Parsing Tsai Ing-wen’s Inaugural Presidential Speech

Jabin T. Jacob, Assistant Director and Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Tsai Ing-wen and Chen Chien-jen were sworn in on 20 May as the 14th President and Vice-President of the Republic of China on Taiwan, marking the third successful peaceful transition of power on the island through democratic elections. Tsai, the first female president of the island, is expected to take a more moderate position on Taiwan’s relations with China, even if her Democratic Progress Party is not likely to give up its pro-independence stance. It is this latter reality that is likely to keep the Chinese on tenterhooks about Taiwan’s direction under Tsai.

Focus on Domestic Issues

Tsai’s inaugural speech[1] showed a clear focus on the youth and the economy, that is, on domestic issues. Indeed, the youth have been a vital player in recent developments in Taiwan including most notably the protests over the death of army conscript, Hung Chung-chiu and in the Sunflower Movement that marked the beginning of the fall of the KMT regime leading to its losses in the 9-in-1 local elections of 2014 and eventually in the 2016 presidential and Legislative Yuan elections. Taiwanese youth continue to remain skeptical of Taiwan’s political parties and governance in general and the new Taiwanese president will have much to do on this front.

Tsai was direct in stating that the country’s ‘rigid educational system is increasingly out of touch with society’. Coming from a former academic and professor of law, this is as big an indictment of the state of affairs in Taiwan as any. She also pointed out that the country’s judicial system had ‘lost the trust of the people’ and that families were ‘deeply disturbed’ by scandals over food safety, mirroring in fact, the situation across the Straits in China.

On the social front, too, Tsai did not mince words pointing out that Taiwan’s pension system would go bankrupt without reform even as the population ages rapidly, long-term care system remained ‘inadequate’ and the birthrate remained low. The seriousness with which Tsai views the issue can be gauged by the fact that she announced the constitution of a Pension Reform Committee under Vice President Chen that would stress public participation under a ‘collective negotiation process’.


Need to Revive the Taiwanese Economy

In Tsai’s words, the economy especially ‘ lack[ed] momentum’ and Taiwan ‘urgently need[ed] a new model for economic development’ to rescue both its manufacturing sector and address ‘widening’ wealth disparities and low wages.

Still, Tsai does not lose hope pointing out Taiwan’s inherent advantages including a ‘maritime economy, high quality human resources… a well-developed industrial chain, nimble and agile small and medium enterprises, and, of course, our relentless entrepreneurial spirit’. The fact that she talked about her administration’s ‘New Southbound Policy’ in the section where she also talks about transforming the Taiwanese economy suggests clearly that it is her aim to diversify Taiwan’s economy away from its excessive reliance on the Chinese economy. It might well be the case that the Taiwanese government will encourage its equivalent of China’s ‘going out’ strategy for its major enterprises, except that the Taiwanese model will also involve its strong suit of the small and medium enterprises.


Stress on Taiwanese Identity

Tsai also stressed Taiwan’s separate identity and democratic institutions in her speech. Her decision to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission under her supervision is part of a reckoning and accountability process without which no democracy can truly move forward. While the island’s other major political party, namely, the KMT will perceive this as an attack on it given its role in the takeover of the island and the suppression of its local identity and aspirations for several decades until the late 1980s, there is also possibly sufficient distance in time from the events of the past and a localization of the KMT cadre to allow this process to move smoothly.

The real message is, of course, to mainland China. In her declaration that the Truth and Reconciliation Committee would ‘address the historical past in the most sincere and cautious manner’, and that ‘[t]he goal of transitional justice is to pursue true social reconciliation, so that all Taiwanese can take to heart the mistakes of that era’, she has simultaneously tried to ensure domestic acceptance of and unity over the process and pointedly also stressed that there were indeed ‘mistakes’. Since these ‘mistakes’ were made by the KMT then a ruling party that continued to stress its rule over the mainland as well, Tsai is also declaring a separation of the destinies of Taiwan and China. In this context it was also noteworthy that at the end of the inauguration ceremony, Tsai joined in the singing of the song ‘Ilha Formosa’ (美麗島), that had been banned under martial law.

Another way Tsai chose to stress Taiwanese identity was in highlighting aboriginal culture – the songs by aboriginal children before the national anthem at the inauguration, the Taiwanese president pointed out meant ‘that we dare not forget who arrived first on this island’.  She drove the point home further by declaring that her government would address indigenous peoples issues ‘with an apologetic attitude’ and ‘work to rebuild an indigenous historical perspective’.


Direction of Cross-Straits Ties

 The Taiwanese president did not shy away from directly addressing issues of cross-Straits relations but chose to club these with matters of ‘regional peace and stability’ suggesting that relations with China had a wider regional significance and hence was of an international character. Once again mentioning the ‘New Southbound Policy’, she also stressed Taiwan would ‘forge an intimate sense of “economic community”’, challenging perhaps similar Chinese attempts to knit the region together in economic forums that have pointedly excluded Taiwan such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or the ‘new Silk Roads’ initiative, and similar Chinese phraseology as in the ‘community of common destiny’ used frequently in the ASEAN context.

Tsai’s references to the legal basis of cross-Straits relations such as the Constitution of the Republic of China and the 1992 talks seemed largely pro forma; the Chinese are probably right in saying she was ‘vague’ on the subject.[2] It is her ringing call at the end of her speech, ‘Today, tomorrow, and on every day to come, we shall all vow to be a Taiwanese who safeguards democracy, freedom, and this country’ that is the real message to China.


Message for India

In order to achieve the goal of Taiwan’s economic revival its traditionally conservative entrepreneurial class that concentrated on the growth and opportunities in the mainland to the practical exclusion of other emerging markets such as India, will need major incentives, including, no doubt, financial subsidies as well as legal advice and assistance to enter culturally different and ‘difficult’ markets such as India in greater numbers. It is quite notable that Tsai mentioned India clearly in her speech in the context of the ‘New Southbound Policy’ – India, in fact, is the only market equivalent to China’s that could help revive Taiwanese economic fortunes if it can be engaged adequately and properly at multiple levels in terms of geographic location of enterprises, sectors of the economy and scale of operations.

Further, given Tsai’s emphasis on ‘land-use planning, regional development and environmental sustainability’ at home as part of her ‘New Model for Economic Development’, it is also possible for Taiwan to showcase its kind of economic engagement with emerging economies as being markedly different from the Chinese model that comes with risks of poor labour standards and environmental pollution. This would be particularly attractive for economies like India, which are trying to achieve the scale of success of the Chinese but without the negative side effects.

Similarly, Tsai’s emphasis on ‘planning and coordination by the central administration’ with ‘regional joint governance’ together with the local governments, is a model of operation that would be both familiar and necessary in a federal democracy like India.

Altogether, Tsai’s inaugural speech offers several sound bases for India-Taiwan cooperation and both governments must actively and forthwith start the work of implementation.



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