When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) selected Tainan City Mayor William Lai (賴清德) to succeed Premier Lin Chuan (林全) amid faltering opinion poll ratings, expectations were high that the new man in charge would do his utmost to put right some situations which had elicited doubts and controversy earlier on, such as workweek and pension reform.
While Lai was not expected to veer too far from the president’s line, a fresh look at the issues was on the cards. In contrast to Lin, who is a technocrat with a background in finance, Lai is a professional politician, having moved from the late National Assembly to the Legislative Yuan to the mayoralty of Tainan City.
Critics of his promotion to the central government said his appointment had been designed by Tsai for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party to save the day in local mayoral and council elections scheduled for the end of next year.
Beginning on his first question-and-answer session as the new premier at the Legislative Yuan this week, attention soon focused on relations between Taiwan and China, an unavoidable issue in local politics.
While he had been expected to repeat the official version that the government was maintaining the status quo in cross-straits relations, Lai unexpectedly went one step further and elaborated on his personal views.
He described himself as “a political worker who advocates Taiwan Independence” and who would never waver from his ideas, irrespective of which office he would be holding during his career.
The new premier also stated that “Taiwan is a sovereign and independent nation” and that the jurisdictions of Taiwan and China do not overlap.
He emphasized that while Taiwan was always willing to show goodwill toward China, a relationship had to go both ways, so if one side was not listening, the other side could only be talking to itself without any further use, Lai was interpreted as saying.
Questioning by legislators also forced the premier to hark back to a statement he uttered before he took office, a four-letter Chinese formula which had sounded like “close to China, loving Taiwan.”
Lai explained that the phrase meant that while Taiwan was at the center of his thoughts, he could still offer a hand of friendship to China. The premier described his thinking as a way to unite the public inside Taiwan and create a consensus on Taiwan-China relations.
On a side note, Lai also emphasized that he was not only a partisan of Taiwan Independence, but also a pragmatic Taiwan independentist. Taiwan was already independent so there was no need to still go ahead and declare independence, he said, in a viewpoint echoing former President Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). According to the Constitution, Taiwan is already a sovereign and independent nation under the name of Republic of China, the premier said.
Lai’s attitude during legislative questioning and his responses betray a fresh and realistic approach. Unlike other politicians and government officials, he was not hiding behind any slogans or vague formulas designed to please everybody.
Lai’s honesty and forthrightness are a breath of fresh air in Taiwan’s political landscape, contrasting sharply with more traditional politicians who have made it a habit to advocate one stance during their election campaign and turning to the opposite side once they are elected.
Despite his emphasis on goodwill and pragmatism, Lai’s statements elicited the stale response from China that Taiwan was not a country and could never become one, not a flexible attitude which should win hearts and minds and restart the process of cross-straits exchanges.
Just as the new premier began his period at the head of the Cabinet, an opinion poll released Thursday showed Lai can rely on the approval of 60 percent of the public, and his appointment even turned the president’s support levels back in the right direction.
The public obviously likes honesty and direct speech from its government leaders more than hard-to-understand empty slogans, so Lai should keep up the good work.