The leader who's standing up to China


The leader who's standing up to China

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu; Illustration by Catherine Tai

T-DAY: The Battle for Taiwan

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Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen is wielding a mixture of soft and hard power as she seeks to fend off a more assertive China under President Xi Jinping. Associates tell the story of her journey from academia to the thick of the U.S.-China cold war.

Filed: December 24, 2021, 8 a.m. GMT

In January 2020, on the eve of her re-election victory, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen stood before a crowd of supporters and delivered a stark warning about China: Beware.

It was a major departure from speeches earlier in her career. Tsai had a reputation for being wooden on the stump. This time was different.

Tsai campaigned passionately in the contest, exploiting heightened fears about life under Chinese rule by zeroing in on the pro-democracy protests that shook Hong Kong in 2019. Beijing was pressuring Taiwan to accept the same formula of limited autonomy - “one country, two systems” - it had pledged for Hong Kong. Tsai declared that China was reneging in Hong Kong and Taiwan must not give in.

“With their lives, blood and tears, the young people in Hong Kong have demonstrated for us that one country, two systems is not feasible,” Tsai said. Supporters roared in approval. Some waved the black-and-white flags carried by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. “Tomorrow, we will let everyone see that Taiwan can safeguard this fortress of democracy for the world.”

It was the culmination of a remarkable transformation for Tsai. A close adviser said she had lost her first presidential run, in 2012, in part because she shied away from talking about the standoff with China, which views Taiwan as its own. She won her second term by a landslide, capitalizing on Taiwan’s fast-growing national identity, after years spent learning from earlier setbacks.

With Tsai now well into her second term, fears in Taiwan about an increasingly belligerent China dominate her presidency. Tsai leads an island of 23.5 million people caught in the middle of a battle for dominance between the United States and a more assertive China under President Xi Jinping. Xi, who sees unification with Taiwan as a fundamental requirement to restoring China to its traditional status as a great power, has repeatedly threatened to bring the island to heel, if necessary by force.

Just as they have divergent views on the future of Taiwan, Tsai and Xi, born just a few years apart, could not be more different. Tsai, fluent in English and educated at elite Western institutions, uses social media to connect with supporters. Xi, son of a famous revolutionary and a product of China’s vast party bureaucracy, appears only at tightly scripted events.

Under Tsai, Taiwan has enjoyed a surge of international backing, with key U.S. allies openly acknowledging the island’s strategic importance. Tsai has hosted several high-level U.S. officials to the island in recent years, while Taiwan retains broad support from American lawmakers, making the island one of the few areas where there is bipartisan agreement in Washington. The opposition KMT, however, says cross-strait relations have deteriorated during Tsai’s presidency.

Tsai declined to comment for this profile. The Chinese government didn’t respond to questions from Reuters.

This article traces pivotal moments in Tsai’s rise as a politician now playing a lead role in one of the world’s great geopolitical dramas. It draws on interviews with diplomats, advisers, activists and other long-time observers of Taiwan’s leader, as well as Tsai’s autobiography.

“This is Tsai Ing-wen, always proving herself in the quietest way.”Tsai Ing-wen


Quiet Childhood

Born to middle-class parents in 1956, Tsai spends part of her childhood in a hilly suburb of Taipei, now popular with diplomats and wealthy families. In her autobiography, Tsai writes of her sheltered life as the youngest child, doted upon by her father, a car mechanic turned successful businessman, and her mother, who prepared her lunches well into her university years. Describing herself as reserved and “boring,” Tsai excels in school and enters the prestigious college of law at the National Taiwan University.


Studies abroad

Tsai receives a master’s degree from Cornell University and a PhD from the London School of Economics, both in law, despite her own admission in her autobiography that she found the English language initially challenging. In her book, Tsai describes her academic success as the result of her quiet determination. “This is Tsai Ing-wen, always proving herself in the quietest way,” she says.

