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Not Vague, But Moderate: the political philosophy in President Tsai Ing-wen's inaugural address

By Dr Fang-long Shih
Co-Director, LSE Taiwan Research Programme
26 May 2016

This commentary is written by Dr Fang-long Shih as a response to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s Inauguration Address. It is based on an interview that was conducted by the BBC TV World News in the morning of Friday 20 May 2016,  followed by another invitation on 26 May to respond to comments made by a high-ranking governmental official in Beijing released on Chinese News Agency stating that "Taiwan’s new female leader is radical because she is single". The commentary follows on from Dr Shih’s 5-minute interview with the BBC TV World News, and analyses the political philosophy in President Tsai Ing-wen’s inaugural address as "not vague, but moderate."

Rational, moderate, and non-provocative

20 May 2016 marks an extraordinary day in history, for it is the inauguration day of the first female president of a nation-state in the Chinese-speaking world. Although the number of female legislators in Taiwan has risen to 38%, none of the four highest-ranking female political figures is married or a mother. Today, the voice of patriarchy questioning a female political leader may be faint in Chinese society, but it still lingers. Just a few years ago, a DPP heavyweight made a statement saying that ‘one who wears a skirt is not suitable to be in charge of the Army, Navy, and Air Forces’, yet on 20 May 2016, the army, navy, and air forces of the ROC jointly fired a 21-gun salute to Tsai Ing-wen and swore to submit to her leadership. On the other hand, five days after the inauguration, on 25 May, a high-ranking officer in Beijing wrote an article commenting that “Taiwan’s new female leader is radical because she is single”. He stated that President Tsai Ing-wen’s singleness ‘has no emotional burden of love, no concern for “family,” no care for her own children and tends to take emotional, personal, and extreme positions in terms of political style and strategies; whereas in terms of power play, [she] thinks less about overall strategies and more about tactical details. She proposes extreme short-term goals and hardly considers the long-term goals’.

On her inauguration day, Tsai Ing-wen did not wear a skirt to receive the armies’ sworn oaths; in fact, we have never seen her wear one. Even though she always appears with a ‘neutral’ image in public, there are some unique qualities in this new president’s inauguration address that indicate her femininity: she was rational, moderate, and non-provocative. Of course, ‘rational, moderate, and non-provocative’ are not exclusively feminine qualities – they are neutral characteristics – but the two former male presidents of Taiwan, who are married and have children, did not demonstrate these neutral qualities: Chen Shui-bian veered towards an independent Taiwan, and Ma Ying-jeou leaned towards Greater China. For the past 20 years, democratic elections in Taiwan were about the face-off between these two extreme positions. However, for the first time in the past century, we see a political philosophy of ‘moderation’ in President Tsai Ing-wen’s inauguration speech. This is called ‘Doctrine of the Mean’ in Confucianism, which can be simply put as: ‘without inclination to one side’ and ‘admitting no change’. In finding the balancing point (equilibrium) between excessiveness and deficiency, Tsai is practicing the highest moral principle of Confucian philosophy.

The political philosophy of being without inclination to one side

In Tsai’s inaugural address, she specifically pointed out that ‘the new government’s duty is to move Taiwan’s democracy forward to the next stage: before, democracy was about winning or losing the election. Now, democracy is about the welfare of the people’. The ‘Doctrine of Mean’ of Confucianism reflects how ‘the increase of quantity would lead to the change of quality’, and so it advocates taking the middle position and balancing point between the two polar opposites of the deficient and the excessive. Between the lines of President Tsai’s address, we see the principle of moderation: she used the term ‘cross-Strait’ to refer to the ‘relationship between Taiwan and China’ and adopted a neutral term ‘the other side of the Strait’ to replace ‘the Mainland’ addressed by the pro-unification and ‘China’ by the pro-independence.

