by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images

IS THE NARRATIVE about Taiwan changing after Tsai Ing-Wen’s presidential victory? We might note that, to date, there have at least not been very many foreboding warnings about Tsai guiding Taiwan in the direction of Taiwanese-independence and possibly provoking cross-strait conflict. Rather, news coverage to date has focused largely on Tsai as the first female president of Taiwan, that Tsai pledges to maintain cross-straits stability and is an unorthodox politician, a “female academic who loves cats and supports gay rights” as the title of a recent article stated.

In media coverage, there are frequent references to Tsai’s chairmanship of the DPP as Tsai chairing a pro-independence party, which is a questionable statement about the DPP at this point. But it seems that Tsai’s media strategy has been effective. News coverage does note that Tsai’s victory may raise hackles in China. Yet Tsai is not usually seen as a dangerous aggressor against China in her own right, again, on the basis of her moderate image, even if it is raised that China may be provoked by Tsai’s victory.

For all Tsai’s image as shy and unsociable, it is in fact likely that Tsai actually deliberately went out of her way to present a moderate, but firm image to international media. This was in order to avoid being pegged as an ideologically motivated warmonger in the way her predecessor as a DPP president of Taiwan, Chen Shui-BIan was depicted as such in international media. It also helps that the novel element of Tsai being the first female president of Taiwan—one of the few female heads of state in Asian history and the only female head of state in contemporary Asian political history not from a political dynasty—has been the focus of much news written on Tsai to date. This focus of news coverage on Tsai as a female head of state and the newly minted “most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world”, among other things, has in a strange way put a damper on fear mongering about cross-strait relations.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen announces her election victory to the media at their party headquarters in TaipeiTsai at the international press conference announcing her campaign victory. Photo credit: Yahoo

And if Tsai went out of her way to present herself as a candidate who represented Taiwanese young people and civil society, this has also served as a useful means of influencing international media perceptions. If the Sunflower Movement is less discussed in regards to Tsai’s victory, it is well-known that Tsai’s victory can be accredited to popular unrest against the KMT—particularly from young people. So Tsai Ing-Wen’s victory is accredited to how Taiwanese people do not wish to draw uncomfortably close to China. This was probably another reason as to why Tsai was so emphatic on appeals to Taiwanese civil society in her advertising campaigns, which sought to depict Tsai as aspiring to realize the aims of civil society, apart from wanting to draw young people closer to the DPP.

Yet the flip side of this is that it may not mean very much in regards to changing the overall narrative about Taiwan. International coverage of Taiwan has the tendency to view whichever president has been elected into office as indicative of Taiwan’s overall views on independence/unification politics. Ma Ying-Jeou’s victory in 2008 after eight years of Chen Shui-Bian was seen as marking that Taiwanese were finally happy to draw closer to China, after all. This was clearly not the case, when the Wild Strawberry movement that was a prelude to the Sunflower Movement also broke out in 2008, prompted by the visit of Chinese ARATS chairman Chen Yunlin to Taiwan.

It is an open question as it indicates any change in the narrative that international media honed in on—quite correctly—that Tsai’s victory means that Taiwanese as a majority do not wish to draw too close China in a way that threatens Taiwan’s de facto independence. It could just be that they intimated from Tsai’s victory as a DPP candidate that Taiwanese people are not feeling in too pro-unification a mood right now.

As noted by Michael Turton, among others, the use of the word “pro-Taiwan” instead of “anti-China” in English-language journalism on the rise. But where we do see shifts in the narrative about Taiwan, actually a large part of this is through juxtaposing Taiwan to China. For example, it is raised that Taiwan is “democratic,” the apparent only democracy in the Chinese-speaking world. The victory of Tsai Ing-Wen as an unorthodox political candidate is something which could only occur in Taiwan, seeing as it would be unlikely for a candidate like Tsai to be elected elsewhere and China does not hold elections for its head of state.

12402125_438712529673317_1569521222208441135_oMetal singer turned legislator Freddy Lim, of the death metal band Chthonic. Photo credit: 林昶佐 中正萬華關鍵戰將

Relatedly, there is also the strong element of exoticism in much news coverage about Taiwan recently, for example, in depicting Taiwan as an unusual place in which gangsters such as White Wolf Chang An-Lo and heavy metal musicians such as Freddy Lim run for political office as serious politicians and rub shoulders in elevators, as happened in a recent incident in which Lim ran into Chang in an elevator. Tsai’s victory as well as the victory of new, untraditional “Third Force“ political candidates are cited as examples, with the exoticism of Tsai’s victory as a female presidential candidate being yoked together with the exoticism of Lim’s victory as a metal musician turned politician in much international coverage.

Nevertheless, increased positive descriptions of Taiwan in English-language journalism are also reflective of increasingly negative perceptions of China in public discourse. With China’s actions as of late, China increasingly seems like a possible military and political threat to the western world, rather than just the latest hot market for investment as it appeared ten years ago. Xi Jinping’s China is not Hu Jintao’s or Jiang Zemin’s China, given increased state suppression internally and increased aggressiveness in foreign policy externally. Negative views of China in the English-speaking world seem to be on the rise. Taiwan, then, is raised as “China’s Other,” that is, as a counterpoint to China. Increasingly positive depictions of Taiwan in the media, then, may reflect China’s worsening image just as much as they indicate Taiwan’s more positive image.

Lastly, we may note that almost immediately after being elected, Tsai’s efforts at international outreach aimed at allaying views that she was a radical who aimed at disrupting cross-strait relations began. Tsai’s victory speech was interpreted into English as soon as she began it. During the speech, Tsai emphasized that she would stick to the Republic of China constitution framework as the foundation for conducting cross-strait relations and maintaining peace in the Taiwan Straits. Along the same lines, Tsai’s speech took place with a backdrop of a DPP and ROC flag next to each other.

PhotoCreditYahooTsai declaring victory at an international press conference. Note the ROC and DPP flags in the background next to each other. Photo credit: Yahoo

This would seem to indicate a stance by Tsai against constitutional reforms aimed at fundamentally rewriting the nature of Taiwanese government, in shifting from the Republic of China framework and the Republic of China constitution which the KMT brought with it from China to Taiwan to something more local, as in a “Republic of Taiwan.” This has been one of the popular causes of civil society in the past years, with many calling for constitutional amendments to be achieved through referendum. Tsai seems to be indicating that she will not support this, in order to maintain peace with China through the ROC framework.

Perhaps in some way, we might go so far as to say that this indicates de facto acceptance by Tsai of the 1992 Consensus, in spite of that the DPP has always denied the 1992 Consensus. Tsai will probably give the 1992 Consensus some new spin to “DPP-ize” it, however. So it is, then, that backsliding by Tsai began almost immediately after election. If this will cost Tsai supporters, Tsai made it a point to make the outside world know where her stances on preserving cross-strait relations are.

Tsai, then, has quite deliberately been attempting to present herself as a moderate to international media for the duration of the election. It also strikes that political backsliding with Tsai began almost as soon as she was elected. Yet it strikes that Tsai’s point may have actually been a bit too arcane for foreign observers. Most foreign observers of Taiwan do not understand or are even aware of the demand for constitutional change which would do away with the ROC framework as the end goal of many conceptions of Taiwanese independence, viewing Taiwanese independence instead as independence from China. We shall see as to what future moves Tsai makes to telegraph her intentions to the international world and whether the international world is able to pick up on them.