by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

DID WE LEARN anything new from Tsai Ing-Wen’s inauguration speech? Not really, for anyone who has been paying critical attention to Tsai Ing-Wen’s comments from her election to the present, and the thematics of Tsai’s campaign during past election season. What remains to be seen now is as to the reception of the speech by China and other actors, but overall, we heard much the same from Tsai as before. 

Namely, Tsai continued to make appeals to youth in her inaugural speech, as we saw during Tsai’s past campaign. During past election season, Tsai went out of her way to make appeals to young people, as youth activism has come to the forefront of social consciousness in Taiwan after the 2014 Sunflower Movement. Tsai’s reference to the youth as those who make the decisions for Taiwan’s future was much along the same lines, again in the context of the Sunflower Movement having galvanized society writ large in protest of undemocratic KMT decision-making. But while Tsai wishes to continue to use the language of the youth activism which has captured the attention of the public to garner support, one may question whether we are not already seeing the early signs of retrenchment on her part.

An Emphasis on Domestic Issues

IF IN HER speech, Tsai notably emphasized domestic issues, this is not surprising. During past elections domestic issues were of greater importance in how Taiwanese voted than cross-strait relations. This occurred in spite of the KMT’s continued attempts to claim that it is the only party in Taiwan able to maintain stable cross-strait relations with China, the same boogieman it tries to conjure up in every election season in order to get elected.

PhotoCreditLibertyTimesPhoto credit: Liberty Times

Tsai began by noting the peaceful transition of power which had taken place, and stressed the central place of the people as those who make decisions for the country, who therefore must confront and resolve the problems of the country. Tsai went on to highlight Taiwan’s lagging economic development, the social inequality faced by young people, and the problems of Taiwan’s aging population. Thus, Tsai stated the need to repair Taiwan’s social safety net in order to avoid such social problems. This is in her view the urgent problem which Taiwanese people need confront next, after having gone through the election process.

But if some have seen Tsai’s continual emphasis on the people as those who make the decisions for Taiwan as a rejoinder to the KMT and its undemocratic actions in the last year, we may note that despite reference to transitional justice regarding the crimes of the authoritarian government that ruled Taiwan in the past, Tsai’s proposed measures were altogether quite vague. Regarding transitional justice, Tsai stated that she would form a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to determine the historical facts of Taiwan’s history under martial law. 

Tsai stated that the purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee would be to ensure reconciliation for the sake of preserving social harmony. No mention was made of any other measure for transitional justice other than investigation and clarification of the past in some manner, likely to assuage the KMT that the DPP would use transitional justice as a means to pursue revenge against its rival political party of the KMT for past wrongs committed by it in the martial law period.

Indeed, where youth activism has particularly been active opposing the attempts of the KMT to draw Taiwan closer to China, Tsai was emphatic through the proceedings of her inauguration on the multiethnic nature of Taiwanese society. This was, for example, with the depiction of Taiwan as a multiethnic society in the performance which preceded her inaugural speech, the use of indigenous schoolchildren to sing the Republic of China’s national anthem, and reference to that she would promote indigenous welfare through promoting the autonomy of indigenous governance and policies aimed at restoring indigenous languages and cultures. However, note that Tsai did not make mention of whether she would make a formal apology to indigenous peoples for the crimes committed against them by the governments in the past.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 2.14.46 AMLin Sheng Xiang performing at Tsai’s inauguration. Photo credit: Apple Daily

Regarding environmental issues and the energy debate in Taiwan, Tsai suggested an opposition to nuclear energy through the inclusion of anti-nuclear activist and Hakka singer-songwriter Lin Sheng Xiang in the performance before her inaugural speech, who frequently performs at youth-led anti-nuclear rallies. Nonetheless, while this would be a popular stance with Taiwanese youth activists, Tsai did not mention a stance of opposition to nuclear energy in her speech itself, only remarking that Taiwan faces problems of pollution.

To confront these issues and others, Tsai stressed the need for Taiwan to develop a new form of economy, through building economic partnerships with Southeast Asian countries through her centerpiece “New Southwards Policy”, specifically referencing ASEAN and India. Thus, as Tsai would have it, Taiwan is in urgent need of passing free trade agreements as the TPP and RCEP.

Though Tsai primarily stressed Taiwan’s need to sign free trade agreements in the framework of a solution to such domestic issues, within this was also a likely insinuation that diversifying trade would be a way to avoid dependence on China, which again returns to a core concern that galvanized civil society and youth activism to rise up in past years in opposition to the effects on Taiwan of free trade agreements signed with China. Still, we may raise that Tsai did not mention that the RCEP is a free trade agreement with China not unlike the CSSTA which opposition to was the impetus for the Sunflower Movement. Tsai phrased Taiwan’s need to sign free trade agreements as being of necessity in the present age of global economic circulation and trade.

The 1992 Consensus in All But Name, Continued Preservation of the ROC Framework

THUS TSAI segued from a discussion on domestic issues to addressing Taiwan’s international place in the world and the issue of cross-strait relations with China. Even if now individuals are now fighting over the hermeneutic meaning of Tsai’s words and Tsai’s ambiguous statements can be understood to mean acceptance of the 1992 Consensus or would allow her some wiggle room, Tsai referred to “joint acknowledgements and understandings” (1992年兩岸兩會秉持相互諒解) of the Straits Exchange Foundation and Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits in 1992 and the “historical fact of the 1992 talks” (1992年兩岸兩會會談的歷史事實).

