March 28, 2023

AAP correspondent

Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ying-wen.
Taiwan President-elect Tsai Ing-wen.

TAIPEI (March 9, 2016) — Taiwan’s president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen, is the country’s first woman to be elected president and her historic self-driven success came with a Taiwanese identity, a feminist heritage and the support of a youth movement. Here’s why Tsai Ing-wen was elected.

This analysis of the Jan. 16, 2016 presidential election in Taiwan is drawn from my personal observations and my years of experience in studying Taiwan. I first arrived in 1965 to study Chinese but soon became involved in the struggles for human rights and democracy that has come to a dramatic success with the election of Tsai Ing-wen to the office of President.

The successful election campaign that brought Dr. Tsai Ing-wen to the Presidency of Taiwan (Republic of China) and resulted in a solid majority in the legislature for her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was energized by the consolidation of a progressive cultural identity from a feminist movement and a young generation that that has drawn heavily from Japan, the U.S., Europe and a nationalistic history of the island of Taiwan.

It is difficult to fully express the dramatic significance of this election.  The peaceful success of a political democratic revolution in 2016 has contradicted the fears and predictions of many pundits and American officials.  In the 1980’s I was present at a meeting of national security agencies during which the CIA feared that a take over by the party that wanted autonomy from China would result in a Chinese invasion.  To counter this there was a quiet discussion of responding to the threat by ordering the U.S. to put down the movement in order to prevent China from invading.

In the 1990s and early 2000s China did threaten Taiwan with missile shots so near the Island’s shore that commercial planes were rerouted and fisherman sought refuge in fishing areas that were too remote to be threatened.  Whether the U.S. will recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty by preventing China from further threats or even outright aggression remains an issue.

This election was significant domestically for bringing a climactic success to Taiwan’s feminist movement.  The movement for women’s rights began under Japanese colonial rule (1895-1945), but was repressed during the martial law era (1949-87) under the repressive rule of the Kuomintang (KMT).  In the latter period women were arrested or harassed for promoting a feminist agenda.  However, in the last three decades the role of women in the family, in the arts, and in politics has changed radically.

Parallel to the emancipation of women was the rise of a spirited and iconoclastic youth culture that had not witnessed the controls and fears of the martial law period.  The youth spearheaded political reforms in the nineties that led to Taiwan’s democratic reforms resulting in popular national elections, and in the last two decades organized spectacularly successful interventions which led to massive demonstrations and occupation of governmental offices to prevent Taiwan’s government from forming unequal “ treaties” or domestically harmful relations with China.

These two movements created an enthusiasm for a Taiwan with an independent status and its own cultural history.  The announcement of Dr. Tsai’s election success illustrates the new culture of Taiwan:  the newspaper, The Apple Daily, declared her successful election in a double page announcement that read:  “The First Chinese Female President. “  But the word for “Chinese” was not the common word used in China.  It did not mean a person from the geographic or politically sovereign area of China.  It meant a person with Chinese ethnic heritage. In this it was only partially correct, as we will see.

Dr. Tsai genetically and historically represents the full spectrum of Taiwan’s heritage.  She is descended from an aboriginal Formosan grandmother, a Hakka (non-ethnic Chinese) mother, and a native Taiwanese father whose family had migrated from China during the latter part of the Manchu (Qing) dynasty of 1644-1911.

Tsai’s family suffered under the colonial rule of Manchu governors from the Qing dynasty, Japanese military and civil rule during Japanese occupation (1895 to 1945), and then rule by the refugee Mainlanders  (1945) from China who imposed martial law through their Party State of the Kuomintang (KMT) until 1987. Under both the Japanese and the KMT, loyalty to their rulers and assimilation into their culture was required, often by force, imprisonment, and even death.

Liberalization of the political system began after the death of Chiang Kai-shek in 1975 through the initiative of his son, Chiang Ching-kuo.  The elderly heir scrapped martial law, engaged in liberal political reforms, and most importantly, despite push back from the military and fervid KMT politicians, appointed a Taiwanese as vice President.  It was this man, Lee Teng-hui, who began to change Taiwanese identity away from loyalty to the mainland culture to loyalty to the culture of the Taiwanese. He promoted a new legitimacy for the state as a separate state from China. Yet, he maintained the claim that the Republic of China was the legitimate ruler of Taiwan. Nonetheless, in the cultural field, he turned Taiwan’s identity into a native awareness of its own heritage and values. 

