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Taiwanese President-elect Tsai Ing-Wen

On January 19, 2016, Taiwan, one of East Asia’s strongest democracies, made history by electing its first female president in its sixth-ever presidential election. Tsai Ing-wen (pinyin: Cai Ying-Wen; 蔡英文), 59, is the president-elect of the Republic of China (ROC), is the chairwoman of the Democratic Progress Party (DPP), a traditionally pro-independence group that also won a landslide in the Taiwanese Parliament elections, capturing a majority 68 seats (out of 113) compared to the current 35 for the current Kuomintang ruling party. Tsai Ing-wen won with 56.1% of the more than 8 million votes cast, good for a 66% turnout – which was less than the 77% recorded in 2012 and 76.33% in 2008. Taiwan is a country of 23 million people and is one of the most densely populated countries in the world with pop density of 648 people per km2 (July 2015).

If you haven’t heard the name “Tsai Ing-wen” before, you’re definitely not alone (this writer hadn’t heard of her!). But Dr. Tsai, as she is known, has been involved in high-level politics in Taiwan since 2000, when she served in the first DPP President Chen Shui-bian’s (2000-2008) Cabinet as Minister of the Mainland Affairs Council during his first term, and as Vice Premier in his second term. She was also the DPP’s presidential candidate in 2012, and served as Party Chair from 2008-2012 in addition to her current stint starting in 2014. Tsai graduated from the College of Law, National Taiwan University in 1978 and moved to the United States to pursue a Master of Laws (law degree for those holding an undergraduate law degree) at Cornell University, graduating in 1980. In 1984 she finished a Ph.D. in law at the London School of Economics. Upon her return to Taiwan, she taught law at several universities in Taipei. In other words, she really knows her law.

Arguably the most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world, Tsai is a seemingly quirky and refreshingly liberal, new-age candidate. She is unmarried, has never held an elected office, and campaigns with cats. In fact, before this January, she had lost almost every general election she’d been nominated for in her 16-year political career. In November, she came out in support of gay marriage: “In the face of love, everyone is equal. Let everyone have the freedom to love and to pursue their happiness. I am Tsai Ing-wen, and I support marriage equality.” [Note: Contrary to name analysis, her name, 英文 “ying-wen” does not actually mean “English (Language)” anymore than the surname “Smith” means “one who works with hammers” today. Her name is a combination of the “” meaning “hero/flower/handsome” and meaning “literature/gentle”]

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Potential Cabinet post for the Cat?

So the big question for those of us in the West appears to be: What does this mean for China-Taiwan Cross-Straight Relations? Tsai’s ascendancy comes amidst widespread discontent with the Kuomintang, a party that has ruled the island for all but 8 years (2000-2008) since 1949. In fact, the past eight years in Taiwan have been under Kuomintang President Ma Ying-Jeou. During the KMT’s latest reign, the island’s economy flat-lined despite deeper economic integration with the mainland People’s Republic of China. Resentment towards the KMT further mounted in March 2014, when the Legislative Yuan passed a trade pact with China. The student-driven Sunflower Movement blossomed in response, and grassroots protests swept the island.

The history of China-Taiwan relations is an entire blog post in itself (or Robert Caro-length tome) – which I may end up writing in the future. The political, economic, and legal relations are fascinating. If there was momentum for unification, there is no more. The PRC continues to claim the ROC government is illegitimate, and refuses to hold diplomatic relations with countries that recognize Taiwan as an independent state, commonly known as the “One-China Policy”. The ROC, however, has its own constitution, independently elected president and legislative branch, and a military supported by American firepower (Taiwan Relations Act of 1979).

Tsai’s victory may make leaders in Beijing a bit nervous, with her party’s sympathetic views towards independence. However, fears of war or armed conflict are overblown, as Tsai herself has not publicly advocated for independence. It will be incredibly interesting. Taiwan’s economy contracted in the last quarter for the first time in 6 years, meaning Tsai’s first priority will be promoting economic growth – something that war or PRC-antagonization could not solve.

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Taiwan probably doesn’t want to wage war with China…

Robin Ye is a fourth-year in the college. He is from Portland, Oregon.

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