United Daily News

Introduction to politics

After returning from her studies abroad, Tsai is appointed to be the youngest ever professor at the well-regarded National Chengchi University. Her life before entering politics is unassuming. “A person who liked to stick close to the wall when walking down the street … who disliked attracting attention from others,” she writes about her years as an academic.

But through her involvement in Taiwan’s international trade negotiations from the 1980s to 2000, first as a translator and later as a key adviser, Tsai quickly learns that her natural demeanor is an advantage in diplomacy. Looking across the table at American trade negotiators, Tsai says she trained herself to remain calm, showing no expression and giving nothing away to her rivals. “This isn’t that hard for me, as I’m relatively introverted,” she says later in her autobiography. As a result of the negotiations, Taiwan joins the World Trade Organization in 2002 as the “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu.”

“We did not oppose her bid to run, but she also didn’t ignite passion from supporters.”Yao Chia-wen, a senior adviser to President Tsai


A turning point

Appointed in 2000 to head the Mainland Affairs Council, the body charged with handling ties with China, Tsai is thrust into the thick of cross-strait negotiations. Trade links with China were severed after the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces under Chiang Kai-shek lost to the Communists in the civil war in 1949 and retreated to Taiwan. Her efforts to reinstate trade ties face enormous pressure from domestic critics. The following year, trade, transportation and postal links, which eventually expand to be known as the “Three Links,” are re-opened between Taiwan’s outlying Kinmen and Matsu island groups and China’s Fujian province.

The agreement marks a turning point for Tsai, who had long worked as a non-partisan technocrat. In 2004 she formally joins the Democratic Progressive Party, which advocates for Taiwan’s national identity and protecting the island’s sovereignty. Four years later, she is tapped to chair the party. Yao Chia-wen, a senior adviser to the president who has known Tsai for decades, says she faced little competition for the chairmanship, as the party was in disarray after a series of bruising corruption scandals. “We did not oppose her bid to run, but she also didn’t ignite passion from supporters,” says Yao, who previously served as DPP chairman.

“She wasn’t bold enough to talk about Taiwan independence and Taiwan’s fight against China”Yao Chia-wen, senior adviser to Tsai

REUTERS/Shengfa Lin

Bitter defeat

In 2012, Tsai, the first woman to run for the presidency, loses to the incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou of the long-dominant KMT, which favors closer ties with China. In her campaign, Tsai focuses primarily on domestic policies and fails to communicate her position on Taiwan’s national status, putting off some pro-independence voters. “She didn’t explain it clearly enough,” Yao says.

A trip to the United States before the election doesn’t go as well as hoped. Yao says Tsai tells him she believes that American officials “did not have a very good impression of her.” Tsai uses her U.S. trip to convey that she is determined to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait but some officials in Washington express concerns her presidency could worsen relations with China.

REUTERS/Shengfa Lin

At her rain-soaked concession speech in New Taipei City, Tsai abandons her signature cool and calls on voters to not lose hope. “We must optimistically continue to work hard for this piece of land, Taiwan,” she says. Tsai ends her concession speech with a deep bow. Young supporters sob in the rain.

REUTERS/Toby Chang

Sunflower movement

Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese flood the streets of Taipei to protest an unpopular trade pact with China in 2014. Protesters say the agreement was rushed through the island’s legislature and could leave Taiwan increasingly beholden to China’s Communist Party leaders. Protesters carry sunflowers, a symbol of hope, and hold massive rallies in Taipei. Hundreds occupy Taiwan’s legislature for weeks to protest the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, which would have opened Taiwanese industries such as banking, healthcare and tourism to Chinese investment. They call for the resignation of President Ma of the KMT, whom they see as too close to China. The protests, dubbed the Sunflower Movement, expand into the largest display of anti-China sentiment in Taiwan in years.

