Taiwan politics

Tsai Ing-wen

Trump turbulence to test Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen this year

Poorly received reform efforts and lacklustre economy add to challenges faced by island’s leader

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 February, 2017, 8:24am

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen won 56 per cent of the vote a year ago but her popularity has been tumbling since her inauguration in May and hit a new low last month.

A lacklustre economy and the fallout from reform efforts contributed to the fall and analysts predict little relief this year in the face of external and internal challenges, including the uncertainty spawned by US President Donald Trump and almost daily public protests against her policies.

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Tsai led her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to landslide victories in the island’s presidential and parliamentary election on January 16 last year, giving her a mandate for her reformist agenda. However, an opinion poll released by the pro-DPP Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation late last month put her approval rating at a fresh low of 38 per cent, down from 41.4 per cent in November and 69.9 per cent in May.

Another opinion poll conducted last month by the TVBS cable news network – which is close to the mainland-friendly opposition Kuomintang (KMT) – put Tsai’s approval rating at just 27 per cent, down from a post-inaugural high of 47 per cent in June.

Chief among the reforms that sparked anti-government protests were controversial amendments to the island’s Labour Standards Act, but Tsai has also upset various interest groups with plans to reform the pension system for teachers and civil servants, legalise gay marriage and confiscate Kuomintang assets.

The grievances and divisions caused by those reforms explained why Tsai’s popularity hit a new low even though Taiwan’s gross domestic product growth picked up in the third quarter of last year, rising by 2.06 per cent year on year when the market had expected growth of 1.99 per cent. That led analysts to predict an annual growth rate for 2016 of more than 1 per cent, compared with just 0.7 per cent in 2015. The government is expected to release last year’s GDP growth figure next month.

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Wang Kung-yi, a professor of international relations and strategic studies at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said Tsai’s “low rating is apparently the result of her government’s poor economic performance and her eagerness to introduce reforms which she hopes will win public approval, but end up increasing public resentment”.

The Tsai administration met with strong protests and harsh criticism from both employers and employees last month after the DPP-dominated legislature passed controversial amendments to the Labour Standards Act that cancelled seven island-wide holidays and implemented “one mandatory day off and one flexible rest day” as part of plans to introduce a five-day, 40-hour workweek.

The amendments – which had also sparked serious scuffles in the legislature and violent protest by workers in the months before they were passed – were not welcomed by employees because they reduced their holidays and were opposed by employers because they added to their costs by making them pay employees working on the flexible rest day more than double overtime.

Restaurants and hospitals have increased their prices since the bill was passed and some convenience stores are now closed on Sundays.

Meanwhile, Kuomintang members and employees protested against a law passed in July that paved the way for the confiscation of the party’s “ill-gotten” assets, including those it fled to Taiwan with in 1949 and those it inherited from Japan at the end of colonisation in 1945.

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On December 26, the legislature pushed through the amendments to the Civil Code in a first reading to allow same sex marriages, again sparking protests.

On January 7, when Tsai embarked on a nine-day state visit to four Taiwanese allies in Central America, thousands of retired soldiers, civil servants and teachers clashed with police in the central city of Taichung as a public hearing was held on how they should be paid following pension reforms initiated by the Tsai administration. The government, concerned about the long-term viability of financially strapped pension programmes for public servants and teachers, wants to terminate a controversial 18 per cent preferential interest rate on savings deposits for public-sector employees within the next six years.

“The DPP was able to win the elections last year not just because of the poor performance of the KMT administration led by Ma Ying-jeou, but also because of its promise to reform,” Chang Yu-shao, an assistant professor of law at Soochow University in Taipei, said in a recent Facebook post. “In introducing the reforms, which are tipped to anger existing interest groups, the Tsai government has hoped to please everybody, but it ends up inviting more resentment because of the lack of proper follow-up measures.”

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Chang said that in its eagerness to gain public approval, the Tsai administrations had introduced many reforms at the same time without setting priorities, which only served to trigger more disputes from all sides and open up new divides in Taiwanese society. Marriage equality, something Tsai had promised to introduce once elected, had, for instance, resulted in public confrontations between gay rights activists and conservatives and religious groups which went beyond the old political enmity between the island’s independence-leaning and mainland-friendly camps.

Apart from creating new enemies for herself, Tsai has also faced increasing pressure from a disgruntled Beijing, especially after making a congratulatory phone call to Trump in early December which Beijing perceived as a threat to the one-China principle. Trump’s statements since have only exacerbated its concerns.

But Tsai’s cross-strait policies have also angered hardcore pro-independence politicians and young radicals as well as more moderate politicians who supported her predecessor Ma’s engagement with Beijing.

While hardcore pro-independence politicians, including DPP veteran Koo Kuan-min, have been unhappy with Tsai’s relatively moderate policy towards the mainland, radical groups from the camp’s younger generation, including the New Power Party, have urged Tsai to abandon her commitment to the cross-strait status quo.

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During her inaugural speech in May, Tsai vowed to maintain that policy, based on the constitution of the Republic of China – Taiwan’s official title, in the hope of placating Beijing. However Beijing criticised her pledge as “an incomplete test paper” and insisted she adhere to the “1992 consensus” – an oral agreement reached at talks in Hong Kong in 1992 between non-governmental intermediaries from both sides of the strait that there is only one China but that each side has its own interpretation of what that means.

Beijing said acceptance of the one-China principle was a prerequisite for continued cross-strait talks and has suspended interactions between Beijing and Taipei since June.

“Actually, through her phone conversation with ... Trump, Tsai has already broken the cross-strait status quo and her pledge to maintain a predictable policy in cross-strait relations,” said Su Chi, chairman of the Taipei Forum Foundation, a Taiwanese think tank.

He said the phone call and Trump’s questioning of America’s one-China policy, which Beijing regarded as “non-negotiable”, would only pose more challenges for Tsai this year.

Tsai’s congratulatory call to Trump shortly after his election victory infuriated Beijing, which retaliated by stepping up military intimidation of Taipei and wooing away a tiny African ally of Taiwan – Sao Tome and Principe – late last month.

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Tsai admitted in a year-end news conference that her administration would face uncertainty in the first half of this year, a comment analysts said reflected the government’s concerns about Trump.

Analysts said Trump was likely to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in attempting to force economic and other concessions from the mainland.

How Trump will ultimately play the Taiwan card remains to be seen. But Beijing is set to ratchet up pressure on Tsai, with President Xi Jinping eager to show his ability to contain Taiwan in the run-up to the Communist Party’s 19th national congress this autumn.