It was a late afternoon in February. People crammed into a classroom housed in a red brick building in one of the oldest campuses of National Taiwan University (NTU) on Hsu-chou Road. They were not here to take exams; it was late in the day anyway. They were awaiting their alumna, Tsai Ing-wen, to share her insight on cross-Strait relations and her own success story.

“Taiwan is facing two big challenges: globalisation and the rise of China,” said Tsai. After the “three links” with China, the interaction between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait has inevitably impacted the Taiwanese society, politically, socially, and economically. However, Tsai reminded her audience, that globalisation not only brings Taiwan closer to China, but also closes the distance between every country in the world. Facing an uncertain future, Taiwan has to capitalise on its core strength, as well as innovate in order to stay ahead of the increasingly tense competition under globalisation.

Should Taiwan make a successful transformation, the island will be able to face China with greater confidence. In a multicultural society like Taiwan, people can choose whether their society should be like a melting pot or a plate of salad. With the former, you bring about uniformity; with the latter, you can have variety. Democracy is the best nurturing environment for multiculturalism, Tsai concluded.

Tsai’s first year, a vibrant civil society  

When Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was voted in as president in 2016, she pledged to reform the island. It was widely expected that she will face a testing time in her four-year tenure. At home, she inherited from her predecessors a stagnant economy, an aging society, a pension fund which is at the brink of bankruptcy, and a growing population exhibiting strong a specific Taiwan identity, which ran counter to many of the state symbols of the Republic of China regime currently ruling Taiwan.

In the international community, she has to tiptoe around the growing tension in South China Sea, and maintain a balance between the two hegemonic powers on opposite sides of Pacific Ocean. As the first female President in Taiwan, where Chinese sovereign claim and US strategic projection intersect, Tsai’s performance is being closely monitored by her constituents and the whole world.

Like her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou, Tsai faced several protests and demonstration in her first year. However, during the past year, not only does the Taiwanese youth continue to take to the streets to push forward more changes, but seniors also followed suit and staged protests, probably the very first time in their life.

In September 2016, less than half a year since Tsai’s inauguration, tourism sector workers marched in Taipei demanding the government to improve ties with Beijing, as they claimed the falling number of Chinese tourist could starve them.

Three months later, groups of protesters staged demonstrations against a draft marriage equality bill in the following months. The protesters defended their arguments on the ground of religious reasons, some of them arguing that marriage equality erodes traditional values and turns their children gay/lesbian because homosexuality is “contagious.”  

Another group of protesters are retired public servants, who staged a number of protests including an attempt to paralyse a major road in Taipei and camping outside the parliament. In their most recent protest in April, some protesters even violently assaulted parliament members and tried to storm into the parliament grounds. These protesters, mostly senior citizens, vowed to safeguard their generous retirement fund and asked “if Sunflower Movement protestors can, why can’t we?”

On the other end of the age spectrum, young people did not stop making their voices heard. In a recent article by one of the Sunflower Movement leaders Lin Fei-fan, he named three ongoing protesters around Tsai’s inauguration anniversary: Indigenous peoples protesting for their traditional territories; a protest against Tsai’s brainchild, the NTD$880-billion “Forward Looking Infrastructure Development Programme”; and a recently concluded hunger strike by former DPP Chair Lin Yi-hsiung, who urged the government to amend the Referendum Act.

In addition, in the past 12 months Taiwan saw its first-ever airline strike in which several thousand China Airlines (CAL) flight attendants protesting against a change to their working conditions, a protest by migrant workers calling for an end to the private brokerage system, and a Labour Day demonstration in which different labour groups demanding better labour rights.

Taiwan’s civil society has been utterly vibrant in the past 12 months since Tsai assumed office, and covers a wide range of issues, unusual since even the lifting of martial law in 1987. Three decades ago, the people of Taiwan were denied the rights of assembly, free speech, and formation of any political parties. There was the one and only party, the Kuomingtang (KMT), founded by Dr Sun Yat-sen in China in 1919, which controlled Taiwan’s presidency until the first power turnover in 2000 (and regained the presidency in 2008-2016) and parliament until 2016. Since the 38-year-long martial law was ended, the once closed Taiwanese society welcomed its first breeze of freedom, which slowly but gradually nurtured democracy on the island.  

An island of diversity

Today’s Taiwan probably is quite an unthinkable place for Dr Sun or for his successor Chiang Kai-shek, who imposed the martial law in 1949. An island with a population density of about 650 inhabitants per square kilometre, a total of 287 registered political parties, 16 officially recognised indigenous Austronesian peoples, and one-tenth of Taiwanese elementary and middle school children born to a foreign mother. They probably did not expect to see their party, which once dominated Taiwan in a one-party rule for decades, slowly losing its popularity amongst Taiwanese youth as well as its direction in the island’s changing political landscape. This year, Taiwan’s freedom outperformed that of the US and France. Prior to the lifting of the martial law, there were only 31 licenced newspapers. According to a report by AmCham Taipei, Taiwan today has over 2,000 newspapers, over 4,000 magazines, and a cable-TV industry which has 277 channels via 56 operators.

