If totalitarian leaders don’t deign to speak an adversary’s name, you can bet they take it seriously. The fact that Putin does not get the name Navalny over his lips proves that he fears his popularity. Xi Jinping, the leader of the People’s Republic of China, never refers to Tsai Ing-wen, the president of the Republic of China, or Taiwan. The suggestion he makes is that she is irrelevant. The leader of China has better things to do than remember the name of the woman in power on a renegade island the size of the Netherlands in the East China Sea. That island must stop that apostasy, Xi will not spend more words on it. Dan Tsai Ing-wen: She says in every performance that she will not bow to pressure from Xi Jinping.
Whether Xi pronounces the name ‘Tsai Ing-wen’ in private or refers to her as ‘that woman’, only China’s highest administrators know. Xi certainly knows this woman and her views or he wouldn’t have let 56 bombers and fighters fly over Taiwan last week. Someone may be officially insignificant, but you betray yourself if you take the trouble to surprise them with a poisoning or military display of power.
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There are interesting similarities between Tsai Ing-wen (1956) and Carrie Lam (1957), the chief executive of Hong Kong. Both used to be the top student in the class, both studied in England in the early 1980s, both shot up in board positions, both are now in their mid-sixties and wearing glasses. They look like sisters, but where one turned out to be Xi’s boss, the other makes the Chinese leader clear: this far and no further, to Hong Kong, not to Taiwan.
If Xi is secretly dealing with Tsai, he has reasons for it, because she knows his political Achilles heel. She has already won two elections on the promise that the Republic of China will not be annexed. Yes: she has been chosen. Taiwan belies Xi’s international apologists’ idea that democracy is a Western export product that Eastern Asia can do without. In Taiwan, a majority of the inhabitants seem to be attached to this system. Xi’s fan club knows that his covid approach was superior to that of democracies, but democracy Taiwan contained that virus better and more subtly.
It may also sting Xi that Tsai is a woman. Watch footage of party bangers clapping at one of those gigantic Chinese Communist Party (CCP) conventions: female bangers are like four-leaf clovers. It is precisely the development of Taiwan that makes clear how patriarchal and conservative the CCP is de facto. Under its first female president, Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage. There were rumors that Tsai’s own orientation played a part in this. She has never said anything about it in public, except that she shares her household with two cats.
Xi Jinping also knows that he played a major role in her reelection. In her first term, Tsai Ing-wen fared like so many leaders in countries where citizens speak freely and blunders and failures sooner or later become public. There were scandals, there was a lot she couldn’t manage. Her popularity waned until Xi stepped up repression in Hong Kong in 2019. What the record number of Chinese fighter jets in Taiwan’s airspace did for Ing-wen in the polls last week is anyone’s guess.