Taiwan has elected Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-Wen as president. Since most Westerners are only vaguely aware of Asia as That Place Where Kung Fu and Most of Our Stuff Comes From, here’s why this election is a huge deal.
She’s Taiwan’s first female president
Tsai Ing-Wen’s election makes her the first woman to serve as president in Taiwan, and perhaps the most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world. This serves in sharp contrast to the rest of Southeast Asia, where governments are heavily male-dominated.
She could legalize same-sex marriage in Taiwan
Tsai Ing-Wen has spoken out in favor of LGBT rights for years. Her presidency could see Taiwan become the first country in Southeast Asia to recognize same-sex marriage. The people of Taiwan are more than ready for it; a poll found that two-thirds of Taiwanese people support gay marriage.
Her running mate is a hero scientist
The new Vice President Chen Chien-Jen is a famous, influential epidemiologist. He’s widely regarded as a hero for playing a huge role in the fight against SARS back in 2003.
Tsai isn’t a typical politician, either. She’s more of an academic: a soft-spoken, hard-working former college professor who favors quiet determination over bombastic speeches.
It marks a change in Taiwan’s attitudes
Tsai Ing-Wen’s election did not come as a surprise. She was widely expected to win by a landslide, casting out Taiwan’s Beijing-friendly Nationalist Party, which has held power for the past eight years.
This isn’t Tsai’s first presidential run. She ran (and lost) back in 2012 by a narrow margin.
But the people of Taiwan are evidently ready for a change, not only in social values but in political attitudes as well. Taiwan’s previous president, Ma Ying-jeou, promoted policies favorable to the Chinese Communist Party, claiming a closer relationship with mainland China would benefit Taiwan economically. It didn’t. Taiwan’s economic growth has been stagnant, and now that China’s economy is slowing and its stock market has been a dumpster fire for the past six months, it looks like an economic partnership with the nation is not going to do Taiwan much good.
It could mark a push for greater Taiwanese independence
Relations between Taiwan and China are… awkward, to put it mildly. If they were on Facebook, China would describe itself as in a relationship with Taiwan, while Taiwan might choose it’s complicated.
China sees Taiwan as its territory under the “one country, two systems” rule. But Taiwan increasingly views itself as an independent entity. The people of Taiwan largely don’t consider themselves Chinese. Taiwan has much greater freedom of the press and has democratically-elected leaders. Meanwhile, China is so uncomfortable with acknowledging Taiwan’s freedom that its state-run media doesn’t even use like to the word “president” when writing about the election.
In many ways, Taiwan represents what China could be if the Chinese Communist Party weren’t holding it back: progressive, free, open and international, while still retaining much of the traditional Chinese culture that mainland China destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
China’s increasingly repressive behavior has only further increased Taiwan’s desire for independence. Chinese authorities infuriated Taiwanese voters by forcing teen idol Chou Tzuyu to publicly apologize for waving a Taiwanese flag.
The DPP, Tsai Ing-Wen’s party, is strongly in favor of Taiwanese autonomy. As president, Tsai could push for greater political independence.
It’s making Beijing nervous
Obviously, China is not fond of the idea of losing control of Taiwan. China’s government has been increasing its iron-fisted control not only of its own nation but of its other “one nation, two systems” territory Hong Kong as well.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken a hard line against Taiwan sovereignty, warning last year that the “earth will move and mountains will shake” if Taipei takes any steps toward independence.
Needless to say, Beijing is not a fan of the DPP. Netizens report that Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, is currently blocking searches for Tsai Ing-Wen, like Harry Potter characters calling Voldemort “he-who-must-not-be-named”.
China’s Weibo has blocked searches for Tsai Ing-wen, the candidate widely expected to be Taiwan’s new president. pic.twitter.com/NqW8jxMSlI
— Alan Wong (@alanwongw) January 16, 2016
Tsai will have to play her cards carefully to avoid triggering a backlash from Beijing. Her VP, hero scientist Chen, may keep her from proposing anything too radical.
The DPP has traditionally emphasized Taiwanese autonomy, which riles Beijing, but “we don’t want to be troublemakers”, says Chen. He acknowledges that he himself came up against the Chinese authorities during the SARS epidemic, but says that agreement on how to handle information on health and infectious diseases has largely resolved the issues.
(featured image via Facebook)