The past 30 years of democratisation not only saw Taiwan’s society become more diverse, the democratic way of life also fostered a unified sense of Taiwanese identity, which reflects the core values behind the protests staged by Taiwan’s youngsters- rights to assembly (2008 Wild Strawberry Movement), media freedom (2012 Anti-Media Monopoly Movement), land rights (2013 anti-Dapu demolition protest), transparency and China factor (2014 Sunflower Movement), marriage equality (2016 same-sex marriage protest), and Indigenous rights (the ongoing Indigenous peoples protest).

On the eve of Tsai’s election, it was argued that the old politics of “KMT-DPP” rivalry to understand Taiwanese voters, particularly the youth, is going out the door. The youth attach greater importance to national autonomy than economic growth, which is strikingly different from their older counterparts. As such, the biggest task for the current Tsai administration is how to satisfy the two groups of people from the opposite end of value spectrum–the baby boomers and millennials.

I am here to reform, not for polls  

It is not the first time for the former trade negotiator to bridge the gap between two opposite ends, or worse, amongst different factions. Tsai chose her first battlefield on the latter.

After the DPP lost presidency in 2008, its support rating dropped to 11 per cent, a record low. When the party was at its lowest point, Tsai chose to throw her hat into the ring and won the chairpersonship. Despite her enjoying overall support amongst DPP members, there were still concerns that she might not survive the game of thrones amongst party factions, given that the chairpersonship was her first job at the DPP.

Within a year, the first female DPP chair revived the party in the 2009 local elections, in which the DPP garnered 45.3 per cent of the total votes, only three percentage points less than that of the KMT. In the 2010 special municipality mayor election, Tsai led the party to their first victory, with the DPP’s total vote share (49.87 per cent) being larger than that of the KMT’s (44.54 per cent). In the 2014 local elections, the DPP under Tsai’s leadership further expanded its share of the political landscape by winning 13 out of the 22 local mayor/magistrate seats (KMT only won six). Before she won her first victory in the 2016 presidential election, Tsai led her party to win several major battles in the previous elections.

No one knows reform better than Tsai. But change does not happen overnight; it took her nearly ten years to remould the image of the DPP, which was badly affected by the poor performance of her predecessor Chen Shui-bian’s handling relations with Beijing and Washington, scandals, and divisive identity politics. After reforming the DPP, she is on course to transform something bigger: Taiwan.  

During her first year in the Presidential Office, Tsai unapologetically pushed forward many reform policies, whether her voters liked it or not. One day prior to her first inauguration anniversary, Tsai said she is “a leader under a democracy, who has a strong will to carry out reforms” and she chose to address the most difficult issues during her first year in office. She added, “as long as something is favourable to reforms, we are not afraid of offending people.”

As the beginning of this article states, Tsai took power at a time when Taiwan is probably not in its worst shape but definitely in dire need of reforms. 30 years after the lifting of martial law, democracy in Taiwan finally left its adolescent transition period and became more mature. Meanwhile, demographic change sees an increasing number of people who grew up in a society without martial law, as well as a sizeable population who were born in the last century and only experienced Taiwan’s democratisation in their late stages of life. Their different living experiences and memories about the nation are inevitably woven into two different sets of values and identities.

While boomers tend to prioritise economic growth over national autonomy,  millennials say otherwise. While boomers are taking to the streets to defend their own pension funds and to ask the government to appease Beijing in exchange for Chinese tourists, their younger counterparts are staging protests fighting values-based battles: indigenous rights, labour rights, land rights, and marriage equality.

Sandwiched between these two clashing generations, Tsai is standing at a dividing line between Taiwan’s past and future, the “east” of its old glory (such as being one of the four Asian tigers) and the “west” of its new chapter in history. She is trying to carefully manage the conflicting values by offering reform policies in her first year of presidency while patiently communicating with those who oppose the progressive values behind the reforms.

On the eve of her first anniversary of the inauguration, Tsai outlined the progress of the government’s priority policies, such as pension reform, long-term care policy, as well as promises to innovate and transform Taiwan’s economic structure. Being a leader of a democracy, she said “I am not an autocratic political strongman.” She concluded her first year by stressing the efforts she has made to innovate and upgrade the island, and why she prefers to allow people a space to debate on different ideas instead of forcing everyone to be blended into the same melting pot.

And what she has outlined is echoing the same sentiment she expressed in the speech she gave at the classroom in NTU, 13 years ago in 2004, making Taiwan a plate of salad with the freedom to nurture and enjoy its own diversity.

(Feature photo of President Tsai addressing a crowd, from Flickr, CC BY 2.0)


Gwenyth Wang

Gwen is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Warwick. She has a Master’s degree in democracy and democratisation from the University College London. She has previously worked in Taipei, Los Angeles and London – in fields ranging from think tanks to academia. She is currently based in Taipei and tweets at @GwenythWR.