Tsai Ing-wen

Defies expectations to reach the top

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen greets supporters after her election victory in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan 16, 2016.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen greets supporters after her election victory in Taipei, Taiwan, on Jan 16, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

During her final election rally last Friday night, Ms Tsai Ing-wen spoke in her characteristically measured manner.

But as she reached the end of her speech and as the crowds became more euphoric, her eyes reddened and her smile wavered. Emotion, it seemed, had overwhelmed the 59-year-old, often described as a cautious former bureaucrat.

She is not a natural politician, say those who know her. She became the leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)because she did not belong to any faction and was thus acceptable to all.

But Ms Tsai appears to have made it her business to confound expectations. The youngest daughter of nine children, she was "not considered a kid who would be successful" in her career, she said.

She has a law degree from National Taiwan University, a master's from Cornell University and a PhD in law from the London School of Economics.

Ms Tsai shot to prominence when she was selected in the 1990s by then-president Lee Teng-hui to head a small group of law experts to draft an argument for state-to-state relations with China. She later became Taiwan's chief trade negotiator and then the minister for China affairs.

In an autobiography, she said: "My experience has shown me that with enough patience and intelligence, I will wait for the right timing that benefits me before making a decision."

Indeed, she has learnt quickly.

In 2012, her stance on cross-strait ties hobbled her bid; the US expressed "distinct doubts" that cross-strait stability would continue under a DPP government led by her. Then, she had asserted that the 1992 Consensus "did not exist" but has since moderated her stance, observed Mr Richard Bush, former director of the American Institute of Taiwan.

This time, she has stated that the Consensus is one of various options. It may not be good enough for Beijing, but it is certainly good enough for Taiwan.

Li Xueying

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline 'Defies expectations to reach the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe