During an interview with UK-based Monocle magazine, President Tsai Ing-wen responded to questions regarding her background, political career, reforms, national defense, Taiwan-US relations, cross-strait relations, and the 2020 presidential election.
The text of the interview follows:
Q: Can you tell me something surprising about yourself? It doesn’t have to be your deepest secret, but is there something that people don’t really know about you?
A: People usually think that a woman politician probably is not as tough as a male one. And the fact that I was a professor for a long time—people tend to think that professors are not political enough. So this sense that people thought I was not politically tough enough is something that some people had a question mark with. But by now they should know that I’m politically okay, and I’m tough enough, even if my language might be soft.
Q: One of the things I’m fascinated about, looking into your upbringing, you’re the youngest of eleven children—
Q: What I want to know from you is what was it like growing up being the youngest of eleven? Such a huge family.
A: On the one hand, the good side of it is that I have so many brothers and sisters, and my parents had all these dreams about the achievements of their children. So they always want to see the elders, the older children, perform better. So I do have sisters and brothers who performed very well at school. So that fulfilled my parents’ dream. So, in a way, I didn’t have much pressure as to how I’m going to perform in school. So, relatively, I did have an easy childhood in a sense that I didn’t have much pressure from my parents.
On the other hand, though, having so many brothers and sisters, I had to learn how to deal with them! And they, of course, have to deal with me, as well. But overall, it’s the parents. If the parents are fair enough, and know how to take care of the children, I don’t think there’s much complication there.
Q: You have, like I said, a very compact family now. Do you think growing up amongst that huge family has had an impact on your decisions—your personal decisions?
A: No. The thing is, as a politician, I deal with people every day. I deal with people in the office, I deal with people outside, and especially when a big gathering of people. In other words, I talk to people all the time, I deal with people all the time—I mean, with them, and try to understand what they are thinking. So my childhood helped, because I have so many brothers and sisters that I tried to observe, and understand them. And I was a negotiator for some time, and I learned how to … I trained myself how to observe, how to react to people’s comments. And this is a, sort of a new challenge for me, to mingle with the public, and to observe them, how they react, and what they want to express. So after a whole day of dealing with people, the last thing I want to do when I go home is to deal with people again! So normally I want to be by myself and have a good reflection on what happened during the day, and what needs to be done the next day.
Q: I know your father was a businessman. But would you say you grew up in a political household, or did your political awakening come later in life?
A: Oh, the political awakening came much later. My family … my father didn’t like his children getting too much involved in politics, and that is very typical of the last generation of parents because of this authoritarian rule; they didn’t want their children to get too much involved in politics. My father was a typical one, and he thought that his children should become professionals, like lawyers, doctors, architects, that sort of thing, and he didn’t make a plan for his children to become politicians at all.
Q: Just by being a woman in this role, you’ve very much changed the presidency of Taiwan, certainly from the optics. But in the last three years, during your first term, what is like the biggest change you’ve brought about to the Office of the President?
A: It’s very much in the policy area, because there are so many reforms that need to be carried out because we’re running short of time—especially the pension funds. Some of them may go bankrupt soon. So if we don’t do things, the whole system—the pension system—may collapse, and would become a financial disaster for the country. And also we have to assure pensioners that they will be able to receive pension payments without any sort of interruptions.
So it’s something we ought to do, and we have to do. This pension reform is unprecedented, and no political leader would dare to touch it, because as with pension reforms in other places, if you want to make it financially sound, you have to cut payments. And our previous payment terms were actually rather generous, in fact, too generous, and that caused a lot of discontent here, because people feel that it is not fair for laborers and government employees … the government employees’ pension fund was much more generous than what laborers can get after they retire. So there’s a sense of injustice going on. So we need to address that sense-of-justice issue, and also try to deal with the financial side of pension funds, to make it sustainable.
So we thought we did quite all right in terms of the financial side. After reform, the pension funds can sustain for at least two or three decades, and the payment cuts—despite people complaining about it—they’re not the sort of cuts that would make people unable to live, or substantially reduce their standards of living. But again, I cut payments and affected a lot of people’s income as pensioners, and that is a source of discontent. And we paid a heavy political price for that.
Q: Do you think when you look at the midterms in November, was the pension issue the main reason why the DPP lost so heavily?
A: That is one of the issues. The other one is the same-sex marriage issue, because many of the religious bodies do have strong objections to that. But the younger generation here, the young people, thought that this is a matter of human rights and we should be moving towards a direction that makes us a more advanced country in terms of human rights in this respect. It’s a rather divisive issue here. You have younger generations who want to deal with this as a matter of human rights, and you have other, more traditional groups and religious groups that think that this is too advanced for Taiwan and we are not there yet. So it is a struggle between the two sides.
But this is not something that we can avoid, because it is coming, it is here already. It’s an issue that we have to deal with. And so during the last two to three years, the Grand Justices have made a constitutional interpretation requiring a change of law to move the whole system closer to what should be considered as equal rights protection. And of course, you have this referendum, trying to move the direction a bit backwards.
So, the bad thing is that we have this controversy and conflict over the last two-and-a-half years, but at the end, we still narrowed it down. On the one hand, the Grand Justices said, yes, it is a matter of human rights protection. And the referendum tells us that we should be mindful of the people who are very religious or traditionally inclined. The difference is like this.
But with this referendum and constitutional interpretation, we sort of narrowed it down. The issues are narrowed down to two things. One, I think people generally agree that we should provide protections to homosexuals. The second issue is in what form the legal protection should be provided. It is a good process in my view, despite the fact that we paid a political price for it. But we did get a highly controversial and divisive issue narrowed down to two issues only. People generally agree that their rights have to be protected. But the thing for the government is in what way and in what form the legal protection should be provided.
Q: Since you were elected, the global political landscape has changed somewhat by President Trump in the US. So what I wanted to know from you is, in this post-Trump era, looking ahead to 2020, do you feel like you need to be a bit more Trump? Or are you going to stick to your guns and stay true to who you are?
A: It depends on how you define political guts. By now, I think people think that despite the fact that I use softer language when I express issues, despite the fact that I’m a woman, I am a very determined person, and I am prepared to do things despite the political cost that is involved. And this is how a leader should be. It is not a matter of speaking tough, it is a matter of whether you are determined enough to complete reforms. In the process, you get attacked, you get pressured, and you have a lot of conflicts to deal with, but eventually it is the result that you want to present to the people.
Q: As we kind of gear up for the electioneering period in 2020, what would you say your top priorities are when it comes to foreign relations, cross-strait relations, and defense?
A: Well, I think that we have told the international community and countries in the region that we would be keeping the status quo, but given the changes in the environment, when we are talking about the status quo, we are talking about keeping the right kind of balance, so we’ll continue to keep the right kind of balance. We’re not going to be provocative in our relationship with China, but we have to equip ourselves with sufficient defense capabilities, given China’s large investments in its military development. We need to increase our military capabilities, to make Taiwan a more defendable place. That is our priority.
Q: I know you’re shifting the military towards full-volunteer service, that’s the goal, how is that going? When do you think that will be completed?
A: This policy has been initiated and carried out by the two former Presidents. My job at the moment is to make this all-volunteer system work, and also make our military defense capabilities improve as a result of this all-volunteer system. But the modern military situation is that we need soldiers with experience and know-how to deal with high-tech weaponry. A lot of professional training is required. If we go back to this old system of mandatory military service under which young men join the military for a year, it’s not enough to us.
Today, with this all-volunteer system, a volunteer would join the military for at least four years, so that gives us enough time to train them. And after they retire from their four-year stint―they can extend their service to a longer time as long as they’re qualified―so receiving these four years of training makes them very experienced soldiers. And we continue to keep them in, sort of reserve services. So you have a core group of all-volunteer professional soldiers, and you also have reserve groups, and they are primarily retirees from the volunteer services.
Q: Looking ahead to the election next year, some of your biggest critics would say that you only win if you play the China card. If Beijing does something silly, and you seize on it, rile people up, then the DPP will win. How do you respond to that?
A: The thing that people care about, of course, is national security, and whether we will be able to maintain a stable relationship with China. I think people want to have that. It’s not a matter of speaking loud in a tough manner. Of course, sometimes I have to be loud and tough, but it is not the only thing a leader should do. What we need to do is make sure that our national security is okay, and at the same time we will be able to maintain a stable relationship with China.
