From Ketagalan Boulevard, Taipei, Taiwan—

A celebratory atmosphere pervades Ketagalan Boulevard, as cheering crowds, vibrant flags, and enormous floats fill the square outside the Presidential Building, the seat of government. The inauguration of President Tsai Ing-wen, the first Taiwanese woman to fill the highest office in the land and the fourteenth president of the Republic of China, is a remarkable moment in the island’s history.

The festivities in the capital matched the drama and soaring emotion of the occasion. This dispatch notes some of the highlights of the ceremonies and Tsai’s inaugural speech — another step forward for democracy in Taiwan.

A Story of Taiwan and its People

In a series of stage performances, stories, and songs, the story of Taiwan and its people are recounted in a quintessentially local way. “Hundreds of years” of Taiwanese history unfold, with a focus on the island and its resilient people.

This Taiwan is not the culmination of the China story — there was no mention of “5,000 years of Chinese civilization.” This Taiwan is multicultural and inclusive, comprising aboriginal peoples, Han fishermen and farmers, Hakka settlers, and even the many Southeast Asian spouses and workers moving to the island in the most recent wave of immigration.

This Taiwan is not based on Han chauvinism or the domination of Mandarin-speaking elites; nor is it simply the domain of the Hoklo-speaking majority. Instead, it takes pains to recognize all ethnicities arriving across all eras. Despite bobbling some of the narrative around Taiwan’s indigenous communities with tokenizing descriptions, the attempt to include and represent was evident, as aboriginal individuals and groups took the stage on numerous occasions.

Taiwan is portrayed as a nation of resilient people, enduring a series of oppressive challenges (from European colonizers, to the Qing, to the Japanese, to the Nationalists), but surviving each one to culminate in an age of development, opportunity, and cosmopolitan identity.

Commemoration of the Pain and Suffering in the Authoritarian Period and the Struggle for Democracy

Meaningful commemoration of the democracy struggle had to occur in this ceremony. Liberty does not simply triumph and allow a society to forget the past. The efforts of the Taiwanese people to overcome authoritarian rule — widespread oppression, public surveillance, jailings, political executions — were anything but theoretical. It is thus worth recalling the blood, sweat, and tears shed by so many people, over so many years, to arrive at today’s democratic outcome.

The ceremony includes stark, artistic portrayals of the executions of civilians during the 2-28 Incident. The moment is emotionally searing, but this too had to happen. Taiwanese society still bears the scars of the killings of thousands of innocent people over six decades ago. Having been suppressed for many years, and then only obliquely addressed by previous leadership, now is the moment when the lingering trauma is exposed and starts to heal. The important investigative work that the Tsai Administration intends to undertake will help close this wound and bring peace and reconciliation to the nation.

Many older people are standing and cheering throughout the inauguration, and as the large projection screens pan across their joyous faces, one cannot help but remember that they truly lived through all of these events. They are survivors of war and military conquest; they chafed against the shackles of a police state; they joined hands to push for freedom — the right to speech, the right to vote, the right to be safe in their own homes. Now, with decades of struggle culminating in this moment, their beaming smiles telegraph the sense that they have finally won. Human faces always give us the most tear-jerking moments.

Deft Handling of Domestic Politics

In her inaugural speech, Tsai also commemorates the democracy struggle and hits important notes for her DPP supporters, but each announcement transforms into an invitation to unite the broader Taiwanese public. When she announces the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine the atrocities of the Era of White Terror, it is couched not as a vengeful measure to right previous wrongs, but a collective enterprise whereby all Taiwanese can learn from the mistakes of the past.

During the Chen Shui-bian administration, such action would have been perceived as partisan maneuvering. It would have divided Pan-Green supporters rallying for victims’ rights and Pan-Blue lawmakers defending those who had committed or abetted human rights violations and seeking to limit their liability. In contrast, though Tsai assures DPP activists that their hopes for justice and accountability will finally be upheld, she defines the task as a unifying measure for the country.

When she proposes social programs to address aging, food safety, environmental quality, or youth issues, Tsai is also careful to celebrate “you, the Taiwanese people” and to invite the public to take part in governing.

Rhetorically, Tsai “leaves the door open” so that every move her supporters cheer becomes an opportunity for coming together, not division or exclusion. Her central message: We are all in this together, and there’s room for you in this vision of Taiwan. We are all Taiwanese.

Regionalization and Pragmatic Cross-Straits Relations, est. 1992 

Tsai’s foreign policy remarks initially focus on regional issues and Taiwan’s many Southeast Asian neighbors. When she eventually mentions “the other side of the Strait” (對岸, or literally “the opposite shore”), she speaks in a moderate and measured way. She does not agree or disagree with the 1992 “consensus,” an ambiguous parsing where the PRC and the ROC each contend that “One China” exists, but with each side defining the term in its own way. In fact, Tsai does not mention the “1992 Consensus” at all, in contrast to the previous KMT administration, which had used the fictive sleight of hand to underpin negotiations. Instead, Tsai resolutely announces her “respect for the historical fact” that Cross-Strait dialogues had indeed taken place in 1992.

During the presidential campaign, Tsai pledged to “maintain the status quo” as so much is still on the line for peace and prosperity. She must satisfy the sovereignty concerns of Taiwanese citizens, without needlessly antagonizing “the other shore.” By mentioning — several times — the Cross-Straits dialogue of 1992, she signals an intention to respect past achievements and maintain an open dialogue, while recognizing the reality of domestic constraints and preferences.

At first glance, it doesn’t appear to rock the boat with a novel formulation, and those looking for a new plank out of the “status quo” might be disappointed. Yet this approach re-centers Cross-Strait relations on concrete fact and practical matters. Not only does this sidestep political difficulties, it gives the Tsai Administration room to push more charged discussions to the level of the Mainland Affairs Council, which may prove to be a wise move for the time being.

Focusing on Democracy, Repeatedly

The speech is also striking for its many references to “freedom” “democracy” and “democratic politics.” Tsai continually reminds the audience of how far Taiwan has come in throwing off the chains of authoritarian oppression, and how committed its people are to their freedoms and democratic way of life.

The inaugural speech itself will certainly be pored over by analysts from Washington D.C. to Tokyo to Brussels, but a great deal has also been signaled in the performances, ranging from choice of performers to symbolic content. By simultaneously translating all the performances from Mandarin into English — anchored by a pair of energetic and telegenic spokespeople — the larger Taiwan narrative is also made accessible to an international audience. It’s a smart move, and the message that Taiwan is a democratic beacon worth celebrating and defending will hopefully not be lost on the world.

Yet this refrain is more than a political calculation. There is genuine belief in democracy among all sectors of society. Ringing the bell of freedom not only signals Taiwan’s worthiness as a member of the international community — it also reminds Taiwanese citizens of a special wellspring of national unity. Democracy is something that all Taiwanese have come to cherish and identify with.

The Taiwan Story Continues

Today is the first day of Taiwan’s future. The inauguration ceremony centered around this beautiful, green island, also called Formosa: its people, their struggles, and their resounding triumphs. It emphasized democracy and human rights, including the right to decide how one lives, how society is to be governed, and how individuals and communities grow and thrive.

For the first time in an official capacity, we have heard a recounting of the story of Taiwan. Now, the newest chapter waits to be authored—and every single citizen has been invited to write it.

 

(Feature photo by Kevin Hsu)

 

Kevin Hsu

Kevin Fan Hsu is Lecturer in Urban Studies at Stanford University and co-founder of the Human Cities Initiative. He crafts open online courses and designs other educational experiences with a social mission at Skyship Design (www.skyshipdesign.net)