On 8th September, the 58-year-old Tainan Mayor William Lai (賴清德) became the third youngest Taiwan premier since 2000. Lai, whose efficient management style has won him a five-star rating as mayor by a Taiwanese magazine for more than five consecutive years, is widely expected to turn the Cabinet into battle mode and help the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) gear up for the 2018 local elections.
While some local Taiwanese media (i.e. NewTalk, UDN) saw Lai’s appointment as the beginning of a succession of rising young DPP politicians, quite a number of foreign media outlets chose to frame the recent Cabinet reshuffle in the context of cross-Strait relations, as if it is their auto built-in framework when reporting on Taiwan.
Not Everything in Taiwan is Related to China
For instance, the Japan Times published an AFP report, which began the article by saying “Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen named a staunchly pro-independence city mayor as her new premier Tuesday in a move that some analysts said would rile China.” And it went on to remind its readers that “China still sees self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory…” The Japan Times is not alone. Veteran Taiwan-observer Michael Turton in his recent post identified several reports which attempted to contextualise the new premier appointment as a result of “ongoing tense relations” between Taipei and Beijing.
Those who only wear the cross-Strait glasses to understand Taiwan argue that Tsai’s falling support rating was caused by voters unhappy with romance with China cooling down since Tsai took power. However, they probably forgot the fact that in the 2016 general elections, the people of Taiwan used their ballots to reject a party whose whole platform was based on improving the ties between Taipei and Beijing.
If cross-Strait relations really were the top concern of Taiwanese voters, the Beijing-friendly Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) could have easily won the two most recent elections under then President Ma Ying-jeou, whose administration signed 23 agreements with China in his eight-year tenure.
But they didn’t. Instead, in 2014 the KMT lost nine of 16 county and metropolitan level executive positions, and lost 6.2% of local council seats overall. In 2016, they lost both the presidency and the Legislature in a landslide defeat. The vote share of their presidential candidate was 31%, which is the second worst amongst all KMT presidential candidates since Taiwan held its first direct presidential poll in 1996. At the Legislature, their seats tumbled from 64 seats to a mere 35, far less than half of the total 113 seats.
If Taiwanese people wanted a government with better cross-Strait relations as its top priority, they would have let the KMT to keep ruling. But they elected Tsai, who promised them that she will unify and reform the country.
Fundamental Shifts in Taiwan
When she was voted in as president in 2016, Tsai inherited from her predecessors a stagnant economy, an aging society, a pension fund which is at the brink of bankruptcy, and a growing population showing a distinct Taiwan identity, which runs counter to many of the state symbols of the Republic of China regime currently ruling Taiwan.
It is never easy to analyse a country like Taiwan, let alone from afar. Taipei-based journalist Chris Horton once wittily pointed out why it is difficult to report on Taiwan in one tweet:
Why reporting on Taiwan isn't easy, in one photo: Taiwanese audience in Republic of China afro wigs cheer the arrival of team Chinese Taipei pic.twitter.com/VcZNKuk3ts
— Chris Horton (@heguisen) August 30, 2017
In the photo one can see at least three different kind of identities, “Taiwanese”, the “Republic of China”, and “Chinese Taipei”. Despite the complex historical background concerning the different identities applied to the people of Taiwan, the people of this island country, consciously or unconsciously, are forging a common identity which revolves around their democratic way of life.
Particularly, Taiwanese millennials are ushering in a fundamental shift in Taiwan. As I discussed back in 2015, millennials are replacing Taiwanese-independence-as-a-movement with Taiwanese-independence-as-a-way-of-life, which is characterised by democratic values. Such Taiwan identity formation has been in the making since the day people elected their own president in 1996. When the people perform this one act of electing their leader and representatives in a democracy, they also collectively decide the values and vision they attach to their country.
Such an identity forging process somehow indirectly echoes a remarks from former U.S. President Barack Obama, who said “what makes us American is not a question of what we look like or where our names come from. What makes us American is our fidelity to a set of ideas – that all of us are created equal.” Taking root in the soil of democracy, this new Taiwan identity allows each individual an equal footing in an election and before the law.
Therefore, this Taiwanese identity is not about China or any particular ethnic culture, but a set of democratic values which are firmly upheld by the people of Taiwan.
Domestic Reform is the Real Reason for Cabinet Reshuffle
And let’s come back to the Cabinet reshuffle in Taiwan.
In a campaign speech she delivered in 2015, she said “if the nation’s leaders only think of power, their reforms will be discounted. I don’t want to make those discounts. I want to do things, do them well, and do them thoroughly. I want my reforms to be great achievements.” Two years later, she is still making domestic reforms her priority.
Prior to the announcement of a new premier, the Tsai administration has spent one year designing reform policies in an effort to establish a solid footing for a better country which will bring about generational justice, transitional justice, a more transparent and effective government, as well as reinvigorate the economy and close the gap between cities and rural areas as a means to reduce inequity.
In the space of one year, she delivered on her promises of reforming the pension system and renewing the long-term care system. Looking ahead, she vows to continue taking steadfast actions toward her promises, such as reforming the judicial system, improving the infrastructure across the country, and gearing local industries toward a high-value-added, service-and solutions-oriented business models. Her pledges and policy announcements did not fall on deaf ears. In fact, her reform policies have been supported by the majority of people.
Those reforms are not universally popular, as most reforms invariably hurt the interests of some people. Starting her presidency by tackling major reform issues at once proved that Tsai is fixed on long-term goals, even though such reform policies might cost her support ratings in the short run.
At a presidential office press conference this Tuesday (5 September), President Tsai Ing-wen said the focus of the Cabinet will turn from “policy design” to “policy implementation” after the reshuffle. Under Premier Lai’s leadership, Tsai added, the new cabinet would implement reforms even faster than the previous one.
Amid the changing domestic politics in Taiwan, some foreign based media failed to grasp the potential long-term impact which can be generated by the reform policies this new Cabinet going to implement. When the people and the government of Taiwan are looking ahead and working on a better country, unfortunately some media are still trapped in a parallel universe, where everything revolves around China.
(Feature photo from Taiwan’s Office of the President, CC BY 2.0)
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