One can witness this change during his Presidential inauguration in 1996 as the first democratically elected President in Taiwan’s history. Being a Ph.D. graduate from Cornell University, he invited the Cornell choir to perform Beethoven’s Ninth symphony, or more specifically the famous “Ode to Joy” at his ceremony. Lee, who studied in Japan before and after the war, had served in the Japanese army.  He was well aware of the history of the use of Western music in Japanese history.  During the First World War, German Prisoners of War who were located in rural areas of Japan performed Beethoven and other popular works for local Japanese audiences.

What is significant is that the Chinese who fled to Taiwan from 1945-1949 viewed Japan as their enemy and tried to cleanse its former colony of all Japanese influences.  Until martial law was ended in 1987, study of the Japanese language and history were highly restricted or forbidden.  Lee took the opportunity to distance his new Taiwan from the Taiwan of the KMT’s history of martial law by speaking Japanese and using Beethoven at his inauguration, a subtle but meaningful way to declare that a new era of brotherhood as baptized by the “Ode” was dawning for the island nation.

Lee’s post Presidency homes reflect his attitude toward Chinese culture as well as his own spiritual values: basically, Chinese art or cultural items are sparse and inconsequential.  He felt little connection with the goals of the KMT to return to China. In fact, during his Presidency in the late 1900s, he turned his back on the yearly KMT led “celebration” of the 1945 anniversary of Taiwan’s “return” to the Republic of China, by spending the day at a soccer game in the distant southern city of Kaohsiung! (To some this was a slap in the face, because it was in this city in 1978 that the Taiwanese led an explosive movement against KMT rule).

During my research for Lee’s biography I visited his homes.  It was clear that his journey as a nondenominational spiritual Christian was central to his being.  He had paintings of Jesus above his mantle in the living room. His homes reflected a wide appreciation for art:  especially modern European abstract art. Of course he had a few portraits of himself, but what was startling and what documented his sense of separation from the government of the Republic of China was he had no formal photos of his role as President. There were paintings of himself, however. The most iconic shows him playing his favorite sport—golf that he had learned at Cornell. His wife’s collection of glass items fits into this sense of cultural distance from things Chinese. The artistic creation of glass objects did not exist in China, though it was well represented in Russia and Japan. The homes were conspicuous for being non-Chinese and yet very cosmopolitan Taiwanese. In fact, one of their homes looked like it was built by a California architect. It had little room for scrolls and Chinese decorations or furniture.

Lee’s presidency (1988-2000) ended with the election of an energetically pro-Taiwanese president, Chen Shui-bian who had been the Mayor of Taipei (1994-1998) where he ordered the removal of Chiang Kai-shek’s statues from public places, inaugurated the first native Taiwanese art exhibition at the Taipei Fine  Arts  Museum (which later gave space for feminist art works) and replaced the dominant presentation of Chinese history in school textbooks by introducing local Taiwanese documents. Ethnically, he encouraged the non-Chinese ethnic groups (including the nine plus aboriginal tribes, the Hakkas,) to create radio programs, publish newspapers, operate TV programs, and even rename streets in their languages. The road in front of the Presidential Palace was renamed for an early aborigine tribe, the Ketagalan.

Chen’s home was entirely bereft of any Chinese culture.  In fact one painting above his couch in the living room, entitled “Under Martial Law,” satirically represented a young Taiwanese girl in front of an imperial chair secretly reading a forbidden book. On the other wall was a Taiwanese landscape painting in the gouache style of the Japanese period.

Chen Shui-bian’s presidency (2000-2008) witnessed a renaissance of Taiwanese culture and identity. Negatively, he was accused by both America and China of fanning the flames of independence and anti-Chinese xenophobia thus creating friction with China.   His rhetoric gave strength to these charges when he engaged in calling for the Mainlanders (”taro heads”) to return to China, and the Taiwanese (“sweet potatoes”) to take over their historical birthright and land. And he called for a referendum to decide on Taiwan’s independence. 

Ch’en’s DPP party lost the 2008 presidential election to the Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT), Ma Ying-jeou. Ma was born in Hong Kong during the flight of his parents from Communist China in 1950.  Raised in Taiwan, he and his family joined with economic and political elites who wanted to preserve Chinese identities.  Over his eight years in office he engineered policies to form close, even one could say “dependent”, economic policies with China’s businessmen and banks; paved the way for China’s attempted dominance over TV and radio; and restored a pro-China curriculum in the educational system to ensure that Taiwanese would combine their Chinese identity and political heritage in an essentialist faith with Chinese civilization.  Specifically this meant that the schools should teach the writings and life of Confucius.

Contrary to his optimistic predictions of Taiwan’s happy relations with China that would stimulate economic development and a strong future base for the KMT, Ma’s eight years in office resulted in economic decline and domestic turmoil.