REUTERS/Damir Sagolj


Riding a wave of popular dissatisfaction with the KMT, in 2016 Tsai becomes the first woman to be elected president of Taiwan. Learning from her earlier, failed campaign, Tsai is outspoken on Taiwan’s national status. “In the past, she was not opposed to these claims, she just didn’t emphasize them,” says Yao, her adviser. With Tsai’s victory, the DPP takes control of the legislature for the first time in history. With a popular mandate for what Tsai calls a “new era” for Taiwan, she quickly pursues progressive policies. Tsai’s party passes pension reform and an ambitious plan to boost the island’s renewable energy target. Her government appoints Audrey Tang, a software developer who describes herself as a “conservative anarchist,” to be Taiwan’s minister overseeing the island’s digital transformation.

“It was a controversial issue within the DPP. If not for Tsai or (Premier) Su Tseng-chang, no one else could have achieved it”Jennifer Lu, a prominent activist behind the years-long push for marriage equality

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Equality and democracy

In May 2019, Taiwan becomes the first government in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage. Tsai’s push to pass the legislation is initially unpopular even within her own party. “It was a controversial issue within the DPP. If not for Tsai or (Premier) Su Tseng-chang, no one else could have achieved it,” says Jennifer Lu, a prominent activist behind the years-long push for marriage equality. Hundreds of couples marry the same day the law comes into effect. Under Tsai, Taiwan offers a radically different template for a modern Chinese-speaking society, one which Lu says the island’s leader uses to distinguish it further from Xi’s increasingly authoritarian vision for China. “We are different from China. You don’t need to waste time explaining that anymore,” Lu says. “I can’t think of any other politician who could have achieved this."

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General Wallace Gregson, who served as an assistant secretary of defense in President Barack Obama’s administration, attended Tsai’s 2016 inauguration with other American guests. He recalls an event where guests sat outside in the sun entertained with musical acts and stories that dealt with the inclusion of minorities in Taiwan’s society. He said there was an acknowledgement of past shortcomings. “I remember thinking there could not be a stronger contrast with the way the Chinese Communist Party looks at their people,” Gregson recalls. “Think Tibet, think Xinjiang,” he says. China denies any mistreatment of its minority peoples.

REUTERS/Mark Schiefelbein/Pool

Strained ties

Cross-strait relations sour. Following Tsai's victory, the Beijing-controlled Global Times warns that relations between China and Taiwan are entering a new era of uncertainty. China flies bomber patrols near Taiwan, pressures foreign firms to refer to Taiwan as part of China, and whittles away at the island’s diplomatic allies. Taiwan, which sits just 130 km (80 miles) east from China’s southeastern coast, endured colonization and decades of authoritarian rule before it began democratic reforms in the 1980s.

After Tsai’s election victory, Beijing becomes more vocal about unification. Speaking in the Great Hall of the People in central Beijing in January 2019, Xi calls for “peaceful reunification” but refuses to rule out the use of force. Tsai, on the other hand, says Taiwan is already an independent country, called the Republic of China, and vows to defend its freedom and democracy. Opinion polls show most Taiwanese do not want to unify with China and prefer closer ties with the United States.

Senior KMT lawmaker Johnny Chiang says to Reuters relations between Taiwan and China have “gone backwards” under Tsai’s watch. Diplomatically, politically “and in the Sino-U.S. relationship, the two sides are at war,” says Chiang, who formerly chaired the KMT and now sits on parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee. “This has not benefited Taiwan.”

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Hong Kong

In June 2019, more than a million people take to the streets of Hong Kong to protest the proposed introduction of a law that would clear the way for defendants to be tried in mainland China in courts controlled by the Communist Party. The peaceful protests escalate into clashes as the city’s police use force to quell the mass gatherings. Tsai’s government expresses support for protesters and promises to help relocate those escaping to the island. Tsai’s stance helps boost her popularity at home, which had begun to slide towards the end of her first term.  

REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

“Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow”

Months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong capture the sympathy of voters in Taiwan, who share fears of a political future dominated by the Chinese Communist Party. Former Hong Kong lawmaker Emily Lau Wai-hing, who first met Tsai when they were both students at the London School of Economics in the 1980s, attended Tsai’s final rally ahead of the 2020 election. Lau remembered Tsai to be “cool and quite aloof” during their earlier meetings and was surprised to see her transformation. “Of course all the young Hong Kong and Taiwanese people (in the crowd) were very, very excited,” Lau says. “Tsai really knew how to work that crowd.”

In January 2020, Tsai wins her second term, capturing 57.13% of the vote. A few months later, China passes a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong that punishes crimes related to subversion, secession, terrorism or colluding with foreign forces with up to life in prison.  At least 100 young protesters and pro-democracy activists are soon arrested under the law. China says the law is a legitimate effort to shore up national security and it respects human rights.

“Spicy Taiwanese sister”A nickname that became popular after Tsai pushed back against Xi’s unification speech in 2019

Source: screenshot from official Facebook account of Tsai Ing-wen, via REUTERS

Popular appeal

In contrast to Xi, who is often seen standing alone at highly choreographed events, Tsai makes a point of embracing supporters on the streets and rarely turns down a request for a selfie. Xi’s private life is obscured behind tight security. Tsai, an animal lover, is often pictured holding her cats and dogs. She is not above sharing memes of her public image. During this year’s mid-Autumn festival, Tsai shares a cartoon drawing of herself eating mooncakes with white rabbits to her more than 900,000 followers on Instagram, calling on the Taiwanese people to observe COVID-19 protocols during the holiday season. Though Tsai can still come across as stiff in her public speeches, one Taiwan-based foreign official who knows her well says she is funny and charming in private.

Taiwan's Office of the President/Handout via REUTERS

Tsai is seen here comforting a family member of a soldier who died in a helicopter crash. She uses social media to thank foreign leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden, for their support. In November, Tsai posts a video on Twitter thanking Enes Kanter Freedom, a professional basketball player, for his support of Taiwan. During her appearance on a TV cooking show, Tsai wears a blue apron and banters with the host while also talking about the optimistic outlook for Taiwan’s pork exports. Tsai laughs off the host’s reference to her as “spicy Taiwanese sister,” a nickname that became popular after she pushed back against Xi’s unification speech in 2019.

Tsai, often pictured in uniform and photographed next to soldiers, is leading a major military build-up.

Taiwan’s Office of the President/Handout via REUTERS

Military focus

Far removed from her early career as a quiet and bookish technocrat, Tsai dons a uniform and is routinely photographed with troops and the top brass at exercises and drills. She is bolstering the island's military in the face of a growing Chinese threat. With key foreign assistance, Tsai’s government is now building eight new submarines, the first of which they hope will be completed by 2025.

Yao, Tsai’s adviser, says she has dispelled old stereotypes about women not being qualified military commanders by frequently attending military events and rubbing shoulders with soldiers. Some strategists criticize Tsai’s administration for spending on big-ticket items like fighter jets and tanks rather than cheaper mobile anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles that they say could do more damage to a Chinese invasion force before it reaches Taiwan. Tsai now talks about the need for Taiwan to acquire these types of mobile weapons.

In September, Tsai’s government announced it would spend $9 billion over the next five years on missiles and war ships, in addition to the $17 billion it plans to spend next year on defense. Despite these efforts, Taiwan’s military is still dwarfed by China’s growing might, with Beijing pouring an estimated $252 billion into its military just in 2020, according to an April 2021 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Tsai is pushing ahead with the defense buildup. For now, the decades-long impasse with China is holding, but it remains unclear how ready Taiwan is to meet the threat. “When it comes to our capacity, can we wage an arms race” with the Chinese, asks Chiang, of the opposition KMT. “It’s impossible.”

Taiwan’s Office of the President/Handout via REUTERS

Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Sarah Wu

T-DAY: The Battle for Taiwan

By Mari Saito, Yimou Lee and David Lague

Photo editing: Edgar Su and Simon Newman

Design: Catherine Tai

Edited by Janet McBride