But the other thing that the general public here care a lot about is the economy. Despite the fact that people may not have noticed, the economy began picking up actually after 2016. In 2016, when I first became the President, many people thought that I wouldn’t be able to achieve 1 percent GDP growth, because the previous year it was 1 percent or even lower. We achieved that. By 2016, the growth rate was 1.51, and in 2017, we did even better, 3.08 percent growth rate. That is a major achievement. And last year, we did not bad, in 2018 it was 2.63 percent, which is not bad, because that shows the economy is picking up and presents a stable trend upwards. In terms of income, in nominal or substantive terms, it is all in an increasing trend. Exports are doing well, despite the fact that this year we may have some challenges due to the US-China trade conflict, but overall the economy is going up steadily. It’s just that people were worried whether we would be able to make sure there would be enough electricity supply, but our own calculation is that there won’t be a problem there.
Q: President Xi made a big speech in January, a sort of saber-rattling speech, and some people say that in that speech he set a timeline in Beijing for reunification, and that kind of changes the status quo. Do you agree with that? Is that how you see it?
A: I would say that his January 2 speech does, to a certain extent, change the balance in the relationship, and requires a certain amount of rebalancing.
Q: What does that rebalancing involve?
A: That means that we have to be more cautious in terms of managing the relationship. And because the remarks of January 2 have presented a sense of urgency on the Chinese side, what we need to do is to expedite whatever preparations we need to prepare ourselves.
Q: If we look at some other countries that have a dispute, the two Koreas. This time last year, they were perhaps on the brink of nuclear war, and now they’re looking like the best of friends. At the moment, your relations with China aren’t looking too rosy, but let’s look ahead at next year, could you see a similar change in relations, that quickly?
A: The change of relationship requires a lot of things. First of all, the Chinese have to be prepared to treat Taiwan as equals, and no precondition or political framework is there as prerequisite for any peace process. On our side, I think without preconditions, or this framework of the “one China principle” or “one country, two systems,” and if the process is conducted in a way that we are treated as equals and they have enough respect for the sovereignty we have, then there is no reason why we can’t sit down with them and talk.
Q: Referendums are in vogue right now, in your own country and in the UK, where I’m from. But obviously the results don’t always go your way. Will you categorically rule out a referendum on Taiwanese independence during your second term, if you were to be reelected?
A: Taiwan is a democracy. It’s not the leader who makes these decisions. A leader’s responsibility is to make sure our democracy works, and also that democracy can facilitate the people here to make a collective decision as to what we want for the next phase of our relationship with others. But for the President, the most important thing is to make sure that we’ve got our freedom protected, our democracy protected, and a stable relationship with China.
Q: Some people have been saying one of the reasons why the DPP lost so heavily in November was because during your three years, you’ve been focusing too much on Taiwanese independence, Taiwanese identity, and perhaps renaming the country Taiwan. What do you say to that?
A: No. In fact, in the last election, it was a local election, the cross-strait relationship was not a major issue in that. In the first two-and-a-half years of my term, we have been very carefully managing the cross-strait relationship, we have not been provocative at all. And we managed to maintain a stable relationship with China. We have been under tremendous pressure from China as well, because they are more assertive in terms of their military exercises, and also they make attempts to take away our diplomatic allies. So we have to deal with all these pressures. But for us, we are not provocative, we deal with the relationship, we manage the relationship very carefully. It’s the Chinese trying to change the status quo, and we are reacting to it. But last year’s election was more about domestic issues, and some of them are rather divisive.
Q: There are big anniversaries this year, one being the Taiwan Relations Act in April. When that comes about, what will your message be to the US?
A: I hope the relationship, the good relationship, will continue, and cooperation between our two sides will be close enough to meet the challenges of the future in the region.
Q: Last year looked like a pretty good year for US-Taiwan relations, they opened that new quasi Embassy, and there was the Taiwan Travel Act, and there were a few high-level delegations. When you look at 2019, what is on top of your new year’s wish list for things or gifts from the US?
A: It’s not like Christmas. The relationship is not a matter of Christmas time, receiving gifts. It is a solid relationship, and we want to keep a close working and cooperative relationship with the US. I do hope that our relationship can improve every day in substantive terms.
Monocle magazine, launched in 2007 and based in London, provides content focused on economic and political current events, as well as global affairs. The magazine has also published a series of Monocle Guides on a wide range of topics, and operates a round-the-clock online radio station, called Monocle24, that gives commentary on developments in global affairs, politics, economics, and culture.