Ma initiated the political vengeance of his rule by charging Chen Shui-bian and his family for corruption. The prosecution ended up in a disputed judicial judgment that put Chen in jail under harsh conditions. President Ma was criticized for carrying out a vendetta against Chen for his policies of an independent Taiwan, which seriously threatened relations with China. Ma even expressed the sentiment that Chen would die in jail. Chen suffered physically and mentally so much from his isolated incarceration that he was released to house arrest on medical leave where he stays today. The result of a legislative investigation that was finished last year concluded that Chen was arrested on false charges.

Sympathy for Chen resulted in suspicions of the honesty and integrity of the government. In contrast, many KMT leaders who committed similar or even worse acts of corruption or even espionage received reduced sentences or even were not punished. Pressure is now building to recognize the wounds to Taiwan’s legal system by releasing Chen from an incarceration based on justice denied. Furthermore, President-elect Tsai intends to pursue programs for generational and transitional justice to expose and right the wrongs of the KMT in economic, political, and social cases.

More significant and widespread has been the politicization of the youth.  During the eight years there have been two major youth movements that have strenuously and with great political acumen denounced, challenged, and eventually thwarted government policies to strengthen the power of the KMT and its relationship with China. Students and other youth participated in the Strawberry Generation and the Sunflower campaigns to challenge the KMT government’s authority.  They protested vigorously on many occasions finally taking over the legislative buildings and later the executive office with their demands to change policies toward the educational system which promoted Chinese history, and toward secret or nonpublic decisions to give China more control over the media and economy.

The demographic placement of the youth makes reform nearly inevitable. Each year the population grows by about 200,000.  This results in the mathematical sum that every four years there will be about 800,000 more voters. Today 25 percent of the population is under 24 years of age; 14 percent are under 14 years of age. These young people were born after 1992. With their parents they witnessed the rise of democracy in Taiwan. They have no loyalty with the authoritarianism of the KMT’s Party-State. They no longer identify themselves primarily as Chinese, or even Chinese-Taiwanese. The vast majority of Taiwan youth today believe that they are Taiwanese. Less than 10 percent of the population identify themselves as only Chinese and  an even smaller percentage want to unify with China.

Political scientists and many observers have written about the 2016 election of the President and the Legislature describing how the KMT had managed dismal campaigns: the first Presidential candidate was adamantly for unification with China and additionally proved to be so incapable that she was replaced by the KMT Chairman, Eric Chu , who had come under a firestorm of criticism from his own party for letting her run. The fracas divided the KMT and Chu proved to be a lackluster candidate.

Even though the KMT legislative candidates were equally unimpressive, their main problem was that there were over a dozen minor parties competing for legislative seats.  Among them were several sturdily based youth parties that were even more liberal than the opposition DPP.  These parties rolled in the youth vote that rallied to cooperation with the DPP and thus together they strengthened the vote for Taiwanese identity and reform.  All of the other minor parties that were supportive of the KMT or wanted unification with China did not obtain a large enough vote for representation in the legislature. The DPP won the Presidency with 55 percent of the vote, and won a sizable majority in the legislature. As a result, they will have the first native Taiwanese as majority leader and premier.

Enter 59-year-old Tsai Ing-wen, candidate for the President of Taiwan. Tsai dovetailed the legacies of Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian in her choice of photographs, music, and Masters of Ceremonies.  Her own character expanded deeply into Taiwan and abroad—but not to China.

In a recent photo, the now elderly Lee Teng-hui happily embraces Ms. Tsai. His smile, though aged, shines through the photograph in an expression of joy.  In music, her campaign managers played parts from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony between speeches. Unlike the spiritual and inspirational “Ode to Joy”, Beethoven’s Fifth is a full symphony for the achievement of victory as declared in its title. In Latin numerals, the number five is a V. Analysts of Beethoven’s themes in the Fifth argue that the musical composition executes a crescendo of battles between good and evil, which ultimately result in the victory of the good.

This theme was appropriate for the struggle between Ms. Tsai and Dr. Eric Chu  (A splinter party from the KMT ran the elderly James Soong who had been in charge of the government’s propaganda office and later governor of Taiwan. An aged KMT member, he split the Mainlander vote with Dr. Chu. But even if they had united, Ms. Tsai would have won a majority.)