PhotoCreditNowNewsTsai declaring victory in January 2016. Photo credit: NowNews

Caught between the mutual imperatives of having to agree to some version of the 1992 Consensus or face China’s displeasure and the fact that the DPP has historically never acknowledged the existence of the 1992 Consensus as something other than a historical falsehood created by the KMT, Tsai did not refer explicitly to the 1992 Consensus by name. Yet make no mistake, Tsai has been gesturing towards the acceptance of some quasi-form of the 1992 Consensus for some time, except not using the words “1992 Consensus.” Previously, after her electoral victory, along much the same lines of indicating acceptance of some version of the “1992 Consensus” except not by that name, the DPP referred to support for the the “Spirit of the 1992 Consensus”.

We see likewise in Tsai’s emphasis that she is the president of the Republic of China and has an obligation to defend the constitution, framework, and territory of the Republic of China in that position. Tsai also referred to the need to advance Taiwan’s global standing from its place of marginalization through such means as signing the aforementioned free trade agreements and participation in international bodies and suggesting putting aside territorial disputes.

Nevertheless, it remains to be seen how far Tsai can push the constraints of the ROC framework. The KMT will probably attack Tsai on the basis of the violating the ROC framework should she, for example, make the attempt to back away from Taiwan’s territorial claims on South China Seas islands also claimed by China—and by potential Southeast Asian allies like Vietnam and the Philippines. Tsai had been previously forced to reiterate that she continues to uphold such claims of the ROC framework when criticized on the issue in the past.

Conclusion: Time to Celebrate After the Tsai Inauguration? Or Time to Rain on the Tsai Parade?

But if we did not learn very much Tsai’s speech which we did not already know before—even regarding the 1992 Consensus and cross-strait relations, which had many on the edge of their seats—a fitting metaphor for what comes next for Tsai may come from the proceedings of the inauguration itself, regarding the performances which took place before Tsai’s inauguration.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 2.21.08 AMFire EX performing at Tsai’s inauguration. Photo credit: Apple Daily

As with the other policies put forward by Tsai, Tsai’s inaugural ceremony attempted to spotlight Tsai’s connections to youth activism, with sunflower decorations on parade floats and a performance by Fire EX just before her speech. Fire EX was the band whose song “Island’s Sunrise” was the unofficial theme of the Sunflower Movement in 2014.

However, what preceded this was a performance intending to represent Taiwan’s history which a bizarre overlap of a DPP pro-Taiwan version of history on top of KMT ideology. Taiwan’s history was presented along such lines of having experienced multiple waves of colonialism, and developed a unique sense of identity as such, which would be closer to the DPP’s version of Taiwanese history. Accordingly, Taiwan’s history was represented with the presence of indigenous and as having gone through Portuguese colonization, two elements of Taiwanese history which would have been left out of a KMT Sinocentric narrative of Taiwanese history.

Screen Shot 2016-05-20 at 2.23.50 AMPerformance of indigenous during Tsai’s inauguration, acting out assault from Qing settlers. Photo credit: Apple Daily

But whatever Tsai’s claims that she would put forward policy to aid indigenous people, the performance in its narration stated that “the West changed the primitive and uncultivated customs of the indigenous” (十六世紀以來西方國家帶來的宗教,改變了原住民草莽而粗獷的習俗) and indigenous people were otherwise represented stereotypically as a happy singing and dancing people. The Hakka, as another minority group, were also depicted demeaningly as the merry and simple “Cute Hakka people” (可愛的客家人).

If the arrival of the Qing Dynasty was presented as an interlude which stood at odds to the rest of the narrative, Japanese colonization was presented along the lines of KMT narrative of the Taiwanese people having faced nothing but suffering under the hands of their brutal Japanese overlords. This was a stark contrast to the pan-Green camp’s rosy, nostalgic view of Japanese colonization as having been a preferable period to Taiwan under the KMT’s authoritarian rule. Subsequently, then, the arrival of the KMT in Taiwan would be presented in the performance as the liberation of Taiwan and presented in wholly positive terms—before a sudden, abrupt, and awkward transition to the 228 Massacre, depicted as another period of time in which Taiwanese people went through a period of historical suffering, but one presented without clear cause. Evidently, it would still be too controversial to point out the KMT as who perpetuated the 228 Massacre. One can only be led to conclude, metaphorically, that any enforcement of transitional justice under her administration would likely be as lackluster as this narrative.

For much the same reasons, Taiwan’s democracy movement would be left out of the performance altogether and the performance ending after a depiction of a wave of Southeast Asian immigration and of the 1960s. If the inclusion of Southeast Asian immigrants in a narrative of Taiwanese history would be a step towards pluralism, notably Southeast Asian immigrants were represented exclusively by Vietnamese—ironic considering present circumstances in Vietnam of mass protest against environmentally damaging Taiwanese-owned companies which would be a damper in any attempt to build ties with Vietnam through the New Southwards Policy but also perhaps indicating Tsai’s desire to build ties with Vietnam.

PhotoCreditLibertyTimesPhoto credit: Liberty Times

Criticisms of Tsai’s statements from youth activists probably already have been made, particularly pertaining to the depictions of indigenous in the performance. Tsai’s speech included a request to young people for “a little time” to carry out her measures. But on the contrary, if this performance which preceded Tsai’s inauguration was intended to represent the progressive social politics of the incoming administration, it in actuality demonstrated quite the opposite sentiment. As with Tsai’s words in her inaugural speech then, we will soon see as to whether she says one thing but does exactly the opposite.