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Taiwan’s Incoming Lai Administration Takes Shape

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Taiwan’s Incoming Lai Administration Takes Shape

Lai Ching-te’s choice of Cabinet appointments suggests that he will continue to emphasize continuity with the Tsai administration.

Taiwan’s Incoming Lai Administration Takes Shape
Credit: Office of the President, ROC (Taiwan) / Shufu Liu

Most of the Cabinet appointments of the incoming Lai Ching-te administration in Taiwan have been announced in the last week. Despite Taiwanese media initially expecting that most positions would be announced at once, the announcements largely took place in stages. This seemed to be because some appointments were not confirmed at the time that the initial slate was announced. 

Lai’s choice of premier and vice premier were the subject of much interest in Taiwanese reporting. Lai’s initial premier will be former Executive Yuan secretary-general and former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chair Cho Jung-tai. Cho has been less in the public eye than other DPP politicians in the past decade, but is a respected figure within the party belonging to the same age cohort as Lai. As premier, Cho would be called on to execute Lai’s policy, as well as serve as the public face for policy in a manner that often necessitates taking political blows for the president. As such, the position of premier in Taiwanese politics often sees rapid turnover.

Lai’s vice premier will be former Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chun. Cheng’s name was previously floated as a potential vice presidential candidate for Lai, though this position eventually went to Taiwan’s former representative to the United States, Hsiao Bi-khim. It was generally expected that Lai would pick a female vice president and, like Hsiao, Cheng would have counterbalanced Lai’s historical closeness to social conservatives in the DPP because of her credentials as a political progressive. 

Lai is thought to have personally preferred Cheng because of her being more closely affiliated with his faction of the DPP, but Hsiao’s appointment as vice president was in the interest of shoring up Lai’s foreign policy credentials. Hsiao’s popularity in Washington was seen as a necessary counterbalance to perceptions of Lai as pro-independence, given his history of referring to himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwanese independence” when mayor of Tainan. Hsiao would be able to pacify views of Lai as a pro-independence provocateur in the mold of former President Chen Shui-bian. 

Hsiao’s being named vice president was likely also an olive branch to outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen’s faction of the DPP, with Lai previously having made unsuccessful moves to oust DPP legislative candidates close to Tsai in the lead-up to 2024 elections. Cheng is, by contrast to Hsiao, considered closer to Lai. Her appointment as vice premier ensures she will still play a role in the incoming Lai administration.

The initial wave of announcements for cabinet appointments on April 10 stated only that Cho and Cheng would become premier and vice premier, while National Development Council minister Kung Ming-hsin would become Executive Yuan secretary-general and Lai campaign spokesperson Chen Shi-kai would become spokesperson for the Executive Yuan. It is suspected that this was because key positions such as the minister of foreign affairs had not been finalized. Media reports suggested that current Foreign Minister Joseph Wu would be shifting to take up a portfolio as head of the National Security Council (NSC) and that Lai hoped for former Taichung mayor and Minister of Transportation and Communications Lin Chia-lung to become foreign minister. Eventually, media outlets reported that Lin had agreed to take up the foreign affairs portfolio. 

This was confirmed on April 16, when Tsai, the outgoing president, told a visiting delegation from New Zealand that Lin would indeed be the next foreign minister, and that Wu would become minister of the NSC. 

Wu’s shift to the NSC is not surprising, seeing as he previously served as minister of the NSC from May 2016 to May 2017. The manner of the announcement was somewhat surprising, however, in that this was revealed by Tsai in comments to a diplomatic delegation rather than coming in a statement from Cho or Lai. 

However, Lin’s appointment as foreign minister has sometimes been read as indicating the priority that Lai places on maintaining factional relationships within the DPP factionalism rather than foreign policy credentials. Lin does not have previous experience in foreign policy, but he is a member of a different faction of the DPP than Lai, which Lai may hope to keep happy. 

If Lin turns out to be a weak minister of foreign affairs, as vice president, Hsiao may continue to be called on to play an active role in Taiwan’s diplomacy. With speculation that Hsiao’s appointment as vice president puts her in a position to be a potential successor to Lai, an active role in diplomacy could continue to place her in the public eye in a manner that benefits a future run.

Another key politician of the same generational cohort in the DPP, former Taoyuan mayor Cheng Wen-tsan, is reportedly being tapped as the chair of the Straits Exchange Foundation, the quasi-official body that handles routine contact with Beijing.

Otherwise, Wellington Koo will take up a position as minister of defense. Koo previously served as minister of the NSC from 2020 onward, as chair of the Financial Supervisory Commission, and as head of the Ill-gotten Party Assets Settlement Committee aimed at settling property retained by the Kuomintang (KMT) from seizures conducted during the authoritarian period. 

Overall, there are relatively few surprises in Lai’s Cabinet. The incoming administration is mostly reliant on old hands of the DPP, rather than new faces. It remains to be seen how this plays out with a public that may be increasingly tired of seeing the same rotating cast of politicians in high-level political positions.

More surprising as Lai appointments, however, were the appointment of TOPCO Group chair J.W. Kuo as minister of economic affairs, business consultant Paul Liu as head of the National Development Council, and writer Li Yuan as minister of culture. The TOPCO Group is a major supplier to Taiwanese semiconductor manufacturing giant Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), something that industry experts have interpreted as a sign of the Lai administration’s priority on the semiconductor industry. Both Kuo and Liu are drawn from the private sector and do not have previous government experience. 

On the other hand, news that Li Yuan would take up a position as minister of culture is somewhat surprising given his previous position as campaign director for now-Taiwan People’s Party chair Ko Wen-je in 2018, when Ko was seeking reelection as Taipei mayor. Ko ran against Lai in the 2024 presidential election.

The position of minister of culture is often drawn from a prominent senior member of Taiwan’s cultural establishment. Li, a novelist and scriptwriter better known by his pen name of Xiao Ye, is esteemed for his work on masterpieces of Taiwanese New Wave cinema, such as Edward Yang’s “The Terrorizers.” 

Li, who in the 2018 election cycle also assisted in the production of a campaign ad for DPP Kaohsiung mayoral candidate Chen Chi-mai, has emphasized to media since news of his appointment that he avoids partisan political affiliations. Yet Li’s appointment to the Cabinet may indicate that the Lai administration aims to court swing voters and moderates such as those that supported Ko and his TPP as a third-party candidate in the 2024 elections. Lai may also be signaling that the door is open for politicians who previously aligned themselves with Ko to work with the Lai administration. 

For the most part, the Lai Cabinet has emphasized continuity with the Tsai administration by tapping politicians who also served in the Tsai administration. Even so, the Lai Cabinet increases the number of positions held by the New Tide faction of the DPP, which Lai was historically a member of even if he officially left the faction in January. It has been questioned whether this indicates that Lai intends to favor those factionally closer to him in the DPP. This would contrast from how Tsai Ing-wen studiously avoided factional conflict in the DPP by maintaining a delicate balance between the factions through appointments. 

The KMT has leaned into political attacks on the DPP for being more focused on factional pork barrel politics than good governance in past years, with particular ire directed at the New Tide faction. As such, it can be expected that the KMT will continue this line of attack with the new Cabinet, or otherwise try to frame the Lai administration as favoring deep greens in order to attack Lai for being covertly pro-independence. And it is to be seen whether factional conflict within the DPP that was previously pacified under Tsai resurfaces given Lai’s apparent favor for the New Tide faction.