On the eve of TaiwanFest in Vancouver, two pioneers in the local Taiwanese community are highlighting a bright aspect of the Asian country’s current political life.
For such a young democracy, Taiwan is setting a fine example of the old-fashioned value of equality, according to James Chou and Charles Yang. It’s that cherished idea that—regardless of gender, race, and class, and without the advantage of a famous last name—anyone can rise to the highest level of government.
Chou, an accountant, and Yang, a retired medical doctor, are delighted about Taiwan’s new president, Tsai Ing-wen, who assumed office on May 20, 2016.
Tsai, a single lawyer, is the first female president of the country. Partly aboriginal, the U.S.– and U.K.–educated jurist led the pro Taiwan-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to a landslide victory in January.
Compared to past and present female leaders in Asia, the 59-year-old Tsai is exceptional. As Chou explained, the Taiwanese president isn’t related to a powerful male political figure or an influential political dynasty.
That sets her apart from female politicians in the region like Park Geun-hye. Park is the current and first female president of South Korea and the daughter of late South Korean military strongman Park Chung-hee.
Another example is the late Corazon Aquino of the Philippines. She became the first female president in the country after a popular revolt that followed the assassination of her husband, a prominent opposition leader.
“It is an enormous statement to the world that Taiwan is moving along and quite smoothly,” Chou said about the success of Tsai in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight.
For his part, Yang noted that it demonstrates the pace and depth of democratization in the island nation.
“It’s good for a very early democracy to produce a female president in a matter of 30 years,” Yang told the Straight in a separate phone interview.
Until martial law was lifted in 1987, Taiwan was under the authoritarian rule of the Kuomintang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party.
It took almost a decade before the country held its first democratic presidential election, in 1996. Four years later, the DPP won its first presidential election, with then leader Chen Shui-bian. That watershed moment in 2000 broke the Kuomintang’s monopoly on power.
The Kuomintang rule of Taiwan started in 1949, when Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and his followers decamped to the island following their defeat in a civil war with Mao Zedong’s communist forces in China.
Yang joked that with Tsai, Taiwan has done better than the U.S., a democratic country for more than 200 years. The U.S. may elect its first female president in November this year: Hillary Clinton, wife of former American president Bill Clinton.
Canada, a democratic country, doesn’t officially recognize Taiwan, which is being claimed as a province by China.
Last Monday (August 29), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau left on his first official visit to China. His father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, was among the first leaders in the West to recognize Beijing.
Meanwhile, China has suspended official communications with Taiwan since June this year. The move followed Tsai’s inaugural speech, in which she didn’t explicitly acknowledge a 1992 consensus by unofficial representatives of the two countries. The nonformal agreement recognizes that there is one China, but allows both sides to have their own interpretation of what that means.
Chou said he is also elated over the appointment of the first transgender member of cabinet in Taiwan. On October 1, Audrey Tang will join the country’s executive council to craft policies related to open government and the digital economy.
The 35-year-old Tang was involved in the so-called Sunflower Movement of 2014. This protest movement blocked passage of a trade pact negotiated by the Kuomintang government with China.
Tang, who reportedly has an IQ of 180, is a self-taught programmer. She founded her own technology company at the age of 16. She is already a retired entrepreneur.
Tang will be the youngest minister in Tsai’s cabinet.
Referring to the ascendance of a female president and the selection of a transgender member of cabinet, Chou said this about the new Taiwan: “You have the opportunity to serve the country and your society without any prejudice against your race, gender, background, and sexual orientation.”
Follow Carlito Pablo on Twitter @carlitopablo.