navigating cross-strait relations, Tsai Ing-Wen faces considerable opposition from all sides. Yet, her message as a female leader is a testament to the idea that we should not have to qualify the word “leader” with “female.” The same as any good leader, she is staunch in her support of democracy and freedom. In a male-dominated political landscape, she has had to constantly prove herself and be a representation of her gender. In spite of this, her sole focus is the people. As she states in her inauguration speech, “We, as a free and democratic people, are committed to the defense of our freedom and democracy as a way of life. Each and every one of us participated in this journey. My dear fellow Taiwanese, we did it.”