Taiwan's new president-elect, Tsai Ing-wen, is a Cornell Law School alum

January 16, 2016 by Mark H. Anbinder

Tsai Ing-wen has been elected as Taiwan's first female president, and she's just the second win for the country's Democratic Progressive Party. The Cornell Law School alumna visited Ithaca to deliver the Clarke Lecture in East Asian Law and Culture in 2008.

According to the BBC, in Ms. Tsai's victory speech, "she vowed to preserve the status quo in relations with China, adding Beijing must respect Taiwan's democracy and both sides must ensure there are no provocations." The 59-year-old is walking a delicate balance between promoting Taiwan's sovereignty and challenging China, which still sees Taiwan as an island province "to be reunified by force if needed," according to the BBC.

Tsai Ing-wen, elected president of Taiwan. Photo by David Reid used under Creative Commons license.Tsai Ing-wen, elected president of Taiwan. Photo by David Reid used under Creative Commons license.Professor Annelise Riles of Cornell Law School says Ms. Tsai was still "a controversial figure in some circles" when she delivered the Clarke Lecture at Cornell. "Some observers in the United States and in Asia thought that a relatively young woman heading the DPP must be a political radical bent on upsetting the balance of power in Asia," Professor Riles says. "Her lecture at Cornell clearly dispelled that idea: she was exceedingly moderate in her views on cross-strait relations and in fact got into a polite confrontation with some more radical Taiwanese-American attendees who wanted to hear a more extreme pro-independence message from her. What impressed me the most was her grace and smarts in the face of quite aggressive confrontation from some pro-PRC participants. She stayed calm, stuck to her position, and met the substance of the attacks head on without reciprocating in tone."

"Since 2008, the perception of Tsai Ing-wen has changed dramatically," adds Professor Riles. "Part of it is that the world has changed, and analysts are less skeptical of female heads of state than they once were."

"As a legal scholar, she is interested in the complexities of issues and knows how to use legal tools to craft diplomatic solutions," says Professor Riles. "Tsai Ing-wen may be just as tough as Margaret Thatcher, but she also has a heart and is a deep thinker."

Lee Teng-hui, a former president of Taiwan, is also a Cornell alum. Dr. Lee earned a Ph. D. in agricultural economics in 1968. He visited Cornell in 1995 to attend a class reunion, and again in 2001 to visit his granddaughter, then a Cornell student.

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