Tsai Ing-wen, who studied in London and admires Margaret Thatcher, is favourite to become the first woman charged with guiding the republic’s tricky relationship with China
As a British-educated admirer of Margaret Thatcher, the woman set to become leader of China’s fierce rival Taiwan was always likely to be regarded with suspicion by Beijing’s Communist Party apparatus.
The fact that she is head of a party dedicated to promoting the island’s independence from the Chinese mainland only makes matters worse.
Beijing duly met expectations yesterday by firing a warning shot across the bows of Tsai Ing-wen, favourite to become first woman leader of Taiwan – the first woman leader, in fact, in the modern Chinese world.
Zhang Zhijun, China’s minister responsible for Taiwan affairs, warned it would be “unswerving and firm as a rock” in the face of threats to its sovereignty over the island.
“Let’s not regret the value of peace and development after we’ve lost it,” he said, in a New Year’s message.
Ms Tsai, an academic by background, is an unusual arrival in the conservative and male-dominated world of Far East Asian politics. But polls put her Democratic Progressive Party well in the lead for the presidential election due to take place in two weeks’ time.
Her sex may not officially be as important to Beijing as her politics – the DPP, unlike the ruling Kuomintang, believes Taiwan would be better off declaring the island to be an independent country rather than maintaining the international community’s polite fiction that it is an integral part of China.
But the fact that Taiwan will become the second of China’s close and democratic neighbours to be ruled by a woman – the other being President Park Geun-Hye of South Korea – will be a constant reminder of the political revolutions China prefers to resist. China’s ruling inner circle – the Politburo Standing Committee – has never had a woman member.
Hostility between China and the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally called, has eased in the past two decades – a summit in November between current President Ma Ying-jeou and Xi Jinping, his mainland opposite number, was the first meeting of the two leaderships since civil war split them in 1949.
But Beijing continues to regard Taiwan as a “renegade province” that should be reincorporated into a Greater China and its stated position is that any declaration of formal independence by the island would be met with military force.
The United States is pledged to defend Taiwan if it is attacked – but in one of the world’s most sensitive diplomatic “grey areas”, that is on the understanding that Taiwan will not actually do so.
That accounts for Ms Tsai’s caution in outlining proposals for reform that do not cross “red lines”.
“We will do everything in our power to make sure cross-strait stability becomes the driving force for peace in the Asia-Pacific region”, Mrs Tsai said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.
“In recent months, I have reiterated the focus of my cross-strait policy – that is, the maintenance of the status quo, based on the values of freedom and democracy that are deeply rooted in the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese people.”
That caution belies her determination to change Taiwan’s politics, in everything from its economy through to social matters – she has expressed support for same-sex marriage.
Her route into politics came via academia – her PhD is from the London School of Economics – and technocrat government positions, only joining the DPP in 2004.
From thereon, her rise was meteoric, becoming vice premier the following year and party chair in 2008.
She lost the presidential election of 2012, but won back the party leadership in 2014 and now stands at a commanding 46 per cent in the presidential polls, with Eric Chu, of the Kuomintang, on a mere 22 per cent and the People First Party on 10 per cent.
A convincing victory would give her a mandate for the sort of dominance exercised by her political role models – she names Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany among current leaders but as a student in 1980s Britain could not avoid the shadow cast by Margaret Thatcher.
“Mrs Thatcher was a powerful figure at the time I was a student in London,” she told The Telegraph. “And I admire her versatility and strength.”
For many Taiwanese, the domestic economy is the biggest concern, with salaries stagnating, and the export-driven, manufacturing-based economic model a thing of the past as production moves to mainland China.
“To me, providing a new economic way forward is of utmost urgency and will be of foremost importance for the new DPP administration, if I am elected.”
However, she will not be able to avoid Taiwan’s existential crisis – surviving in the shadow of a China whose rise is essential for its own economic survival but which is determined to crush its diplomatic freedom of manoeuvre.
China is already exerting itself across the South China Sea, expanding its naval presence and building military outposts on remote shoals claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines.
“We are ready to talk with all the parties involved and explore all sorts of possibilities,” she said. Taiwan has most reason to fear hostilities in the region but, without formal diplomatic recognition at the United Nations or from any major nation as a result of its peculiar status, there is little it can do to influence events.
“Most importantly, we need to make sure free navigation will not be affected as the result of the differences of the different countries in that region,” she said.
Likewise, she cannot afford to oppose Mr Ma and Mr Xi’s meeting, even though for many DPP stalwarts it was a symbol of Mr Ma’s subservience to Beijing.
She only went so far as accusing the Taiwanese leader of “lacking transparency” in his dealings with the mainland. “I believe most Taiwanese are as disappointed as I am,” she said.
Ms Tsai has an aloof, austere public image, living alone in a modest apartment with two cats, and brushing off inquiries about her private life.
That is probably a good thing: woman in the past who rose to positions in power in the Chinese world, from empresses to the notorious wife of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, have found themselves vilified as power hungry, decadent and sexually depraved.
Ms Tsai conforms to the Confucian image of a leader – self-disciplined, self-effacing and self-denying. She once boasted of having had the same pair of shoes for 16 years, and seems now to be demanding the same restraint of her people.
“The youth of Taiwan not only have to face the harsh reality of low wages and high commodity and housing prices,” she said. “But due to the lack of employment opportunities, many young people are forced to leave their home towns to search for jobs in the cities.”
She expects young Taiwanese to get on their bikes.
Credits: Telegraph UK