From this, we can see Tsai Ing-wen’s political philosophy of being without inclination to either side. She does not want to appeal to the people on either side of unification or of independence, nor does she want to provoke Beijing. The PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office called Tsai’s address ‘an incomplete examination paper’, and there were even protests in Taiwan from both the pro-unification and the pro-independence groups just outside the venue during the inauguration ceremony. To Tsai, none of these were unexpected because for extremists, a moderate position means a position that is simultaneously deficient and excessive.

Pragmatic approaches to the maintenance of the status quo

To practise pragmatic politics according to the Doctrine of Mean is to maintain the constant status of the ‘quality’ and ‘quantity’ of things – that is, to maintain the social order and political institutions as they were at the time they were first constructed in the Zhou Dynasty. In Tsai’s cross-Strait policies, we see how she constantly maintains practical politics: she considers the sensitive issue of cross-Strait relations under the structure of ‘regional peace and stability’, proposes to maintain the current status between the two sides and to set aside the baggage of history, and suggests that, together, we should cherish the fruits of communication and negotiation between both parties. She also urges the two sides of the Strait to continuously engage in positive dialogue in accordance with legal and democratic principles for the benefit of the people on both sides.

On the topic regarding the two words ‘1992 Consensus’, Tsai Ing-wen has elaborated with 50 words – 25 times more words than the term in question. She said: ‘In 1992, the two institutions representing each side across the Strait (SEF & ARATS), through communication and negotiations, arrived at various joint acknowledgements and understandings. It was done in a spirit of mutual understanding and a political attitude of seeking common ground while setting aside differences. I respect this historical fact.’ If we read carefully, it is not hard to see that every word in these sentences exemplifies the moderate middle position; the practical use of the Mean sustains the current status and promotes peaceful, stable development. How can that be, as the pro-China media put it, ‘passing the buck’ or ‘cheating’? One can image how, if Confucius were alive today, he would be deeply disappointed with the idea that taking a moderate stance and practical position could be understood in such terms.

In the Doctrine of the Mean, Confucius noted: ‘The superior man is watchful over himself when he is alone. While there are no stirrings of pleasure, anger, sorrow or joy, it may be said to be in the state of equilibrium. When those feelings have been stirred in the appropriate manner, it may be called the state of harmony. Equilibrium is the great foundation of the world , and harmony is the universal path which  the world  should pursue.’ I wonder if Tsai Ing-wen’s moderation and Way of Mean principles will help Beijing realise the value of moderation and move closer towards Tsai on this path than they were willing to do for the same party’s former president, Chen Shui-bian? I wonder if the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean could be the political methodology that bridges the two sides of the Strait and opens a dialogue for peaceful and stable development between the two sides through agreement on an intermediate position? This remains to be observed, but it is hoped this can be seen in the near future.

The balancing point of democracy between unification and independence

At the opposite of confrontation lies the nature of beings, whilst the balance between opposites is the drive of development. Confucius proposes that a superior man should be ‘affable but not adulatory’ (Verse 23, Chapter 13 of The Analects/ Lunyu ).In other words, on the basis of not hiding one’s own different point of view, accepting t different ideas and facing new  opinions one should maintain the  freedom of personal thoughts and independence of human character, while building harmonious andfriendly relationships with others. Such thinking in Confucianism echoes the democratic spirit, and it is the spirit we see in President Tsai’s address as she tries to find the balance between the binaries of unification and independence.

As Tsai Ing-wen has indicated, over the past 20 years, confrontations between political ideologies have led to a situation where ‘our democracy gradually lost its ability to solve problems’. Thus, she stated that ‘a president should not only unite her own supporters, she should also unite the entire country’, and that  ‘it is not the leader who makes a country great, it is the collective striving of the people that makes this country great’. Are the people behind ‘unification’ and ‘independence’ willing to put their differences aside and strive together to protect Taiwan’s democracy? Can Taiwan’s democracy be the balancing point between the poles of unification and independence? Whether pro-unification or pro-independence, can we accept that our political ideologies are just one of many different social values? Can we be open to communicating with people with different political ideologies in order to defend our democratic way of life?