With one simple phone call, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen had the whole world talking. On Saturday, the leader of the self-ruled island off China’s east coast reached out to President-elect Donald Trump to congratulate him on his victory. That he actually answered sent analysts into a tizzy. That’s because no U.S. Commander in Chief has spoken directly to a Taiwanese leader since America established diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1979. For now China — which claims sovereignty over Taiwan — seems to have brushed off the affront as a “small trick” by Taiwan, but such communications after Trump takes office could have serious diplomatic consequences.
Tsai was swept into office this year on a wave of growing frustration with Beijing, and as Taiwan’s leader she performs a tough balancing act between not prodding China’s leadership too much and keeping up popular support on an island where, according to one local poll, most people identify as Taiwanese and either want to maintain the status quo on a permanent basis or to have independence.
Here’s what you should know about the woman who made the call heard round the world:
1. She is the first female President in Taiwan’s history
Born in Taipei and educated abroad, Tsai Ing-wen, now 60, became Taiwan’s first female President in May. She won a January general election by a landslide, with nearly twice as many votes as her primary opponent. Tsai is distinct from a number of other female leaders in Asia in that she does not hail from a political family or union; the daughter of an auto mechanic, she is a former lawyer who has never been married and has no children.
Taiwan, which uses parliamentary quotas, boasts the most gender-balanced leadership in Asia: 38% of the island’s lawmakers are women. (The global average is about 22%.) She is generally viewed as socially progressive on domestic issues, supporting pro-poor and pro-women initiatives. She is also a proponent of marriage equality, and could lead Taiwan to becoming the first Asian state to legalize same-sex unions.
2. She hasn’t signed off on the 1992 Consensus acknowledging ‘one China’
But her stance on social issues is not what makes her controversial; it’s her view of Taiwan’s relationship to the mainland. Officially called the Republic of China (ROC), Taiwan essentially functions as an independent state, though Beijing views the island as a rogue province that belongs to the People’s Republic of China and one to be reclaimed by force if necessary.
The ROC is the legacy of the nationalists, or the Kuomintang (KMT), who were exiled to the island after Mao Zedong’s communist victory in the Chinese civil war. Under the 1992 Consensus reached by Beijing and Taipei, which was then governed by the KMT, both sides agree that they are part of the same nation, but do not articulate what the implications of that are and agree to disagree about who the theoretically unified nation’s legitimate leaders should be.
Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party does not accept the 1992 Consensus, however, and officially supports a fully independent Taiwan — although, since taking office, Tsai has notably dialed back on pro-independence rhetoric. In 2015, she told TIME that Taiwan’s status was something to be resolved democratically: “It is a decision to be made by the people here.”
Washington’s official position is to “acknowledge” the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China. However, the U.S. also “insists on the peaceful resolution of cross-strait differences, opposes unilateral changes to the status quo by either side, and encourages both sides to continue their constructive dialogue on the basis of dignity and respect.”
3. She has a sense of humor (and an affinity for cats)
Tsai is an astute public speaker who has often made bold challenges to Beijing, but she’s not all serious all the time.
Aside from being a cat lover (her campaign frequently shared photos of her holding her two companions, Think Think and Ah Tsai), she’s also known to possess a quirky sense of humor, occasionally joking with journalists about her rigid profession.
Social-media users have had some fun with the fanciful idea that Tsai’s phone call to the President-elect could have been a prank, a “well, let’s just see if he falls for it” test of Trump’s diplomatic etiquette.
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