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Taiwan’s ‘Wall-Hugging’ Presidential Candidate Takes New York

Outside Penn Station in New York City on June 5 there was growing anticipation as a crowd waited for Tsai Ing-wen to arrive. The excitement seemed a little out of place: Tsai, a former law professor educated at Cornell University and the London School of Economics, has what she herself calls a “wall-hugging” personality—the kind that leaves a person unnoticed in a room, much less in the rambunctious world of Taiwanese politics. (“I have learned to warm up [with people],” she writes matter-of-factly in her campaign autobiography, “because it is necessary to interact with crowds in the process of elections; with interactions come stories, and a sense of things, and these stories and sense become a basis for speeches.”) But the people outside the station were craning their necks for a first glimpse of her, fluttering in anticipation at every false alarm. As a knot of New York City police watched from the curb, the crowd unfurled large green banners reading, in Chinese, “The Eastern United States Warmly Supports Tsai Ing-wen” and “Tsai Ing-wen 2016.” The crowd swelled over the next hour, until it became a sea of swirling green-and-white flags. “A candidate from Taiwan,” said one of the police officers to his colleagues. He pronounced the name carefully, as if not certain what it meant.

That is, of course, the issue that every potential leader of Taiwan is expected to address.

The last time Tsai ran for president, in 2012, she lost. Many Taiwanese attribute it, at least in part, to her disastrous visit to the United States in late 2011. “She left us with distinct doubts about whether she is both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years,” a U.S. official told the Financial Times. Tsai’s rival, Ma Ying-jeou, won a second and final term. While it is difficult to prove that the implied preference of an important ally ensured Ma’s success, it is unlikely to have hurt him. And for the United States, he appeared to be the safer bet for continued stability in cross-Strait relations. (His party, the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist Party, has supported the “One China Policy,” while hers, the Democratic Progressive Party, has a Taiwan independence clause in its charter.) But in the past year and a half, the KMT has lost popular support in Taiwan: young people, especially, are worried about unemployment and low wages; they are suspicious, too, of the government’s seeming eagerness to sign trade agreements with China. The KMT was badly defeated in the local elections in November 2014. China’s military build-up and its conduct in the South China Sea have caused alarm and annoyance in Washington, where this time Tsai was welcomed rather warmly. A tide is turning both within Taiwan where the majority now support continued separation from China, and in the broader Asia-Pacific, to which the island is geostrategically vital. The people standing outside Penn Station were a part of this tide: They hoped it would lift Tsai to the presidency of Taiwan, and Taiwan to a future even further away from the Mainland.

Lin Meng-yun, a graduate student at Boston University, was one of them. She stood outside Penn Station, holding up one end of a green banner that read, in traditional characters, “Taiwan Soul.” She was grinning, turning toward the station entrance every time some ripple of movement hinted at Tsai’s arrival. “I wasn’t really interested in politics, I never thought it had much to do with me, before I went to Tsinghua University, in Beijing,” she told me. “But in 2004, when I became eligible to vote, one of my Tsinghua teachers paid me several visits. She was sent, of course—they’re very organized over there, including a portion of the students.” Her teacher had not visited her in 2000, she added, when she was not yet of age. “They wanted to know if I was flying back to vote, and how I was going to vote. They didn’t want me to vote, first of all, but if I did, they wanted me to make the right choice.”

“For the Kuomintang?”

She nodded. “I wasn’t going to go vote, but I didn’t tell them that. I never thought of voting before. But after that...” Taiwanese living away from their hometowns must travel back there to cast ballots, she explained. In January, she too will return to vote.

Dong suan! Dong suan! Tsai Ing-wen dong suan!” the crowd chanted. “Frozen garlic! Frozen garlic! Tsai Ing-wen FROZEN GARLIC!” The words in Mandarin are a homonym for “to win the election” in Minnan dialect. The candidate arrived. From where I stood at the back of the crowd, however, all that was visible was a kind of tunnel, moving through the crowd; Tsai herself was hidden behind a phalanx of serious-looking men with plastic phone-coils trailing from their ears, and journalists raising video cameras above their heads, aiming them downwards to catch her in the lens. The doors to a large, black car slammed, and Tsai waved from an open window to the crowd before the car pulled away down the street.

* * *

The twelve hundred or so supporters gathered in the Brooklyn Marriott just before 7 p.m. had traveled from as far away as Kentucky and Las Vegas. We learned this when one of about a half-dozen introductory speakers (all of whom were men) asked each group to rise and cheer and wave their “Vote Tsai” flags when their part of the country was called. There were many young faces, and from the outset, the program seemed geared towards them. “I have three requests,” said the Taiwanese rapper Da Zhi, who loped onto the stage in a black hoodie, accompanied by a young American man. (The latter pitched in, in soft, Taiwanese-accented Chinese, on the chorus of Da Zhi’s songs.) “Number one: SCREAM!” His second and third requests were also to scream, and the crowd obliged.

