May 20 is always a major date on Taiwan’s political calendar since it was chosen as the inauguration day for new presidents beginning from the first direct election in 1996.
On each anniversary of a president’s inauguration, the public looks back over the past year and assesses what the head of state has done and what can still be improved, while the speech marking the date is analyzed for its impact on the political situation, most often relations with China.
Coming to power after eight years of disappointments, Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) election victory might have looked easy, but it also meant that expectations were high, too high, with one president unable to undo the problems created or allowed to fester during the previous two presidential terms.
Especially young people, plagued by unemployment and low wages, the infamous “22K” or NT$22,000 (US$726) per month, were looking out for change, for better working conditions and more opportunities, for a different energy policy, for safer food, judicial reform, a closing of the wealth gap, and a society more responsive to their changing outlook.
The third transition of power in Taiwan’s modern history, after the victory for Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in 2000 and the return of the Kuomintang with President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) in 2008, occurred after years of missed opportunities, amid hope for a new climate and a new mood of optimism.
From the start, Tsai faced many challenges, including China’s attitude, opposition inside the country, ways how to improve relations with the United States, Japan, the European Union and Southeast Asia.
One year later, many of those challenges and problems are still present, but the president has taken a start solving them.
In foreign affairs, the New Southbound Policy has shown a new direction which is about more than just boosting tourism. The Tsai Administration has also put transitional justice on the agenda, targeting the ill-gotten assets of the KMT, a topic which has failed to be resolved for many decades.
Judicial reform is in progress, working hours have been revised, the reform of unfair pensions is on the way, while Tsai is addressing the country’s economic ills with a package dubbed the Forward-looking Infrastructure Development Program.
Despite severe obstruction from vested interests often backed by the opposition, the president and her government apparently still benefit from overwhelming support from the public as shown in opinion polls. The latest survey shows that Tsai could defeat any opponent in new elections, ranging from Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) to Hon Hai Precision Industry Chairman Terry Gou (郭台銘).
To the outside world, Taiwan’s relations with China are often the main focus of attention. Tsai’s message of goodwill has not been met by an adequate response from the other side of the Taiwan Straits.
In her inauguration speech, Tsai expressed respect for “the spirit of 1992,” which meant she respected cross-straits negotiations, but that statement soon met with the insistence by Beijing that she accept the so-called “1992 Consensus,” a consensus which according to many sources, including former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), never existed. China, and the KMT, say negotiators for both sides agreed in Hong Kong in 1992 that there was “one China,” but that each side could have its own interpretation of what that China was.
On May 20, 2016, Tsai also promised to handle relations with China according to the Republic of China Constitution and relevant legislation, while she expressed Taiwan’s eagerness to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed free trade agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
Tsai called for the setting aside of disputes over islands and reefs in the seas of East Asia and instead discuss joint development, emphasizing her willingness to engage in mutually beneficial regional cooperation.
China had no cause to oppose any of those statements, yet over the following months, it hardened its position, clamping down on tourism to Taiwan, which the Tsai Administration succeeded in offsetting by turning to Southeast Asia, one of the elements of its New Southbound Policy.
Proof that China is not interested in improving relations with Taiwan has been shown again recently, with the World Health Assembly exclusion of the island after nine years of attendance, and the disappearance and detention of human rights activist and former DPP worker Lee Ming-che (李明哲), beginning its third month on the eve of May 20.
Pope Francis, in his TED Talk last April 25 on the subject of The Future You, underlined the importance of interdependence, saying nobody is an island, an autonomous “I” separated from others, everyone has to stand together to build the future, he said.
The leader of the Catholic Church also insisted that scientific and economic development should be centered on humans, not products, and that a soft revolution was needed to safeguard the future of humanity.
Heeding this message, President Tsai could call in her May 20 anniversary address on the people of Taiwan to work together to push for a more humane economy, based on the basic Taiwanese core values of frugality, simplicity, kindness, fearlessness in the face of challenges, and effort to overcome hardship.
The people of Taiwan need to stand together because the challenges the president faces, are also the challenges society as a whole is facing, how to prolong and breathe new life into Taiwan’s economic miracle, and how to keep the country sovereign and independent in the face of shifting economic, political and military power.
One year has passed, but there are still three years during which the president can make a positive and lasting impact on Taiwan.
President Tsai, just do it and you can make it!