Taiwan’s Lai Ching-te welcomed by supporters, as new leader faces domestic strife and Beijing sabre-rattling

Thousands of Taiwanese attended the inauguration event for Taiwan’s President Lai Ching-te, in Taipei, on May 20, 2024. Photo taken by Howard Yu via Office of Taiwanese President's Flickr under CC BY 2.0 Deed.

This report was written by Mercedes Hutton and originally published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on May 20, 2024. An edited version is published below as part of a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

Residents of Taipei largely went about their commutes as normal on May 20 morning, aside from those who found their routes blocked by road closures around the Presidential Office Building, where the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Lai Ching-te was being sworn in as the island’s next leader.

Chen Shih-eu, 32, however, was not heading to work. Instead, she was standing on the side of the road outside the nearby 228 Peace Memorial Park, watching a live stream of Lai’s inauguration on her phone:

I think it’s a very important moment for Taiwanese, especially for our young generation. And we’re so proud of the leaders — Lai Ching-te and Tsai Ing-wen.

She added that she trusted Lai “to lead our country to the next step.”

Chen, a theatre manager from Keelung who had travelled to Taipei to experience the inauguration, said she hoped Lai’s administration would protect the island’s democratic values:

Some people don’t believe that democracy is important but, for us, if we don’t keep our democracy, we will lose our freedoms — so we are afraid of that… But [with] Lai Ching-te, we hope he can keep our democracy for the next four, eight years.

Maintaining the status quo

Dozens gathered at the end of Ketagalan Boulevard, which displayed the flags of Taiwan’s 12 remaining diplomatic allies and was sealed off for the inauguration ceremony. The revellers were trying to get a glimpse of Lai, Tsai and new Vice-President Hsiao Bi-khim as they briefly graced a stage set up in front of the presidential building at 9:20 am.

Newly inaugurated Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim. Photo by Shufu Liu via the Office of the President at Flickr under CC-BY 2.0 Deed.

Small groups of protesters were present, too, waving Palestinian and US flags. One man, who held a Chinese flag, was guided to the edge of the crowd by a police officer. Another group held a banner stating: “No support for Palestine; the conscience of Lai Ching-te is dead,” in response to the DPP’s support of Israel, which faces charges of genocide in its war on Gaza.

Cindy, a Taipei resident in her late 30s, clapped as Lai, Tsai and Hsiao appeared on the large screen visible from her vantage point. She told HKFP that she was there to express her gratitude to President Tsai:

For Taiwan, maintaining an international status is very difficult. Tsai has tried really hard to keep it up. I think she has tried her best. I think it’s very difficult, no matter which party is in power.

Cindy said she hoped Lai would “keep the status quo.” She pointed to his tenure as mayor of Tainan from 2010 to 2017, saying he had governed with integrity. “So I believe, for the next four years, he will keep his promises to Taiwan.”

Tsai sought to raise Taiwan’s global profile during her two terms in office in the face of an expansionist China, which considers the island a renegade province to be unified with the mainland by force, if necessary. While supporters of the DPP widely praise the former leader for her policy direction, hundreds who protested outside the party’s headquarters on May 19 said Tsai had failed to address domestic issues such as salary stagnation and rising housing prices.

On May 20, Beijing said Lai's inauguration did not alter the “fact” it is part of China. Wang Wenbin, China's foreign ministry spokesman, said:

No matter how the internal political situation in Taiwan changes, it will not change the historical and legal fact that both sides of the strait belong to one China.

Kevin, a 48-year-old structural engineer, stopped by the inauguration after visiting a nearby hospital. “I just came to see the president before going back to work,” Kevin said.

A long-time DPP voter, Kevin said he was happy with the job Tsai had done over the past eight years. As for Lai, he said: “I hope he leads my country to be more open to the whole world.”

Photo by Howard Yu via the Office of Taiwanese President. Flickr. CC-BY 2.0 Deed.

‘Democratic resilience’

In his first speech as the island’s president, delivered just after 11 am, Lai said Taiwan would continue to work with the world’s democracies to “combat disinformation, strengthen democratic resilience, address challenges and allow Taiwan to become the MVP [Most Valuable Player] of the democratic world.”

He said there existed “a strong international consensus that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are indispensable to global stability and prosperity,” and said that when it came to cross-strait relations, his government would “neither yield, nor provoke,” but “maintain the status quo.”

Lai has been labelled a “dangerous separatist” by Beijing, and the new vice president and defence secretary are among several political figures who have been placed under Chinese sanctions. Beijing’s spokesperson Wang said: “No matter under what guise or banner, the pursuit of Taiwan independence and secession is doomed to fail,” whilst Lai’s name was censored on Chinese social media network Weibo.

In response to Beijing's hostility, Lai said in the speech:

I also want to call on China to cease their political and military intimidation against Taiwan… I hope that China will face the reality of the Republic of China’s existence, respect the choices of the people of Taiwan, and, in good faith, choose dialogue over confrontation, exchange over containment, and under the principles of parity and dignity, engage in cooperation with the legal government chosen by Taiwan’s people.

His words recalled those uttered by Chen Binhua, the spokesperson of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, during a press conference on May 15, although the ultimate goals of Taipei and Beijing remain at odds. Chen urged Lai to respect “the mainstream views of the people in Taiwan” while working towards unification:

Choose peace over war, choose development over decline, choose communication over separation, choose cooperation over confrontation.

Public opinion polling in Taiwan shows that just 1.2 per cent of respondents are in favour of reunification, while 82.6 percent want to maintain the status quo.

Domestic politics in the spotlight

Lai’s presidency begins at a moment of domestic political gridlock.

The island’s parliament descended into chaos on May 17 as DPP lawmakers tried to block readings of bills put forward by the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party — who have a combined majority in the Legislative Yuan — saying that proper proceedings had not been followed and the bills had not been discussed. The proposed bills will empower the Legislative Yuan to scrutinize administration or even criminalize government officials who make false statements in the parliament.

The events prompted a late-night protest outside the Legislative Yuan, with further protests on May 21 evening. Chen, the theatre manager from Keelung, said she hoped to join future demonstrations. “If I can, I will fight,” she said.

Lai acknowledged the recent disruptions, saying it was the first time in 16 years that no party had held an absolute parliamentary majority. Lai said:

I want to say to everyone that this new structure is a result of the people’s choice. However, Taiwan’s people have high expectations for rational governance among political parties… the Legislative Yuen should observe procedural justice, the majority should respect the minority, while the minority accepts majority rule.

Military flyover performance. Photo by Howard Yu via the Office of Taiwanese President's Flickr. CC-BY. 2.0 Deed.

It was when Lai addressed Taiwan’s sovereignty towards the end of his inaugural address that he got the most applause from the crowd at the end of Ketagalan Boulevard. “The Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China are not subordinate to each other,” Lai said, referring to Taiwan and China by their official names. He added:

All of the people of Taiwan must come together to safeguard our nation; all our political parties ought to oppose annexation and protect sovereignty; and no one should entertain the idea of giving up our national sovereignty in exchange for political power.

Soon after the speech was over, Taiwan’s military aircraft performed flyovers, which sent people’s smartphones skywards as they recorded the spectacle.

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