Then Tsai herself entered the ballroom, traveling down the aisle under enormous glittering chandeliers to the sound of a drum played on the stage. She reached the lectern, and began her speech in Taiwanese, smiling. She thanked everyone for coming. She is a petite woman, dressed in a neat charcoal-colored blazer over a black shirt, and she speaks gently, without raising her voice. The atmosphere of the room grew cooler, more relaxed. Flags that had been undulating agitatedly now rested on the laps of her listeners. This is the sort of effect Tsai Ing-wen has on people.

Tsai praised New York City as “a place where dreams come true.” “Prosperity may create a rich city, but it is inclusiveness—the embrace of differences and respect for a diverse culture—that creates a great city,” she said, slowly, in Mandarin, raising and lowering a hand in practiced rhythm. Then she broke into Taiwanese, and with it, a sweet girl’s smile. “Does that remind anyone of our Taiwan? ….We, too, are an immigrant society. In addition to our aborigines, Minnan, Hakka, and the waishengren, the Mainland immigrants who came to Taiwan after the war, there are also more and more new immigrants from Mainland China and Southeast Asia entering Taiwanese society and putting down roots. . . In the end, they all become one of us Taiwanese.”

Everyone clapped. This is a message that resonates with Tsai’s supporters: with the old Taiwanese-speakers who hated the explicitly Chinese Kuomintang dictatorship, and with the young participants of the Sunflower Movement, who do not wish to move any closer to China and resent a government that appears to be doing just that. To them, the island of twenty-three million people is in itself adequate—indeed, preferable—to other sources of identity, especially sources that define them by way of their relationship to mainland China. They do not need, or want, Beijing to tell them who they are. On the bus from Boston to New York, Tsai’s supporters had spoken passionately about the Taiwanese identity, distinct from any other. “We are a mixed-blood people,” one man had declared to the rest. “We are what the Americans call ‘mulattoes.’”

All this, perhaps, explains, how a profoundly unexciting politician (“I wanted a Martin Luther King!” said a Boston Taiwanese, despairingly, who supports her nonetheless) has excited so much support. Tsai herself claims a fairly representative Taiwanese mix of ancestries: Hakka and Minnan (southern Fujianese), and an aboriginal grandmother. She speaks to her supporters in Taiwanese, her mother tongue, and when she speaks of China, it sounds like a foreign country. She is cautious too; she mentioned China principally to bring up the mainland immigrants who have come to enter Taiwan’s “diverse society.” But when she said, a note of steel creeping into her tone for the first time, “Economic over-reliance on a single country is not the openness we want,” everyone seemed to understand. It comes in only obliquely, but China has been haunting her campaign all along. And it is never very far from the minds of her supporters; it worries them and is something they are trying to escape. As Tsai talked about Taiwanese entrepreneurship and innovation, I thought of others I met in the crowd that awaited her at Penn Station: among them, an old man in a wheelchair who told me he had come to New York in 1970 to flee the Kuomintang dictatorship.

“They came at night and killed my art teacher,” he told me. “Another teacher of mine, a mathematics teacher, she disappeared and we didn’t know where she was. She was in prison for five years.” He first visited China in 1980, for business (he designs caps), but had since moved production away from there. “They steal,” he said vehemently. “They’ll steal all your designs there in China. They even send spies to the U.S. to steal ideas!”

Standing behind him was a woman who had just told me she was from Guangxi, China. A healthcare worker assigned to the man, she was a recent immigrant. “At first, after I arrived, I cried every time I saw a plane,” she had told me. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and she wore a cheap leather jacket. “But I’m used to it,” she said. She had a bland, gentle, set smile.

“Is this your first time at this kind of political event?” I asked her, while others listened.

Another man standing nearby pitched in. “You know what they’re doing in the South China Sea, don’t you? Acting like it all belongs to them! Saying people have to ask permission to use it!” His brows were thunderous, his voice loud.

“Yes, it’s my first political rally,” said the woman. “It seems nice enough.” Her face stayed carefully blank.

* * *

Tsai’s speech was over. Everyone in the audience filed onto the stage for group photos, so I stepped up, not realizing, in the swirl of people, that Tsai was seated directly in front of me. After the cameras flashed, she stood and turned around, and for a moment we were face-to-face, both startled. Foolishly, I raised one hand in a little wave, and she smiled. It was a shy smile, not a politician’s practiced camera grin. She mirrored my awkward wave, one elbow pressed into her side, before a flood of “Little Ing” fans crashed over her, snapping photos and holding out their hands to shake.

“I’m so excited!” cried Lin Meng-yun, who appeared beside me as we descended the stage and another group moved into place for photographs with the candidate. The roar filled the ballroom once again as people surged toward the stage. A young woman jumped up and down, pointing to a selfie she had just taken with Tsai. “I’m posting this to Facebook right now!”

The candidate was again invisible, lost amidst her milling supporters. “She’s going to be our next president,” declared Lin Meng-yun. The elections are still a long way away, and anything could happen between then and now. But Lin was bubbling over, as though she had been at a rock concert. She held the hand that had shaken Tsai’s away from her body, fingers spread, as if it radiated light.