The Woman in Charge of Taiwan - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Woman in Charge of Taiwan

The Woman in Charge of Taiwan

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Tsai Ing-wen
SourceAlvaro Hidalgo for Ozy


Because Hillary Clinton and Taiwan’s newly elected female president have more in common than you might think.

By Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

When Women Rule: A special weeklong series on how influential women leaders managed — or mishandled — major crises during their tenure. Consider this a sneak peek into how a woman could rule the world.

In her starched suit, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen looks poised, steely gazed and even-toned. There’s neither a drop of sweat on her brow, a feat in muggy Taiwan, nor a quiver in her voice as she assures her nation of 23 million that Taiwan is moving “stably”  forward. She’s a woman of gravitas, the kind of leader who could — and probably will — talk her way out of war. She’s a negotiator, some say, who’s matched only by her projected counterpart across the Pacific, Hillary Clinton.

The similarities between the two leading ladies go beyond their diplomatic credentials — indeed, the parallels are uncanny: Both lost their first presidential races, fall to the center-left and faced (or are facing) hot-headed opponents; they champion minority rights, tout extensive foreign policy CVs … and, now, they both have to stand up to China. “They are iron women,” says Andreea Brînză, a researcher at the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific. The one difference? Tsai’s already made it to the top, while Clinton is still chugging her way there.

I do not believe in recklessness, the iron fist, antagonism and conflict.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen

Unlike Clinton’s long political career as first lady, senator, secretary of state and now Democratic nominee, the 59-year-old Tsai, who couldn’t be reached for comment, has no family name in politics and little experience as an elected official. The youngest of 11 children, Tsai spent the bulk of her life in academia: a bachelor’s at National Taiwan University, a master’s at Cornell and a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics. She became a staid law professor at universities in Taipei; her life in public service didn’t start until she shouldered the role of trade negotiator and legal consultant for Taiwan’s bid to enter the World Trade Organization in 1991. Then came the gig as National Security Council adviser and Mainland Affairs Council minister, where she brokered complicated cross-Strait relations with China — one hell of a task, says professor Yen Chen-shen of the Institute of International Relations at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.

Taiwan was passed between Japan and China during World War II and has since enjoyed de facto independence. But the Chinese government still treats Taiwan like something of a rebellious child on a brief sojourn away from its true mainland parents. Taiwan’s political leaders have historically played along, although the rise of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party as well as mass demonstrations like the Sunflower Movement in 2014 have whipped up a more prodigal-son attitude.

Still, economic ties between Taiwan and China have deepened, with 40 percent of Taiwan’s exports headed to the mainland last year, up from 15 percent in 1998. That’s why Tsai ran on a campaign of compromise, maintaining the status quo with China but also setting up her nation with its flagging economy as a “staunch guardian of peace.” Her international reputation jives with this image: She was named one of Time magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People and was lauded for her composure.

But not all enemies are foreign for Tsai: She’s negotiating a domestic political environment torn between two parties — those who want to join the mainland and those mongering for a war for independence. Her foil: Hung Hsiu-chu, dubbed the “Sarah Palin of Taiwan” for her brashness and traditional views on reunification with China. “I do not believe in recklessness, the iron fist, antagonism and conflict. I believe in consensus and communication,” mild-mannered Tsai states in her platform. In the last week before the election, she assured: “If elected, I will only recognize the people. I will not see blue or green,” referring to the colors of the main political parties in Taiwan. 

Sounds a bit like the story Clinton tells about herself: “While Obama has sought to avoid conflicts and triggering crises, emphasizing pragmatism, Clinton is believed to be a more explicit supporter of liberal values,” says Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Devin Stewart.

Read the series everyone is talking about: The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics. Have the special collection sent to your inbox by clicking here.

Of course, moderation doesn’t fire up crowds the way Trumpian obstinacy does, as this election has proven. Both Clinton and Tsai, Yen admits, “don’t have that kind of body language to get people excited.” Like Clinton, Tsai has been criticized for slow decision-making — “not decisive enough,” adds Yen — which recalls Clinton’s simultaneous strength and weakness of listening to too many people, complicating things and getting too wonky. For example, a showdown with China in the South China Sea may call for a bold, swift response, where compromise may be impossible.

And ironically enough, even Tsai’s reputation for even-handedness hasn’t always insulated her — like the time a high-ranking Chinese military official suggested she was “extreme” and “emotional” in an op-ed. And she’s still harangued for being single and childless by the media and her opponents within the Taiwanese government. Not even the leaders of nations, apparently, can have it all.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories