Inside Story

Taiwan’s cat warrior to the rescue?

Hsiao Bi-khim’s impressive record might help save Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party from electoral defeat

Antonia Finnane Taipei 24 November 2023 2003 words

Diplomat Hsiao Bi-kim during a news conference on Monday after she was nominated as vice-presidential candidate. Chiang Ying-ying/AP Photo

Last Sunday night Taiwan’s representative in Washington, Hsiao Bi-Khim, arrived back home from San Francisco. Ninety-two-year-old microchip magnate Morris Chang was on the same flight, fresh from completing his duties as Taiwan’s envoy at APEC. With all eyes on Chang, Hsiao was able to slip quietly past the gathered reporters without having to smile for the cameras. The following day she resigned from her Washington post to take on the role of running mate for vice-president Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, presidential candidate for the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, in the 2024 general election.

In an election noted for the number of male candidates promising to take on a female running mate, Hsiao was not the first woman to make an appearance. In September, independent presidential candidate Terry Gou, billionaire founder of Foxconn, made headlines with his choice of running mate: actress and motivational speaker Tammy Lai, familiar to Taiwanese Netflix subscibers as the fictional presidential candidate in the series Wave Makers. Gou has withdrawn from the race but Terry and Tammy posters can still be seen on buses all over Taipei.

In contrast to Tammy Lai, Hsiao Bi-khim’s political experience is firmly grounded in Taiwanese party politics. She first came to prominence in 1999, when at the age of twenty-seven she was invited to serve as international affairs director for the DPP. Appearing on television for the first of many such interviews, she explained who she was: born in Japan in 1971 to a Taiwanese father and American mother, educated in the United States, Taiwanese in her heart. In transliterating her personal name into English, she uses the Taiwanese pronunciation, Bi-khim, not the Mandarin.

Her career unfolded within the occasionally uncomfortable embrace of the DDP. She grew up under martial law in Taiwan, before multi-party elections were a possibility, and left for the United States in 1986, the very year the DPP was founded. By the time she returned as an adult, Taiwan was in transition to democracy and the DPP was beginning to challenge the ascendancy of the ruling Kuomintang, or KMT.

Hsiao was working for DPP leader Chen Shui-bian in 2000 when he inflicted on the KMT its first crushing defeat in a general election. She surrendered her American citizenship that same year in order to qualify for public office. The following year, aged thirty, she was herself elected to the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. She has now spent close to quarter of a century working in political or para-political roles in or for Taiwan.

This second homecoming comes at a crucial time in the political cycle. The 2024 election is less than two months away. President Tsai Ing-wen, who brought the DPP back to power in 2016, has completed two terms of office and by the terms of the constitution is ineligible to stand again. Next May she will hand over to whoever wins the 13 January election. The DPP will be hoping that it is Lai Ching-te, and so far opinion polls have him in the lead.

Although the lead is steady, it is slim, and popular sentiment favours a change of government. If Taiwan had a two-party preferred system of voting, Lai would be staring at defeat. Last week that possibility seemed closer to realisation when the dynamic new Taiwan People’s Party, or TPP, signed an agreement with the KMT to run a unity ticket. In the lead-up to the agreement, support for Lai dropped to well below the 35 per cent “safety bar.” This marriage of convenience quickly collapsed, but with Lai’s approval ratings so low, even a victory in the presidential election would mean political chaos if a correspondingly low number of DPP legislators were to be returned.

Under these circumstances, Hsiao Bi-khim’s appearance at Lai’s side on Monday could not have been better timed. For the preceding five days, the media had been in a frenzy first over the deal between the KMT and the TPP and then over its spectacular collapse. For longer still, the potential deal and its brokers had dominated the local political news. The DPP’s loss of visibility over this period contributed to its decline in opinion polls. With the deal in shambles, the sight of the high-achieving and well-regarded Hsiao standing alongside the current vice-president should have been reassuring to more than simply DPP supporters. That has yet to show in the polls.

Disaffection with the DPP government in the electorate is attributable to Taiwan’s economic slowdown. Projected growth this year is the lowest in eight years — since Tsai Ing-wen took office, that is. Outside an enviable high-tech industry, manufacturing on the island is disappearing. Salaries are stagnant and prices are rising. The workforce is ageing. Youth unemployment is high and job security low. A young male “precariat” is flocking to alternative parties.

Adding to the malaise are sanctions by China, including bans on tourism to the island and imports of Taiwanese produce, which are slated home by critics government to the deterioration of relations with China under Tsai Ing-wen. Markets responded positively to news of the opposition unity ticket — while it persisted — last week.

If the economy were booming, other things would matter less. As it is, opposition parties have found plenty of other targets for attack: the government’s handling of Covid; corruption on the part of legislators; incidents of sexual harassment and their cover-up (not limited to the DPP but particularly damaging to it as the party in office); food safety; energy security; sleeping with the enemy; and even the shelf life of eggs.

Hsiao, who is close to the current president as well as the wannabe future one, can’t avoid being associated with the DPP’s failures, such as they are. But she has a strong record as a legislator and political campaigner, and strong ties to the south and east, important factors in a country where the capital and much of the population are in the north. She grew up in Tainan, where her father served as pastor in the Presbyterian church. Between 2012 and 2020 she was the DPP representative in Hualien, on the east coast, once a “deep blue” KMT stronghold. Hsiao is credited with weakening the KMT’s grip there in 2012 and breaking it in 2016, when she won the seat.

In the Chinese press she stands accused of serving American rather than Taiwanese interests: the expression “running dog of the Americans,” so often used in Mao’s time, has been used of her. But in a country with a favourable view of the United States, her native-level English, American heritage and strong performance as Taiwan’s representative in Washington all count in her favour. Her commitment to Taiwan is unassailable. She speaks Taiwanese as well as English and Mandarin.

True to her Presbyterian upbringing (Presbyterian being synonymous with progressivism in Taiwan), she stands for progressive politics. Taiwanese society is socially conservative and in a referendum in 2018 a majority voted against marriage reform. When the legislature nonetheless passed the reform bill, Hsiao didn’t brush over the contradiction but pointed to the responsibility of a government to all its citizens. “We need to take responsibility for the referendum last year,” she declared, “and we need to take responsibility for people who have suffered from incomplete laws or faced discrimination.”

If she is more progressive than the majority of her compatriots on social issues, Hsiao is at one with them on the issue of Taiwanese sovereignty. A majority of people in Taiwan now identify as Taiwanese rather than as hybrid Chinese–Taiwanese and hostility to China is deep-seated among DPP supporters.

It follows that China regards the DPP in general as anathema. As de facto ambassador in the United States, Hsiao was subject to vitriolic attacks in the Chinese media. News of her pending appointment as presidential running mate was criticised as portending a phenomenon of “independence on top of independence” in Taiwanese politics. Ever responsive to signals from China, the KMT called the announcement a recipe for disaster, bringing “troubles at home, perils abroad.”

It is difficult to tell how greatly China features as a factor in the minds of electors. Taiwanese have virtually no appetite for unification under the Chinese Communist Party but they have lived for a long time with the threat of forced unification hanging over their heads. It is impossible not to be struck by a certain sangfroid in the attitudes of people on the street. As they will point out, they have no means of preventing a war. While they wait for the threat either to eventuate or to evaporate, they want to be able to buy fresh eggs, see a doctor when they need to, and house their families if they have them. The birth rate in Taiwan has itself become a political issue, with rival candidates offering rival policies to get women to have more babies (KMT) or get more women to have babies (TPP).

The dangers of provocation posed by the DPP’s leaning towards independence nonetheless make cross-strait relations an obvious issue for opposition parties. Accordingly, KMT campaign posters are running the slogan “We don’t want war; peace on two shores.” Both the KMT and the TPP have promised to resurrect the Cross Straits Services Agreement in the interests both of boosting the economy and easing political tensions. This very agreement inspired a massive protest in 2014 and helped to bring down the KMT government in 2016. During the 2014 student occupation of the Legislative Yuan, Hsiao Bi-khim was one of the legislators who supported the protestors by keeping watch at the premises. But times have changed since then, as everyone knows. One of the leaders of the 2014 protest is now himself running for the TPP.

Hsiao won’t be able to avoid talking about cross-strait relations in the lead-up up to the election. At an international media conference on Thursday she had to field a barrage of questions on exactly this issue. Contrary to statements from China, however, she is not one of the independence diehards of the DPP. To the extent that Lai is regarded as leaning just a bit too far in that direction, Hsiao may help give balance to his campaign and claw back some middle ground. This would be true to her established image as a “cat warrior” who — in contrast to China’s “wolf diplomacy” — treads a delicate line between self-determination and confrontation.

Election campaigns in Taiwan are restricted by law to a period of twenty-eight days counting backwards from the eve of the election day. The pre-campaign has been rumbling on for most of this year, pending the formal registration of candidates on or before Friday 24 November. Lai Ching-te and Hsiao Bi-khim registered on Tuesday.

On Wednesday and Thursday this week it still seemed possible that the KMT and TPP would patch things up, but the chance was faint. TPP presidential candidate Ko Wen-je had said publicly that he hates three things: “mosquitoes, cockroaches, and the KMT.” Granted that he was in a bad temper, it was a difficult statement to unsay. A poll taken in the middle of the week showed, moreover, that the gap between the DPP and KMT had narrowed to less than one percentage point, reducing the KMT’s incentive to seek an alliance.

On Friday morning, all speculation ended when separate TPP and KMT tickets were announced. Ko Wen-je would team with TPP legislator Wu Hsin-yeh — a woman, as he had promised. The KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih had also said he provisionally favoured a woman as running mate, but in the end he came up with senior party figure, Jaw Shaw-kong. If the mid-week poll is right, the contest will boil down, again, to a two-party race between the DPP’s Lai-Hsiao team and the KMT’s Hou-Jaw.

Seventy-two years old, the son of a KMT soldier and an advocate of unification, Jaw could hardly provide a starker contrast to Hsiao Bi-khim. More clearly than the presidential candidates themselves, the two symbolise the different choices facing the electorate in January. •