Taiwan’s New Leader Says He’ll Stick to Status Quo

Though Lai Ching-te will lead an island of only around 24 million people, many of the decisions he makes in Taipei will have the potential to make waves in other capitals, Beijing and Washington in particular.
Though Lai Ching-te will lead an island of only around 24 million people, many of the decisions he makes in Taipei will have the potential to make waves in other capitals, Beijing and Washington in particular.


Lai Ching-te’s resolve has taken on outsize significance since he emerged victorious from Taiwan’s unpredictable three-way presidential election.

TAINAN, Taiwan—More than a decade ago, some residents of this southern Taiwanese city got a lesson in the character of the man who is now set to be Taiwan’s next president.

Lai Ching-te, then Tainan’s mayor, wanted to move a section of railway underground. Residents whose homes would have to be demolished blocked bulldozers with their bodies and accused him of selling them out to property developers. Political opponents called him a dictator.

Lai was undeterred, telling city officials the project was crucial for the city’s future.

“If he believes something is right, he’s all in," said Hsiao Po-jen, one of Lai’s cabinet officials at the time. Even that means he has to “bear heavy responsibility and endure humiliation."

Lai’s resolve—or stubbornness, as his critics call it—has taken on outsize significance since the 64-year-old emerged victorious from Taiwan’s unpredictable three-way presidential election on Saturday with 40% of the vote. Though he will lead an island of only around 24 million people, many of the decisions he makes in Taipei will have the potential to make waves in other capitals, Beijing and Washington in particular.

The ascent of Lai, currently serving as Taiwan’s vice president, to the island’s top job makes both Chinese and American officials nervous. Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of China, sees him as a staunch advocate of independence—a red line for Communist Party leaders. The White House worries Lai is more likely than Taiwan’s departing president, Tsai Ing-wen, to provoke Beijing with envelope-pushing rhetoric and draw the U.S. into a dangerous confrontation, according to U.S. officials.

In one comment that raised eyebrows in Washington, Lai said while campaigning that he looked forward to the day when “the president of Taiwan can walk into the White House," which conjured the possibility he might push for official diplomatic recognition from the U.S.

Lai’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Lai’s victory means the DPP will control the presidency for an unprecedented third term in a row. He campaigned on continuity, vowing to maintain the status quo established under Tsai when it comes to Taiwan’s relations with its authoritarian neighbor.

Though few believe Lai would push Taiwan toward declaring formal independence, he has struggled to shake questions about his ability to navigate the relationship with the same delicate balance as Tsai, due in large part to his past.

On a 2014 visit to China that later became part of the lore around Lai, professors at Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University asked about his party’s position on Taiwanese independence. He was straightforward. “Although Taiwan independence is the DPP’s stance, procedurally, it fully respects the will of the Taiwanese people," he said.

Lin I-chin, a former close aide to Lai and now DPP lawmaker, was on that trip and said she still vividly recalls marveling to Lai in Taiwanese as they walked out of the meeting that he had talked openly about independence on Chinese soil.

Lai patted his chest. “I guess that makes us brave, right?"

Unlike Tsai, who came from a relatively affluent family and worked mostly as a bureaucrat before winning the presidency in 2016, Lai was born into a poor family in northern Taiwan, one of six children. His father, a coal miner, died in a work accident when he was a few months old, leaving him to be raised by his mother.

Lai pursued medicine, first as an undergraduate in Taipei, then at the National Cheng Kung University medical school in Tainan, on Taiwan’s southwestern coast. While there, he developed an interest in politics. In the 1980s, the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, still had Taiwan under martial law, but its grip was loosening and a new sense of optimism about the island’s future had begun to spread.

Lai’s political awakening was “a response to the beckoning of that era," said Ray Hong Chi-chang, a founding member of the then-fledgling DPP and a longtime mentor of Lai.

With Taiwan’s pro-democracy movement gaining momentum, Lai showed a talent for political organizing, according to classmates. Lai’s mother and wife wanted him to continue as a doctor, but Hanh Liang-cheng, a professor at the medical school at the time, joined others in urging him to ditch medicine for a political career.

“The greatest doctor is one who can heal a nation," Hanh recalled telling his former student.

In 1996, two years after deciding to make the leap into politics with the DPP, Lai was elected as a member of the now-defunct National Assembly. After a four-term stint as a legislator, he ran for mayor of Tainan in 2010 and won with 60% of the vote.

“In the way he governs, you see a lot of empathy with people facing hardship," said Chen Tsung-yen, a former Tainan official who had later served as a member of Lai’s cabinet, referring to the impact of the president-elect’s tough upbringing on his political career.

Naturally soft-spoken, Lai nonetheless developed a reputation for taking firm positions. During his tenure as mayor, Lai refused to attend city council meetings, despite being required to under Taiwan’s constitution, after corruption allegations were leveled against an elected speaker. Lai held out for 232 days before relenting—an episode his political opponents use to argue that he is headstrong and irresponsible.

Former aides and campaign staffers have described Lai as a detail-oriented perfectionist who will spend hours reviewing campaign materials word by word. Lu Wei-yin, who served as a close aide to Lai for three years, said he benefited tremendously from spending time with the politician but that working with him “is very stressful because the standards he demands are exceptionally high."

Similar to former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Lai never sits alone in a car with a woman to avoid any appearance of impropriety, according to Lu. He insists on a formal business suit for himself and his staff, even in the tropical Taiwanese heat.

According to Lin, the former aide, Lai for decades only trusted one stylist in Tainan to cut his hair, which he has kept parted the same way—down the middle—for most of his career.

Though the railway relocation plan dragged on for years—and in fact, has yet to be completed—Lai is credited with pushing through other big projects that helped Tainan flourish, including a flood-management system and a new art museum that has attracted hordes of social-media influencers. He also worked with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., the world’s largest contract chip maker, to build a science park in the city.

On the back of those accomplishments, Lai cruised to a landslide victory in his mayoral re-election bid, winning 72% of the vote. Three years later, in 2017, Tsai brought Lai to Taipei and appointed him premier.

During a speech in the legislature that same year, Lai surprised many by referring to himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence"—a line that would stick in the public consciousness.

Though he has a reputation for doggedness, people close to Lai said he can be persuaded to change his mind by those he respects.

During one legislative election, Lai fiercely resisted plans to put out flyers urging voters to “resuscitate" his campaign, a common phrase in Taiwanese politics that Lai nevertheless disliked—“perhaps because he is a doctor," said Hsiao, the former Tainan city official, who was a member of Lai’s campaign team. But over time, Hsiao said, he and other close confidants got him to release the flyers.

Lai’s supporters and critics alike say the circle of advisers and allies capable of influencing the views of Taiwan’s president-elect is small. That could undermine Lai as he confronts tensions around the 100-mile Taiwan Strait separating Taiwan from mainland China, according to Alexander Huang, head of international affairs for the Kuomintang.

“How many people in cross-straits, defense and foreign affairs are in William Lai’s inner circle?" Huang said, using Lai’s English name.

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