Leading the pro-Tsai Ing-wen crowds who were cheering for their Presidential candidate was Ms. Chen Chu.  She is a heroine of both Taiwan Independence and the Taiwanese feminist movement. She had been jailed for seven years in an anti-government riot in in Kaohsiung in 1978. Once out of jail, she became a member of Chen Shui-bian’s Mayoral government and then went on to serve his presidency as the Chair of the Council on Labor Affairs. Now, she serves as a third term mayor and the first woman Mayor of Taiwan’s third largest city, Kaohsiung. She has reformed the City’s economy, educational system, and has entered the field of international diplomacy. Among her key cultural achievements are her aesthetic contributions to the city’s identity.  She has changed the logo to a modernistic geometrical design of color and energy which does not provide any geographical identity or touch with Chinese origins.  If one were to summarize her effect on Kaoshiuing, it would be with the term “Cosmopolitanism with Taiwanese  characteristics.” (The above information is drawn from an article by Doris Chang and myself entitled Chen Chu: A Cosmopolitan Leader for Human Rights and Democracy in Taiwan.)

As Ms. Chen Chu (also known by her Japanese name Kiku) stood on the stage next to Tsai during the election and counting of ballots, she represented the historical foundation of Taiwan’s democracy.

Tsai is the epitome of the new Taiwan.  She has a broad educational background:  law degrees from Cornell and the London School of Economics. Endearingly to some, she slips into British vernacular, calling her male aides “lads” and teasing others by calling them “cheeky.” Her American English is so fluent that she often will use it with Taiwanese Americans even though they are both bilingual. This contrasts with Chen Shui-bian and Chen Chu who were not fluent in English.

During the massive rally on the eve of her election the crowd was shouting slogans such as:  “Taiwan is good”; “Light up Taiwan”.

As reported in a Japanese journal by Casey Baseel, “the crowd was also chanting “Kirishima!” which is an anime series that reimagines historical Japanese naval ships as cute girls.

Tsai’s hairstyle and glasses have attracted cartoonists to characterize her as a participant in these popular Japanese theatrics.

What is important about this kaleidoscope of slogans is that they dramatize not just a love of Taiwan, but also an eclectic attitude that can embrace popular culture from other countries—even one that had colonized Taiwan. 

I have learned from interviews on the streets of Taipei that Taiwanese tourists favor Japan more than China for their vacation sojourns. They also find that Japanese tourists in Taiwan are more civil and respectful than their Chinese counterparts. In light of the long-standing and ongoing cultural relationship with Japan then it is not surprising that Tsai can readily and positively be identified with a Japanese anime character.

Tsai Ing-wen’s most stunning accomplishment is her success as a woman who is not the wife or daughter of a political party leader.  She inhabits a very short line of such women politicians—behind her are the former Vice President Lu Hsiu-lien (VP with Chen Shui-bian), and Chen Chu. This rise to power is in contradiction to every aspect of China’s traditional and the current communist regime which still has strong attachments to a misogynistic supremacy.

In the May 4, 1919 movement in the China, there was a magazine entitled “The New Youth.” This journal was dedicated to the goals of Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science. Underlying these themes was a political and cultural campaign against Confucianism and Chinese civilization with a special emphasis on the freedom of women both within and outside of the family.

Today, in Taiwan there is evidence of a similar purpose. The students and young people are engaged in a New Youth movement of their own which rides on the high tides of President-elect Tsai’s victory. One young man I met in Taipei had come from a family that worked for the KMT during and after martial law. His father forged voting ballots. Over the course of our conversation, this young man showed that he was not only knowledgeable about the history of Taiwan, but was dedicated to composing modern musical theatre that was avant garde and international. Although a strong proponent of Tsai’s DPP, he wanted to be free: to travel, to work, to compose. He could see his life as being a member of many different habitats as long as he had his political and cultural freedom to explore new ideas and new frontiers. 

Quartz, “the digitally native news outlet for the new global economy” positively announced the election of the new President with praise and expectation: “Taiwan’s new president is a female academic who loves cats and supports gay rights.” Truly Ms. Tsai is expected to support the rights for gays to marry. Ms. Tsai has given her support to Taiwan’s gay movement, which includes the largest gay parade in Asia.

The backlash against Ms. Tsai and the youth can be witnessed in the reactions of political opponents who attack her for being single, and attacked a leading student leader for being “psychologically abnormal” because his hair is “longer than a woman’s.” (Quartz).

What can we learn from this culturally oriented analysis of Taiwan’s democratic and feminist election?

Political scientists, who concentrate on election results, voting blocs, and geopolitics with China, overlook how culture can shape politics. Once martial law was overthrown in Taiwan, the government lost its ability to control the values, knowledge, and ideas of the people.  It lost its legitimacy in fostering and maintaining a link to China — either in its traditional heritage or to the current Communist Party authority. 

