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Turbulent Times Ahead for Tsai Ing-wen’s Taiwan?

24 May 2016
By Mark Harrison
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.
Photo credit: David Reid (Flickr) Creative Commons

President Tsai’s approach to governance reasserts Taiwan’s identity as a self-reliant Asian tiger. However, she must also contend with relations with Beijing and with the long legacy of Taiwan’s authoritarian past.

On 20 May Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated as president of Taiwan, following her sweeping victory in the January elections. Members of her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), have already taken up their majority seats in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament.

Since the election, Tsai has assembled her new cabinet and made senior government appointments. These include Dr David Lee as minister for foreign affairs and Katharine Chang as chair of the Mainland Affairs Council. Both are very experienced policymakers. Their career backgrounds suggest that Tsai is setting aside partisan politics to draw upon the best professional capacity available to her. Taiwan’s premier is Lin Chuan, a former minister of finance under the last DPP government of Chen Shui-bian (2000–2008). As part of assembling her new administration, Tsai convened a retreat in February at which she reportedly asserted her expectations for disciplined and united government.

With annual GDP growth at less than 1 per cent, the economy will be a major issue for the Tsai government. It has announced innovation policies aimed at specific sectors, such as green energy and biotechnology, which it believes will reinvigorate the economy. The Tsai government will also maintain the outgoing Kuomintang (KMT) government’s commitment to Taiwan’s membership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and bilateral free trade agreements. The Tsai government is also planning significant investment in national defence, an area of policy that the previous KMT government had not emphasised.

In these ways, Tsai has signalled her intention to establish a technocratic administration focused on promoting economic development and maintaining Taiwan’s place in its global trade networks. She is standing in the long legacy of Taiwanese developmentalist policymaking that began with the creation of Taiwan’s export-oriented manufacturing economic model in the late 1950s. Tsai’s approach to governance reasserts Taiwan’s identity as a self-reliant Asian tiger, progressing ever higher up global value chains.

But Tsai must also contend with relations with Beijing and with the long legacy of Taiwan’s authoritarian past.

Since the election, there have been a number of tests of Taiwan’s international relations and cross-Strait relations. Taiwan’s former ally, Gambia, was granted formal diplomatic relations by the People’s Republic of China. In Kenya and Malaysia, groups of Taiwanese who had been arrested in fraud cases were deported to mainland China instead of Taiwan, allegedly as a result of pressure from Beijing. There have been accounts of Beijing limiting the numbers of mainland Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan. The World Health Assembly prevaricated over Taiwan’s attendance at the forthcoming session, although the invitation was eventually sent and accepted by the new health minister Lin Tsou-yen.

Taken together, these events may point to Beijing seeking to constrain Taiwan’s international space in response to Tsai’s victory and the DPP legislative majority. At the same time, on the Taiwan side, supporters of the new government have an interest in talking up these issues in order to frame Taiwan as reasonable and accommodating. On the China side, a key architect of cross-Strait policy Gong Qinggai, deputy director of the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council recently became the target of a party discipline violation investigation.

Therefore, while cross-Strait policymaking on the Taiwan side is accompanied by a great deal of media noise and partisan politicking, on the China side it is entangled in the roiling tensions within the party under Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.

Beijing has set one red line, and that is a demand that Tsai’s government accept the so-called 1992 Consensus. Tsai has so far resisted, going only so far as to recognise its historical place in the development of relations with the mainland. Affirmation of the 1992 Consensus by Tsai will therefore be a policy goal in itself for Beijing and also a lever for each side to force concessions in other areas of the cross-Strait relationship for the foreseeable future.

Tsai brings considerable experience to cross-Strait relations and is supported by a well-established institutional apparatus. Her government, and Taiwanese society, is on less certain ground in addressing the legacy of the martial law period. The meaning of authoritarian rule under the KMT from 1945 to 1987 has begun the equivocal shift from a politico-juridical sphere of compensation claims and legal redress to the cultural and social spheres of remembrance and historiography. Experiences of state violence that have scarred families and individuals across generations are only now, nearly 30 years after the end of martial law, beginning to be fully heard in Taiwanese public life.

Tsai has declared her intention to establish a truth and reconciliation commission, fulfilling a long-standing aspiration among elements of the DPP. But Tsai’s technocratic style as well as the partisan and sometimes insular politics of the DPP will be tested by a society that is confronting questions about justice, forgiveness and historical memory. The scars left in Taiwanese society by martial law are very deep. How her government assuages them will be her greatest challenge and, perhaps, her most enduring legacy.

Mark Harrison is a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania and Adjunct Director of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This article originally appeared on East Asia Forum on 23 May. It is republished with permission.