The day after a high-ranking Chinese military official trashed Tsai Ing-wen’s leadership skills — charging that, because she has neither a husband nor children, her “political style and executive strategy tend to be emotional, personal and extreme” — Taiwan’s first woman president completed her initial week in office by coolly revealing that she plans to visit Taiwanese allies Panama and Paraguay and maybe drop by the United States on the way back.
The announcement was hardly emotional nor the idea extreme, but make no mistake: Tsai meant this news to be taken as her personal volley right back at Beijing, which has made little effort to hide its discomfort with her proposed globetrotting.
Experts view this planned trip as a bold attempt to build an international profile away from the mainland’s shadow, and they expect China to pressure Taiwan to rein in its ambitious new president. Indeed, Tsai has already been not so subtly warned that defying Beijing could prove disadvantageous to her political career and to her island’s relationship with its gargantuan neighbor.
Tsai, 59, did sound a cautious note in her May 20 inaugural address yet sidestepped any discussion of the “One China” principle, which has been in effect since a landmark 1992 meeting that saw China claim the self-governing island as a territory. Now, mere weeks into her presidency, she seems determined to challenge Beijing, suggesting that her voiced desire for a truly independent Taiwan was not just wishful thinking on the campaign trail. Tsai has, indeed, fired a shot across the bow in urging China to give more political rights to its people as a way to garner more respect around the globe.
This is advice Beijing likely will neither appreciate nor heed, but it signals that Tsai is willing to break away from the deference shown to China in the past by her predecessors. China would be well advised to recognize a need to tread more gingerly concerning this former lawyer elected in a landslide after running as a relentless advocate for social reform, including same-sex marriage.
Or it can gauge her popularity via the massive blowback online to the dig at her status as “a single woman politician.” Outraged readers pointed to South Korean President Park Geun-hye and China’s ex-Vice Premier Wu Yi as examples of other powerful Asian women unhampered by the lack of a partner – prompting China to take the rare step of scrubbing the piece from Xinhua’s website and other news portals.
So while Tsai may yet have to walk a veritable tightrope regarding her powerful foe, Beijing had better realize that, while the local press might affectionately call her “Little Ying,” she is no lightweight.