Taiwan elections: the British trained scholar soon to be the most powerful girl in the Chinese-speaking world

Taiwans election might very well elevate a British-educated scholar to the presidency where she could prove to be a thorn in Beijings side

For weeks Little Ing has crisscrossed her homeland in a bid to become the most powerful girl in the Chinese-speaking world.

She has picked her way through calling crowd, addressed heaving political rallies and repeatedly punched her fist into the air while advising voters on with the sob: Light up Taiwan !

But those who know Tsai Ing-wen, the softly spoken London School of Economics graduate who is on the verge of becoming Taiwans first female chairperson, say that for all her hours on the campaign trail she is far more at home swotting up on policy in the company of her two cats, Think Think and Ah-Tsai.

I sense that politics surely doesnt come naturally to her, says J Michael Cole, a Taipei-based academic who has known the presidential frontrunner since 2008.

She very much enjoys sitting down with a glass of red wine, and reading a book and spending quality day with her cats.

There will be scant day for such pleasures after Saturday, when Taiwans 18 million voters head to the polls to elect a new chairperson and legislature.

Tsai, the 59 -year-old candidate for the Democratic Progressive party( DPP ), is widely tipped to win, bringing the drapery down on the eight-year rule of Nationalist( Kuomintang or KMT) party chairperson, Ma Ying-jeou.

If she didnt win I would be beyond shocked, says Nathan Batto, a political scientist from Taipeis Academia Sinica.

Batto believes a Tsai victory would represent a renunciation of Ma Ying-jeous two words, which have assured an unprecedented reconciliation with China including an historical summit in Singaporewith the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, last November but also growing frustration at the perceived failure of those ties to improve Taiwanese lives.

Taiwans economy grew by a meagre 1% last year despite Mas guarantees that his pro-China policies would deliver real benefits to the 23 million citizens of the self-ruled island, which Beijing still considers a renegade province.

There are many people who are very, very disappointed with the financial benefits that were promised and havent materialised, Batto says.[ Ma] famously promised 6, 3, 3: 6% growth, 3% unemployment and $30,000 per capita income. Now the DPP is saying what we got was: 1, 4, 3.

Tsai Ing-wen, the woman now hoping to change that, was born in 1956, seven years after Mao Zedongs communist troops took Beijing and forced Chiang Kai-sheks nationalists to flee across the Taiwan Strait.

One of nine children, she was initially raised in Fenggang, a village in the southern county of Pingtung, but later moved to the capital where she spent her teens growing up in downtown Taipei .

In an interview with Time publication in 2015, Tsai remembered how, as the youngest daughter, she was required to spend her idle hours caring for her entrepreneur father. I was not considered a kid that would be successful in my career, she said.

Tsai speedily set about confounding those expectations. She earned a statute degree from Taipeis National Taiwan University and headed east to Cornell University in New York for a masters. The Big Apple seemed like a good place for a young lady yearning for a revolutionary life, she told Time.

After Cornell, Tsai induced for London, enrolling at the LSE where she gained a PhD in statute. That spell in London left her with not only a quirky little British accent but also an international view that many of her predecessors in the DPP leadership absence, says Cole.

She is certainly a lot more worldly than previous leaders of the party.

Gerrit van der Wees, a Taiwan expert who has spent day with Tsai during her frequent journeys to the United States, says she likes to compare herself to Angela Merkel,[ who is] also a very decisive person, a person who has an open government, who is in favour of an open society.

The fact that Angela Merkel opened the borders to the Syrian refugees was something that Tsai commented on as being a very courageous and positive step that she would take too, he said. I think there are many good[ similarities] there.

After leaving London in 1984, Tsai returned to Taiwan to take up a series of teaching stances at universities in the city where she was raised.

By the early 90 s she had gone into government, running as a key trade negotiator involved in Taiwans in entry into the World Trade Organisation, and then as their own nationals security adviser to the KMT chairperson Lee Teng-hui.

When DPP leader Chen Shui-bian took over from Lee, in 2000, Tsai was given the thorny task of leading the Mainland Affair Council, which handles relations with China.

A leaked US diplomatic cable, writes to 2006, indicates Tsai the technocrat constructed a reputation as a tenacious negotiator and a savvy insider with impressive economic experience. Tsai is viewed as highly capable and very persuasive, it said.

A second diplomatic dispatch, penned in 2008 by Stephen M Young , now the United States consul general in Hong Kong, foresaw the political rise of the thoughtful Taiwanese politician.

Tsais moderate and soft spoken personality, as well as her academic and professional qualifications, will appeal to those in the centre of Taiwans political spectrum in a manner that is that more strident DPP legislators do not, Young wrote .

Her low-key personality may also disarm her competitors, who would do well not to underestimate[ her ].

Despite now standing on the cusp of becoming one of the worlds most powerful women, Tsai was a latecomer to political life, only to intervene in the DPP in 2004.

She is more thoughtful scholar than slogan-shouting politico, noted a 2012 profile.

But friends say her impact on the party was profound. Supporters credit her with transforming the DPP after its bruising election defeat in 2008,when Ma Ying-jeous victory ushered in eight years in which Taiwan swung dramatically towards Beijing.

A lot of people here were of the opinion that it was over for the DPP[ in 2008 ], remembers Cole. They were financially broke,[ outgoing] chairperson Chen[ Shui-bian] was facing allegations of corruption and they had gotten trounced in the elections by Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT.

She arrived at the right time and very quickly was able to rehabilitate the DPP and make it once again a viable party within a matter of two or three years.

Tsais first bid for a top political job came in 2010 when she narrowly missed out on becoming mayor of New Taipei City. Two years later, in 2012, she ran for chairperson, but again lost out ,~ ATAGEND confessing defeat by telling advocates: To all the dear people of Taiwan: one day we will come back and we will not give up.

Cole, who has worked for Tsais Thinking Taiwan Foundation since 2014, says his employer considered throwing in the towel after that defeat. I know that it took her quite a while, in 2012, to decide whether she would go back to politics or just stay with the Foundation and continue to organise academic conferences and all that.

But Cole says he saw in his employer a sense of calling, a sense of responsibility, a sense that things were probably not going in the right direction both within the DPP and within Taiwan and that she would have the ability to play a role in turning things around.

With Tsai boasting a double-digital leading in opinion polls, that bid to turn things around is likely to begin on Saturday.

She has vowed to boost the islands fighting economy by diversifying trade relations and pledged to tackle youth unemployment and a growing wealth gap.

The introverted scholar will also seek to reshape the relationship with Beijing although she has promised to uphold the uneasy status quo between democratic Taiwan and one-party China.

She has a very strong sense of Taiwans rightful place, as she sees it, in countries around the world, and that rightful place is now being was destroyed by what Ma Ying-jeou has been trying to do over the past few years, pushing Taiwan closer to China, says van der Wees. So she wants to push that more in the right direction.

That, coupled with the possibility of the traditionally pro-independence DPP winning control over Taiwans legislature, has Chinas Communist leaders on edge.

For all Tsais moderation which Beijing hears, but doesnt buy there is deep distrust about her intents, said Jon Sullivan, a Taiwan expert from the University of Nottingham.

But in the wake of Taiwans Sunflower movement protestssuch promises have struck a chord, as has the low-profile persona of the Angela Merkel of the East.

She is not a great speaker. Shes not a particularly dashing figure, says Batto. She just seems to be a hard-worker and very well prepared and sincere. It might be that what is needed right now is not a charismatic saviour but just a competent person with pretty good leadership skills.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Leave a Reply