2012 / 7月
Chen Hsin-yi /photos courtesy of courtesy of Eurasian Publishing /tr. by Phil Newell
Having fought the good fight in a failed bid for the presidency, and having resigned her position as chairman of the Democratic Progressive Party, Tsai Ing-wen is most accustomed these days to being addressed as “Professor.” It fits. She is more thoughtful scholar than slogan-shouting politico.
Introspective and quiet by nature, she has never much enjoyed the limelight. She never expected that at age 43 she would suddenly be invited to join the cabinet, and from there progress into the stratosphere of politics and the very center of power.
There have been three major turning points in Tsai Ing-wen’s life: First, when former president Lee Teng-hui began to consult her on important issues and made her an advisor to the National Security Council. Second, when she was appointed by then-president Chen Shui-bian as chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council, the government agency in charge of relations with mainland China. Third, when she became the first ever woman to become chairman of a major political party. Yet oddly enough, she never expected to have a career in politics.
Born in 1956, Tsai grew up in a thriving commercial family. Her father had nine children, with Ing-wen the youngest daughter. Because he hoped that at least one of his kids would learn something about the law, as that could help the family business, and seeing as Ing-wen’s older brothers and sisters all had their own vocations, her father asked her as a special favor to choose law as her first option for university study. This got Tsai launched on her academic track to National Taiwan University, Cornell University, and the London School of Economics, followed by a career as a university professor. There didn’t seem to be any obstacles to continuing on this path for the rest of her life.
In 1993, at age 37, as an expert in both law and international economics and trade, she was asked to serve on the International Trade Commission of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, where she handled international trade negotiations. Over time, she became one of then-president Lee Teng-hui’s most valued counselors on relations with mainland China, and served as a senior advisor to the National Security Council in 1999–2000.
In 2000, the opposition won the presidency for the first time in Taiwan’s history, and, in response to an invitation from incoming DPP president Chen Shui-bian, Tsai became the head of the Mainland Affairs Council. Her appointment was especially noteworthy because she was not only the MAC’s first female chairman, but also its youngest chairman ever.
At the time, cross-strait relations were in a very sensitive state because of the mainland’s hostility to the DPP’s policy preferences, so she came under a great deal of scrutiny both of her ability and her political orientation. In her four years in office, she successfully promoted a more equal model of cross-strait development, including implementation of the “mini three links,” the convening of the Economic Development Advisory Conference (an attempt to reach consensus between the two main political parties on economic issues), and the passage of amendments to the Act Governing Relations between the People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area.
After the presidential race in 2008, when DPP candidate Frank Hsieh ended up on the losing end, there was a crisis in the party that threatened to lead to a breakup. Many voices were raised calling for internal reassessment and reform. At this critical juncture Tsai took on the heavy responsibility of leading the party through a transformation, and threw herself into the task of getting party candidates into office. After winning re-election as DPP chairman in 2010, looking like a field marshal preparing her troops for battle, she declared that the 2010 elections for the mayors of the five special municipalities would mark a return to the party’s previous strategy of “surrounding the center from the periphery.” She personally became the DPP candidate for mayor of New Taipei City.
Although she lost that race, the campaign marked her transition from, in her words, “a university professor and member of the social elite” into “a political figure able to interact naturally with the general public, and able to relate to and have a feeling for the problems and complaints of ordinary people.” With the 2012 election for president coming up, as growing numbers of prominent DPP figures decided to move away from the front lines of the political struggle, she did not shy away from throwing her hat into the ring—and she won the party’s internal nomination process to become its presidential candidate.
Here’s what Tsai Ing-wen meant by describing herself as an “atypical political figure”: She lacked the same ambition, the same thirst for power, as a mainstream politician. She was at all times psychologically ready to step down from politics by taking responsibility for policy errors or election defeat.
In her oral autobiography, Tsai reveals that because her rallies were often considered lacking in fire and brimstone, she sought advice from Lee Yung-feng, leader of the Paper Windmill Theater troupe, on what to do if you get a chilly response from an audience. Lee told her that truly professional actors aren’t affected by what happens offstage; they focus on getting their roles right no matter what the response. So she decided to stay with her own persona and personal political vocabulary, presenting her views methodically and logically. Though sometimes criticized for failing to yell out standard crowd-motivating slogans with sufficient ardor, she stuck with her approach of creating a mood, both onstage and off, of “low-key but deeply felt passion.”
Throughout our interview, Tsai was continually friendly and smiling, but always in a very composed way. It was only when the issue of “being single” came up that she seemed to let her hair down a little and, with a crooked smile, replied: “In today’s society, a person who is not married can still get all the things that marriage has to offer.”
At the end of February, when she resigned as DPP chairman, she quoted the words of the late American political theorist Samuel Huntington, who said in his book The Third Wave that history does not go in a straight line, but when wise and decisive leaders decide to push history forward, it does indeed go forward! By “leaders,” Tsai was not pointing to any particular individual, but to the Democratic Progressive Party as a whole. “You have to have faith that we are the force dragging history forward!” As for her own future, she says, “I will go out searching for the sources of strength that will change Taiwan.” Tsai knows exactly where she has come from and where she wants to go.