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Taiwan’s New President Reflects The Island’s Changing Identity

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It was a fitting start. The celebratory fireworks hadn’t yet emblazoned the night’s sky when Tsai Ing-wen, elected Taiwan’s first female President by a landslide on Jan. 16, used her victory speech to support a young compatriot. The onetime law professor spoke up for Chou Tzu-yu, a 16-year-old Taiwanese member of K-pop band Twice, who had been vilified by Chinese netizens after she brandished Taiwan’s flag on a television variety show. Said Tsai: “The incident will forever serve as a reminder that as President, my most important duty is to unify this country, to strengthen this country.”

Tsai’s remarks announced a leader who has pledged to reassert Taiwan on the world stage. Tsai secured 56% of the popular vote to end eight years of Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) rule blighted by anemic growth and soaring inequality. “We haven’t worked hard enough, and we failed voters’ expectations,” said losing KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu.

The victory of Tsai and her Beijing-skeptic Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—which won control of the legislature for the first time in separate elections the same day—was an indictment of the government of outgoing KMT President Ma Ying-jeou. Ma, who was ineligible for re-election having already served the maximum two terms, bet that strengthening business ties with China, the world’s second biggest economy, would boost Taiwan. Yet the island’s growth was just 1% last year, and barely more the year before, with wages stagnant and living costs spiraling. Many, too, in Taiwan felt the lurking threat of soft annexation beneath the decade of rapprochement.

Beijing still claims the island as a rogue province to be regained by force if necessary—a relic of China’s civil war and the flight across the strait in 1949 by the routed Nationalist forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Because of Chinese pressure, democratic Taiwan is only officially recognized by a handful of nations—the U.S. acknowledged the legitimacy of the People’s Republic in 1979—and has no U.N. seat. And so if the pop star Chou seems an unwitting pawn in a thorny geopolitical wrangle, it is a predicament to which all Taiwan’s 23 million citizens can relate.

And which Tsai hopes to remedy. Born into a well-off Taipei family, the 59-year-old academic turned politician earned her master’s at Cornell and then a doctorate at the London School of Economics. Beneath her wonkish demeanor, confidants say she has a droll manner, and party officials have worked hard to cultivate a softer image, posting photos to social media of the now most powerful woman in the Chinese-speaking world with her two cats, Think Think and Ah Tsai.

It is a message that helped banish memories of the previous DPP administration from 2000 to 2008, which saw cross-strait relations reach their lowest ebb in recent times and culminated with the jailing of the then President, the mercurial Chen Shui-bian, for corruption. Tsai, in contrast, oozes calm, and she has broadened the DPP from a bastion of workers, farmers and left-leaning intellectuals concentrated in the island’s south—as opposed to the elite, urban-based KMT—to a vessel of pan-Taiwan aspiration. The new DPP also courted younger voters, who have increasingly dictated Taiwan’s political discourse in recent years. This was most evident in early 2014, when the ­student-led Sunflower Movement stormed and occupied the national parliament for more than three weeks to protest Ma’s signing of stealthy trade deals with Beijing. From that act of civil disobedience was spawned the New Power Party, which allied with the DPP and won five legislative seats of its own.

Many observers feared that a DPP victory portended dark times for regional stability. This especially concerns Washington, which supplies Taiwan with weapons and has come to the island’s aid before when things got heated in the strait. The DPP, whose charter mentions independence, is anathema to the Chinese leadership. Immediately following the DPP victory, Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office felt it necessary to warn that it would “resolutely oppose any form of secessionist activities seeking ‘Taiwan independence.’”

To Beijing, Taiwan’s de facto independence is an unwelcome example to those autonomy-seeking regions around its periphery—from Muslim Xinjiang and Buddhist Tibet to freewheeling Hong Kong. Even some international media and analysts have framed Tsai’s election in terms of an irksome and unwarranted provocation of the Asian superpower, as if the child should be scolded for getting thumped by the bully. “It’s China’s reaction and not the fault of the people of Taiwan for democratically electing whom they choose to govern them,” says Scott Harold, a China expert at think tank Rand Corp.

As the Chou incident shows, Taiwan is an emotional topic for mainland Chinese. Given the clout that accompanies 1.3 billion customers, few are willing to stand up to Beijing’s saber-rattling. Following the torrent of criticism aimed at Chou, she appeared in a YouTube video, dressed in mournful black, issuing a groveling apology. The message was published by her South Korean management company, clearly looking to minimize financial repercussions from the Chinese backlash. Yet this merely stoked anti-China vitriol back in Chou’s homeland, where outraged fans likened the viral clip to an ISIS hostage video, further galvanizing support for the DPP. “The Chinese government is our enemy,” says Taipei security guard Scott Lin, 46, who voted for the DPP after years as a KMT supporter. “I think the DPP can protect us from China.”

Taiwanese identity is more complex than the principle of “one China”—agreed by both the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing and the KMT but not recognized by the DPP—can accurately convey. Taiwan boasts its own variety of Mandarin—influenced by the Hokkien, Hakka and Formosan languages, and even English—and was a Japanese colony for the first half of the 20th century. While the Qing dynasty encamped here, it never controlled the mountainous east of the island, the whole of which only became part of China following the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II. Nods to Japanese cuisine, culture and architecture are everywhere, while Japanese and South Korean music and pop culture dominate, especially among the young. “From comic books to fashion, Taipei is more in step with Tokyo than Beijing,” says Eryk Michael Smith, a journalist and writer based in Taiwan for more than 20 years.

In recent years, besides commercial links, growing numbers of tourists have crossed the strait in both directions, and cultural and academic exchanges have proliferated. While this has helped the two sides better understand each other, it has also accentuated the differences between an increasingly repressive China and an ever more progressive Taiwan. On the island, citizens can say what they want, openly access social media and vote their leaders out of ­office—all curtailed liberties in China.

Beijing says that Taiwan can have its autonomy even as a part of China under the “one country, two systems” formula first proffered in 1979 by then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping—similar­ to what operates in Hong Kong. But the credibility of that model has been tarnished by Beijing’s ever heavier footprint in China’s freest city. The most recent violation of the agreement is the apparent rendition and extra-judicial detention of five Hong Kong publishers deemed critical of the mainland’s leaders. “The idea that Beijing would allow a Taiwan that is genuinely separate, autonomous, democratic and vibrant with an international presence is unrealistic,” says Professor Steve Tsang, director of the Taiwan Studies Program at Britain’s Nottingham University.

Tsai wants to look beyond China and diversify trade with the rest of Asia. The President-elect is keen to join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact, despite the threat of protests over the safety of the feed additive ractopamine in imported American pork. She has also promised a raft of stimulus measures, including five industrial and innovation hubs across the island, a shake-up of the education system, and efforts to boost tourism. And she will encourage Taiwanese businesses that have invested in China to move operations home. “As part of international society, Taiwan is willing to participate in international cooperation efforts, sharing the same benefits and shouldering the same responsibilities as our partners from around the world,” Tsai told reporters following her victory.

For now, Taiwan’s citizens can relish in a vibrant democratic process—it is the only one in the Chinese world—and their election of the first female leader of an Asian democracy who is not following in the footsteps of a male relative. Tsai is a self-made woman for a self-made people.

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Write to Charlie Campbell/Taipei at charlie.campbell@time.com