Under President Tsai Ing-wen, eight years of stability in the storm

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan's president from 2016 to 2024, at the Taiwanese National Day celebration in Taipei on October 10, 2023.

Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president from 2016 to 2024, at the Taiwanese National Day celebration in Taipei on October 10, 2023. CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS / REUTERS

Tsai Ing-wen, the small 67-year-old woman with the discreet allure of an A-grade student, will leave the political scene on May 20, with a high popularity rating (58% of Taiwanese people approve of her actions), well above that of her party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Educated at the best universities in Taiwan, the US and the UK, she is considered by some to be the greatest president in the island’s contemporary history.

Since the leader came to power in 2016, Taiwan has made impressive strides in at least three areas: international geopolitics, the most advanced technologies and respect for human rights.

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The island, which China considers a rebel province that will sooner or later have to be “reunited,” has long remained a pariah in the international community. But Taiwan has strengthened its own identity by emancipating itself from its heavy Chinese heritage, and is now held up as an example for its many successes: its management of the Covid-19 crisis, its democratic transition, its stability at the heart of the stormy relationship between China and the US and its stoicism in the face of hostile statements by President Xi Jinping and provocations by the Chinese army.

One of Tsai’s last public engagements, a few days before her departure, was to welcome the famous American-Taiwanese drag queen, Nymphia Wind, to congratulate her on winning “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” a very popular TV contest.

‘You have become our Taiwanese mother’

The drag queen, perched on high sequined heels, wore an extravagant chick-yellow suit, in stark contrast to Tsai’s monastic outfit – a loose gray jacket over black pants and flexible shoes. “You have become our Taiwanese mother. Thank you for all the advances you’ve made: first female president, first authorization of gay marriage, first drag-queen performance in a presidential palace,” said Wind, moved to tears, at the end of a spectacular performance under the impassive gaze of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Kuomintang, the Chinese nationalist party and the Republic of China, which remains Taiwan’s official name.

In addition to the 2016 ministerial appointment of Audrey Tang, a self-described post-gender IT guru, it’s undoubtedly the legalization of gay marriage, in 2019, that will remain the strongest marker of Taiwan’s shift towards an officially progressive society.

Tsai has also promoted Taiwanese identity and culture in a way that her detractors describe as “de-Chinafication.” “Taiwanese identity has always been difficult to explain. Tsai Ing-wen has understood how to use culture as a diplomatic tool,” said writer and essayist Hu Ching-Fang, director of the Taiwan Cultural Center in Paris, delighted that Taiwan is the guest of honor at this year’s Avignon Festival.

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