Taiwan’s president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen, is a skilled politician who brought her party from its worst scandal to its greatest electoral victory, and she is the first woman to officially lead a Chinese-speaking nation since the eighth century.
Ms Tsai, who was introduced in one British newspaper as a ‘democracy campaigner, gay rights champion, and cat lover’, leads the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the pan-Green coalition associated with it. The coalition derives its name from the colour of the DPP’s flag, which depicts a green Taiwan on a white cross. In contrast to the governing Kuomintang (also called the Chinese Nationalist Party), the pan-Greens emphasise the island’s separate identity from the mainland.
Beijing has hardly acknowledged Ms Tsai: ‘We have noticed the election results in the region of Taiwan,’ read an official statement, which did not even bother to say what those results were.
A quick survey of mainland state media articles reveals far less interest in Ms Tsai herself than in explaining why the Kuomintang lost the election. Government incompetence and party disunity are offered as the main reasons for the loss; hardly any of the articles suggest that Taiwan-mainland relations could be a factor.
The articles also praise current president Ma Ying-jeou, who has been friendly towards mainland China, for his response to the recent Kaohsiung earthquake and his tough rhetoric towards Japan. In contrast, Ms Tsai’s response to the earthquake is deemed unsatisfactory, ‘not achieving a passing mark’. ‘When she’s head of the household she’ll know how expensive rice is,’ predicts one editorial, paraphrasing a Chinese proverb.
‘The people of mainland China are sensitive towards issues regarding Taiwan, so the focus has not been so much on the female leadership,’ one Chinese student told me. ‘If that is mentioned at all, it is spoken with ridicule.’
Despite the dismissive rhetoric, Beijing will doubtless pay close attention to Ms Tsai. The DPP hopes to make Taiwan less financially dependent on the mainland, which means the island will have to build stronger relationships with other countries. This should concern Beijing because it needs Taiwan as an ally for its disputes with Japan and in the South China Sea.
Taiwan is also an inspiration to others who wish to gain more political freedom from Beijing. Hongkongers are particularly aware of the contrast between its elections and Taiwan’s. Ms Tsai won with over 6,890,000 votes; Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s current leader, won with 689. Radicals in Hong Kong are frustrated because they think the city is not willing to go to the same lengths as Taiwan for the sake of democracy. They call for more radical action.
Ms Tsai says she hopes to continue the status quo for Taiwan’s relationship to the mainland. By using this language, she can maintain what is in effect an independent Taiwan while not explicitly defying Beijing.
‘The mainland can’t go up in arms against Taiwan,’ my friend told me. Faced with Tsai Ing-wen’s strategy, ‘Beijing can’t pursue unification, and all it can do is to prevent Taiwan from formally declaring independence.’
‘In this scenario, the mainland has the downside.’