“Troublemaker” Lai Ching-te takes the reins of Taiwan under close scrutiny from Beijing

The 64-year-old doctor will lead a third term for the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), the party that has embraced the island’s democracy as the great bulwark against the threat from China.

Taiwan inaugurated a new leader this Monday after the inauguration ceremony of William Lai Ching-te, a 64-year-old doctor. The winner of last January’s elections will lead a third consecutive term for the Democratic Progressive Party (PDP), the formation that has embraced the island’s democracy as the great bulwark against the threat from China.

Lai takes over from the outgoing president, Tsai Ing-wen, promising a continuous foreign policy focused on resisting, under the mantra of defending freedoms, military pressure from Beijing. For this purpose, it will be key to continue strengthening ties with the great ally, the United States, the main international supporter and main supplier of weapons to a nation whose sovereignty is only recognized by 12 countries.

In China, officials of the ruling Communist Party (CCP) publicly define Lai as an “independence troublemaker” because they do not forget some statements that the new president made when he was a deputy, presenting himself as a “pragmatic worker for the independence of Taiwan”.

The Taiwanese leader has now moderated his tone. It defends the status quo of an island that functions de facto like any independent country, but assures that its objective is to maintain peace with China, the Asian superpower that considers Taiwan a separatist province even though the CCP has never ruled in that territory. .

After the inauguration, there was a military parade and Lai gave his speech supported by eight heads of state and second-level representatives – especially retired senior officials – from more than 50 countries. The new president claimed above all the defense of democracy – a word he repeated up to 31 times – against the threat of the authoritarian neighbor, but he was also more conciliatory than expected when asking that the confrontation give way to the resumption of bilateral relations. with the return of tourism and student exchange.

“Democracy, peace and prosperity form Taiwan’s national roadmap and are also our link to the rest of the world. We have grown to become one of the most vibrant democracies in the world,” Lai said.

The leader also referred to Beijing’s continued military pressure in the Taiwan Strait, where Chinese military planes fly over the island’s surroundings every week. Lai has called these actions the “biggest strategic challenge to global peace and stability” and called on China to “stop threatening politically and militarily” Taiwan.

“I call on China to ensure that the world is free from fear or war, to choose dialogue over confrontation. Taiwan cannot make any concessions on democracy and freedom,” he continued.

In addition to Lai, the new vice president, Hsiao Bi-khim (52 ​​years old), one of the great scourges of Beijing in recent years, also participated in the swearing-in ceremony. She was ambassador to Washington between 2020 and 2023. She worked closely behind the scenes with both the Trump and Biden administrations to strengthen ties. Hsiao is banned from entering China because she was blacklisted by Beijing. Accused of “collusion with the United States,” she has been sanctioned twice by Xi Jinping’s government.

Lai and Hsiao used a fear campaign towards a future invasion by the Chinese army to revalidate power on the autonomous island in January for the PDP (with more than five million votes, 41% of the electorate), although it lost the majority in Parliament, so it will have a complicated four-year legislature.

Key to Lai’s victory at the polls was the strength of a young electorate that supports his Government’s progress on equality, environment and LGBT issues. “We were the first country in Asia to legalize homosexual marriage,” the president recalled in his speech. But much of Taiwanese society is still very conservative despite the projection of modernity to the outside.

The opposition, led by the nationalists of the Kuomintang (KMT), closest to Beijing, will easily stop many of the bills that the PDP intends to advance, but will support the Lai Government in the commitment to rearmament that is possible thanks to aid from the United States, which does not recognize Taiwan as an independent state, but maintains a firm bipartisan commitment to the supply of weapons.

“Taiwan needs the world, in the same way that the world needs Taiwan,” the president also stressed in the part of his speech in which he spoke about semiconductors, a sought-after sector where Taipei is the absolute power thanks to the company TSMC, the world’s leading manufacturer of the highest quality chips. “The future we decide is not only the future of our nation, but the future of the world,” he said.

The son of a miner who studied at Harvard

Lai is one of seven children in a working class mining family coming from Wanli, a small town near the northeast coast of the island. He studied Medicine and, thanks to a scholarship, earned a master’s degree in Public Health at Harvard. He returned to his homeland as a medical consultant expert in spinal cord injuries, but before entering his thirties he hung up his robe to make his way as a legislator in the Taiwanese Parliament.

“When I was young, I was determined to practice medicine and save lives. When I entered politics, I was determined to transform Taiwan. Now, here, I am determined to strengthen Taiwan,” Lai said Monday during his speech.

The new president has gone through almost all levels of Taiwanese politics. From rank and file to two-term mayor of the southern city of Tainan; from prime minister to vice president. Now, as leader of a nation the size of Extremadura and home to 23 million people, he will have to face the complex challenge of continuing to fight for the defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty.

During Tsai’s eight years in office, the island’s list of formal diplomatic allies shrank from 22 to 12 as China stepped up efforts to reduce Taiwan’s international presence. Despite the fact that Taipei lacks diplomatic recognition on the world stage, the Tsai government has managed to maintain good relations with the great democracies of the West, which support its status quo but do not dare to take a step further for fear of infuriating too much. Beijing.

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