Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party officially became Taiwan’s first female head of state on Friday. Tsai and her vice president, Chen Chien-jen, took their oaths of office in a ceremony at the Presidential Office on Friday morning before Tsai took the stage to give her inaugural address, outlining her new government’s policies and priorities for Taiwan.
Tsai’s message to the country centered on two themes: unity and reform. She urged unity among Taiwan’s people to tackle the various challenges ahead – including an ambitious plan to overhaul Taiwan’s economy and advance political and judicial reform. “Let us leave behind the prejudices and conflicts of the past, and together fulfill the mission that the new era has entrusted to us,” Tsai said in her address.
“At this moment and as president, I declare to the citizens of this country that my administration will demonstrate resolve in spearheading this country’s reform, and will never back down.”
While outside observers tend to focus on the cross-strait relationship as the driving force of Taiwanese politics, Tsai’s DPP has been quite clear that it was elected largely due to voter discontent over a sluggish economy, not cross-strait affairs. According to polls from the Taiwan Brain Trust, Taiwanese voters were most concerned about the economy (60 percent), with cross-strait relations coming in a distant fourth. In keeping with that theme, Tsai’s main focus in her widely anticipated speech was on the economy, and particularly pitched at young Taiwanese who see little hope for the future.
Tsai’s main economic initiative is to build a “New Model of Economic Development” for Taiwan “based on the core values of innovation, employment and equitable distribution.” Part of this, as Tsai has mentioned often in the past, will involve actively pursuing participation in bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) as well as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Framework (RCEP). There were few details, however, on how to achieve the holy grail of a dynamic, innovative economy; South Korea, for example, has been aggressively seeking a similar economic transformation with little success to date.
Perhaps more important than policy prescriptions, however, were the themes of Tsai’s speech. The values her government seeks to define itself by – transparency, accountability, equality – were all underlined repeatedly throughout her remarks. Tsai announced a commitment to solving persistent issues, such as pension reform, using input from the public.” The new administration’s approach is for the government to lead and plan, while encouraging citizens to organize in communities,” Tsai explained.
On the social reform front, Tsai announced plans to establish a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission inside the Presidential Office,” which will produce a report on Taiwan’s history and make recommendations on transitional justice within the next three years. She also pledged to pay special attention to “issues concerning Taiwan’s indigenous peoples,” and indeed the performances that preceded her inaugural address paid special attention to Taiwan’s indigenous tribes. Both these topics were on display during a historically themed performance prior to Tsai’s speech, which depicted (among other episodes) the White Terror under Chiang Kai-shek’s government and acknowledged the displacement of indigenous tribes by Chinese settlers.
The issue in Tsai’s speech that received the loudest cheer from the surrounding crowd, however, was a promise to pursue judicial reform. “The general 13 sentiment is that the judicial system is not close to the people, and is not trusted by them,” she acknowledged. “It is unable to fight crime effectively, and has lost its function as the last line of defense for justice.” To address the issue, Tsai promised a “national congress on judicial issues” to be held in October.
On the issue analysts were watching most closely – cross-strait relations – Tsai said little that she hadn’t been said before. She pledged that her government will “work to maintain peace and stability in cross-strait relations,” and particularly emphasized her goal of creating “mechanisms for intensive and routine communications with all parties involved.” Tsai has repeatedly emphasized her willingness to continue the “status quo” of cross-strait relations; the question is whether Beijing will reciprocate. “The ball is in China’s court now,” Shih-Chung Liu, senior policy adviser at the Taiwan Brain Trust, told a group of reporters during a briefing on Friday.
Over the past months, officials from the Chinese Communist Party have repeatedly insisted that acceptance of the “1992 Consensus” (an agreement that there is one China, which allows both Taipei and Beijing to define “China” differently) is a necessary prerequisite to cross-strait relations. Tsai, however, has yet to embrace the 1992 Consensus. In her speech, Tsai acknowledged that in 1992 the two sides “arrived at various joint acknowledgements and understandings,” and listed the “historical fact” of the 1992 talks as one of the political foundations of current cross-strait relations. She stopped short of embracing the “1992 Consensus” specifically, however, leaving her remarks purposefully vague. That, explained Wen-Cheng Lin, president of the Institute for National Policy Research, allows Beijing to make its own interpretation of whether or not the 1992 Consensus is included in the “existing political framework” Tsai has accepted.
Tsai placed cross-strait relations in the context of Taiwan’s relations with the region, promising new outreach (especially economically) to ASEAN and India as part of her “New Southbound Policy.” She also outlined plans to increase values-based cooperation with fellow democracies (particularly the United States, Japan, and Europe), take part in global efforts to fight climate change, and increase trade cooperation with countries around the world. “Taiwan will be an indispensable partner for the international community,” Tsai proclaimed.
Tsai ended her speech with a return to her main theme: a plea for unity. She warned that polarization in Taiwan’s society, particularly the political sphere, meant that the country had “gradually lost its ability to solve problems.”
“The new government’s duty is to move Taiwan’s democracy forward to the next stage,” Tsai said. “[…] Before, democracy was a showdown between two opposing values. Now, democracy is a conversation between many diverse values.”
As Tsai acknowledged at the end of her speech, the hard work of reform – of governing – is just beginning. She has a high bar to clear, both based on her own political promises and the expectations of her supporters in Taiwan. And Tsai provided a hint of the long slog ahead when she urged young Taiwanese to “please give us some time.”
“Although I cannot give every young person a raise instantly, I can promise that the new administration will initiate actions immediately,” she said.
With the DPP now holding both the presidency and the Legislative Yuan for the first time in history, the pressure is on for Tsai to act both boldly and quickly, as she promised.