Tsai Ing-wen, 59-years-old, was sworn-in four months after being elected as Taiwan’s first female president in a landslide victory. Tsai’s official swearing-in ceremony took place on May 20, 2016. The historic moment seemed fitting for a woman whose elite family background and a popular intellectual who rose through the ranks of her political party.
Winning the presidency is one of several firsts for Tsai Ing-wen. She is also the first president of Taiwan, who is of Hakka and Aboriginal descent, she is unmarried and has never previously held any elected office. Tsai is now the head of her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) where she previously served as party chair in 2008, and again in 2012. Her presidential win marks only the second win for the DPP in the past 70 years.
Tsai’s accomplishments alone are impressive. However, Taiwan’s first female president has an elite family background. She was born into a wealthy family. Her Hakka background has an interesting history in China. Hakka was not always associated with an ethnic group; the term Hakka first appeared during the Song Dynasty in China and meant guest. During the time, people who had left their homeland and resettled in another province were referred to as Hakka. This term was intended for all new settlers of any social status.
Tsai’s great grandfather was born into wealth but created his own businesses. Tsai’s father is a real estate developer, who is considered to be in the top one percent of Taiwan’s financial elite. Tsai is the youngest of nine children. Her initial plan was to obtain a law degree to help with the family business but decided to go in a different direction.
The newly elected president of Taiwan was originally a law professor. She received her law degree from National Taiwan University, her Master’s Degree in the United States, from Cornell and her Ph.D. in law, from the London School of Economics in 1984. The current president returned to Taiwan, after earning her degrees to teach law at both Soochow University and National Chengchi University, both located in Taipei.
Tsai’s first high-profile appointment happened in 2000 when she was appointed as the chairperson for the Mainland Affairs Counsel. She joined the DPP in 2004, where within four years she quickly rose to an influential voice within the party. During a time when the party was struggling, she is credited with turning the party around. In 2008, The DPP lost another election when then-candidate Chen Shui-bian lost the election for the party and was later found guilty on corruption charges.
As the chairperson for the DPP, Tsai was able to reunite the party after its losses and began to garner more support and was winning local elections. In an interview in 2011, with BBC, she referred to the DPP as more sophisticated than under its previous leadership, implying that her influence had changed the group. Tsai’s ability to rally the masses has been what critics have been using to credit her success. “The Straits Times” referred to the newly elected president, as someone who won over constituents with her sincerity and intelligence, as she is not seen as a great speaker or charismatic.
Tsai likens herself to Margret Thatcher and is often referred to as the Angela Merker, Germany’s prime minister, of the East. Tsai has many challenges ahead of her, including continued negotiations with China, over Taiwan’s independence. The country is also suffering from significant economic challenges. The entire country is looking to her for the intelligent guidance that she has become associated with during her time within the DPP to translate to the rest of the country.
By Gichele Cocrelle
edu.ocac.gov.tw: The Hakka People
BBC: Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen Sworn in as First Female President
Time: Tsai Ing-wen Become Taiwan’s First Female President
The Straits Times: Ten things you should know about Tsai Ing-wen
Photo by MiNe (sfmine79) Courtesy of Wikimedia – Creative Commons License