Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, LL.M. ’80, has been reelected in a landslide victory that was widely interpreted as a protest against China’s attempts to exert control over the island.
Tsai, the first woman and second Cornellian to hold Taiwan’s highest office, received nearly 8.2 million votes, the highest-ever tally for a presidential candidate since Taiwan first elected its president by popular vote in 1996. She won 57 percent of the vote, while her main opponent, Han Kuo-yu, who was Beijing’s preferred candidate, took 39 percent.
During Tsai’s first term, the Chinese leadership increased pressure on Taiwan, which separated from China during civil war in 1949 but never declared formal independence. Over the past two years, China severed all formal ties with Tsai’s government, barred visits to the island by Chinese tourists, excluded Taiwan’s representatives from international meetings, and in recent months, held military exercise across the Taiwan Strait.
“Today I want to once again remind the Beijing authorities that peace, parity, democracy, and dialogue are the keys to stability,” Tsai said in her victory speech on January 11, as reported in The New York Times. “I want the Beijing authorities to know that democratic Taiwan and our democratically elected government will never concede to threats.”
After receiving her law degree from National Taiwan University, Tsai earned her master of law degree at Cornell, a program designed for students who have a law degree from outside the United States. While the LL.M. program is one year, Tsai stayed at Cornell for two years, before earning a doctorate in law from the London School of Economics.
“We would certainly like to think that the lessons President Tsai learned at Myron Taylor Hall about collegiality and about the importance of the rule of law have had an impact on her career since graduating,” said Eduardo Peñalver, the Allan R. Tessler Dean and Professor of Law. “But the Law School cannot realistically claim any credit for President Tsai’s tremendous success leading Taiwan for the past four years. That said, Tsai Ing-Wen stands out among an illustrious list of Cornell Law School alumni who have gone on to distinguished careers in public service.”
While visiting Cornell in 2008 to deliver the annual lecture of the Clark Program in East Asian Law and Culture, Tsai discussed Taiwan’s strides in democracy, trade, and identity. Describing the status of China and Taiwan, she said, “Peace and stability serve the best interest of all the parties.”
In her first term, Tsai tried to gain as much independence for Taiwan while developing relationships with other countries around the world so that the nation would not have to rely so heavily on China. At the same time, however, China continued to pressure other countries to cut ties with Taiwan, and the number of its diplomatic allies dropped to fifteen.
The first president of Taiwan with an association with Cornell was Lee Teng-hui, who earned his Ph.D. from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in agricultural economics in 1968. He served as president of Taiwan from 1988 until 2000.
During Lee’s tenure, Tsai served as a senior advisor to Taiwan’s National Security Council. She narrowly lost her first bid for Taiwan’s presidency in 2012 but then was elected with 56 percent of the vote four years later.