Pray for Taiwan

Miss Tsai Ing-wen, the president-elect of Taiwan, after winning about three-fifths of the vote in an election this week, has nothing resembling the conventional political charisma, and poses as a quiet old maid. But she doesn’t need it because she has two cats, Think-Think and Ah-Tsai, who are both charismatic. They were able to corner the youth vote, or so I gather from my only remaining correspondent in Taipei.

I have not myself been on that island for about fifteen years. My last visit, written up in a dead-tree medium, was a shock to me, because my penultimate visit had been another twenty years before. I was bewildered by the transformation over less than one generation, and was delivered by airport bus to the centre of a city I could not recognize: at first, not one building. Taipei had been hit by some wealth tsunami, and even so sleepy an east-coast town as Hualien — still described as “pristine” in the travel guides — was hopping with such stuff as “nightlife.”

Those cat-loving youth were everywhere in abundance, and the serene tyranny of the Kuomintang years had been unambiguously disturbed. Chen Shui-ban, master of the vote split, had just become the first president of Taiwan (or “Republic of China” as the KMT called it) who was not KMT. This on a nationalist platform against the imperial intentions of Beijing. A subtle mixture of hope and terror had settled over the political landscape. A lot of blood under the bridge, since then. (Taiwan has marvellous corruption scandals.)

“Democratic” and “progressive” are not my two favourite words, but this is what Chen’s party was called, and Miss Tsai now runs it. The KMT came back to make its characteristic mess and now, just like in a democracy, the DDP are back to make theirs. Miss Tsai explains her own rise to the presidency as the unexpected consequence of “an accidental life.”

Women who run countries come almost invariably from dynastic political families, who do not currently have a male heir, and are daughter or wife to some previous national ruler. Mrs Thatcher of the United Kingdom was a rare exception, and Miss Tsai studied for lawyer in Thatcherite England, rather admiring the way that lady got things done.

But the limit of her own ambition at that time was to become the lawyer her father needed, thanks to his rise back home from garage mechanic to property developer. She was zero on Taiwan’s political scene until the mid-1990s, when it turned out one area of her expertise was needed by a national agency trying to construct the precise legal argument to show that Taiwan had not been ruled from Beijing for centuries; and before that never except in the most whimsical and non-material way, from the belief that every other known country on the planet was a tributary state of the Middle Kingdom.

For some strange reason, committee after committee began to defer to Miss Tsai’s judgement; she was needed by President Chen, in turn, and the rest is now history. I am persuaded from what I have read that she is one of those weird cases of a person with great natural ability, actually rising to the top. I think of her as of a type with another Chinese lady to whom, due to a linguistic misunderstanding, I once found myself engaged: the dutiful daughter of a minor vegetable-oil empire in South-east Asia. Calm, diplomatic, ridiculously well-informed, kind and charitable to all family retainers, respectful to all elders, honourable in all situations, and with her eye constantly on the ball. Not anything like an Evita.

Miss Tsai has walked into one of the hardest jobs on Earth. It is to preserve the independence of Taiwan, against a politburo in Red China that has been determined to swallow the island next, ever since they ate Hong Kong. Miss Tsai has steel nerves, by reputation. Her style will be to avoid contention; to distract from the big with small details; and pray the Seventh Fleet of the United States Navy sticks around.

All the subsequent politics of Taiwan, to my understanding, were shaped by facts circa 1947, when the beaten KMT army came ashore in flight from Chairman Mao. Along with Israel, and formerly South Africa, she has been an uncool “pariah state”; my favourite after Israel. How to survive in a world where all the big states, including your allies, find you inconvenient? In which you need some friend with a very big stick, but long otherwise to be left alone?

The perfect woman for the job, I should think, and her people have come to embrace her as such. (Her predecessor was rather giving the shop away.) She is Hakka, not Mandarin; has even the requisite tiny sampling of indigenous mountain blood; and seems to personate what a Taiwanese wants to be: Chinese insofar as he is Chinese, but an Islander first. And with a tenaciously independent spirit, founded on family in the broadest sense, to include ancestors — a stereotype the monster Mao Tse-tung spent decades trying to snuff out on the Mainland, and his successors pursue by more bureaucratic, slightly less psychopathic methods.

They, for their part, have several thousand ground-to-ground missiles aimed at Taiwan from just across the Strait, and their own irrepressible urges.