It is the position of the United States that the status of Taiwan — as independent or as part of China — has not yet been determined. And our government declares that the resolution of the split between China and Taiwan can only be determined by agreement of the people on both sides of the Taiwan Straits. It is only in Taiwan that the people have a voice and a living culture.  China is still trapped within a Party State that is politically and culturally repressive, and that does not represent a free and democratic citizenry. It is important to keep in mind that Tsai’s election is not just the result of a political election. It is also the result of a deeply nourished cultural body that provides the election with legitimacy and authority.

Masterminding or fantasizing a diplomatic union between China and Taiwan is blind to the greater reality that Taiwan is a foreign country to China. Slowly the Chinese language in Taiwan is even changing radically from that spoken in China — especially in terms of the copious and endemic censorship of language in China as opposed to the openness and experimentalism of language of the Taiwanese. Tsai’s election is not just the result of a political change but also the culmination of decades of cultural and personal changes that are deeply rooted in Taiwan history. Thus the declaration of Tsai’s victory quoted in the beginning of this article, which read that she was the “First Chinese Female President” should be corrected to broadcast that she is the “First New Taiwanese President of Taiwan.”

Dr. Richard Kagan
Dr. Richard Kagan

Richard C. Kagan, Ph.D. is a professor emeritus of history at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., where he taught history and was director of East Asian Studies from 1973 to 2005. Kagan earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California-Berkeley and his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Kagan is a regular contributor to the Asian American Press and is considered a foremost scholar on Taiwan and China. In covering the Taiwan election Kagan said Taiwan is an underreported area that is nonetheless vital to the lives of many Asian Americans and Asians. 

10 thoughts on “How Taiwan’s first woman was elected president

  1. These are thoughtful and valuable perspectives, Richard. Thank you for seeing what’s there though still evolving in a new direction, and not what the Nationalists and Sino-centric scholars want us to see.

    1. Lorraine: A good question. In Taiwan. they were considered a non-Chinese ethnic group.

      “The Hakka population in Taiwan is around 4.6 million people today.[23] Hakka people comprise about 15 to 20% of the population of Taiwan and form the second-largest ethnic group on the island.” {A commonly recorded statistic}The political history of Taiwan reveals a sharp conflict between Han Chinese (Fujianese) and Hakka. The two Presidents of Taiwan who stressed Taiwan’s independent identity (Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian) claimed they were from Hakka descent. Tsai Ying-wen argued that her Hakka blood made her a better candidate for the Presidency than the Hong Kong born President Ma Ying-jeou. “The Hakka spirit in my blood has been calling me to take the challenge and shoulder the responsibility of being president like numerous Hakka women have done for the past hundreds of years.” Taipei Times, 11/8/2011. Nationalists claim that all Hakkas are Chinese meaning that they belong to China. In the past the government has discriminated against them.

      1. Richard, I think you got confused on the ethnic groupings in Taiwan, it is common to say Taiwan has “4 ethnic groups”, but three of the four commonly used ethnic identities originate from China. The three groups are Hoklo/Minnan (moved from coastal southern Fujian), Hakka (moved from inland Fujian and Guangdong), the above two moved to Taiwan starting in the early 1600s until late 1800s. The third group, “Waishengren”/mainlanders moved to Taiwan after the island was taken over by the Republic of China in 1945, and traced its root to all over China.

        The main reason why Tsai, as well as former presidents Lee and Chen claimed Hakka descents, is to play the diversity card.

        1. Also you accidentally mixed up the ethnic background of her parents

          “Being a mixture of Taiwan’s different ethnic groups, and the descendant of a long-time Taiwanese family, has helped her win the trust of voters. Her father was Hakka, her mother Minnan, and her paternal grandmother was from the Paiwan indigenous tribe.”

  2. Great article!

    “…and attacked a leading student leader for being “psychologically abnormal” because his hair is “longer than a woman’s.” (Quartz).”

    That was actually in reference to Freddy Lim, who isn’t a student or leader thereof. He’s the frontman of the black metal band Chthonic (whose songs are often about Taiwanese history), chair of Taiwan’s Amnesty International chapter, and now he’s been elected to the Legislative Yuan as a member of the New Power Party.

  3. Thorough! This is why the US sits between Europe and Asia culturally; we’re neither east nor west. I wish I had a professor like this back in my days in college.

  4. I must say that while I support Tsai & her movement, the assertion that Hakka are not ethically Chinese is simply wrong. The Hakka (or kejia) were elites who migrated to Fujian & Guangdong from the north China plain in the Song Dynasty during periods of invasions from north of the Great Wall. Unwelcome in the south (kejia means ‘guest people’) many took to Taiwan. Chinese blood but alienated, strong, bright & not about to be swallowed up by Xi & the CPC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *