In 2014, when Lai Ching-te was a rising political star in Taiwan, he visited China and was questioned in public about the hottest issue facing Beijing’s leaders: his party’s position on the island’s independence.
His polite but firm response, people who know him say, was characteristic of the man who was elected president on Saturday and who will now lead Taiwan for the next four years.
Mr. Lai was addressing the professors at the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai, an audience whose members, like many mainland Chinese, almost certainly believed that the island of Taiwan belonged to China.
Lai said that while his Democratic Progressive Party has historically supported Taiwan’s independence – a position China opposes – the party also believes that any change in the island’s status should be decided by all of its people. His party was simply reflecting, not dictating, opinions, he said. The party’s position “had been reached through a consensus in Taiwanese society”, Mr. Lai said.
To both his supporters and opponents, the episode revealed Lai’s candid, sometimes outrageous sense of conviction, a key quality of this doctor-turned-politician who will take office in May, succeeding President Tsai Ing-wen.
“He makes a clear distinction between good and evil,” said Pan Hsin-chuan, a Democratic Progressive Party official in Tainan, the southern city where Mr. Lai was senior. at the time of his 2014 visit to Fudan University. “It insists that right is right and wrong is wrong.”
The son of a coal miner, Mr. Lai, 64, has a reputation as a skilled, hard-working politician who sees his humble background as a way to adapt it to the needs of Taiwan’s ordinary people. When it comes to navigating the dangerous nuances of dealing with Beijing, however, he may be less adept.
Lai may have to watch out for his tendency to make occasional off-the-cuff comments, which Beijing could exploit and turn into a crisis.
“I don’t think Lai will really pursue de jure independence,” he said David Sacchi, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations who studies Taiwan. “But what worries me is that Lai doesn’t have much experience in foreign policy and cross-Strait relations – which is incredibly complex – and is prone to slips of the tongue, which Beijing pounces on.”
In interviews with those who know Mr. Lai, “stubborn” or “steadfast” are words often used to describe him. But as Taiwan’s president, Lai may have to show some flexibility as he faces a legislature dominated by opposition parties that have vowed to carefully review his policies.
As the leader who will bring the Democratic Progressive Party to power for a third term, Lai will have to be very attentive to the public mood in Taiwan, said Wang Ting-yu, an influential lawmaker from the Democratic Progressive Party, in an interview before the election.
“How to keep people’s trust, how to keep politics clean and fair – this is what a mature political party needs to deal with,” Wang said. “You always have to keep in mind that the public doesn’t give much room for error.”
During the election campaign, one of Mr. Lai most successful ads showed him and President Tsai on a country trip together, chatting amicably about their time working together. The message made clear when Ms Tsai handed the car keys to Mr Lai, who has been her vice president since 2020, was that there would be reassuring continuity if she won.
Whatever continuity may unite the two in politics, Ms. Tsai and Mr. Lai are quite different leaders with very different backgrounds. President Tsai, who has led Taiwan for eight years, continues to be liked and respected by many. But he has also governed with a kind of technocratic reserve, rarely holding press conferences.
Ms. Tsai has become an official who negotiates trade deals and crafts policies toward China. Lai’s past as the city’s mayor, by contrast, has made him more sensitive to issues such as rising housing costs and a dearth of job opportunities, his supporters say.
“Lai Ching-te came from the grassroots – as a congress delegate, legislator, mayor, premier – rising step by step,” said Tseng Chun-jen, a longtime DPP activist in Tainan. “He suffered the cold and poverty, so he understands very well the difficulties that we people had to face in those times.”
Ms. Tsai and Mr. Lai were not always allies. Ms Tsai returned the DPP to power in 2016 after suffering a devastating defeat at the polls. Mr Lai was its prime minister until he resigned after poor election results and bravely challenged she in the primaries before the 2020 elections.
“Tsai Ing-wen joined the DPP as an outsider, when the DPP needed an outsider,” said Jou Yi-cheng, a former senior party official who met Mr. Lai when he was starting to get involved in politics. “But Lai Ching-te is different. “He grew up in the DPP”
Mr. Lai spent his early years in Wanli, a small town in northern Taiwan. His father died of carbon monoxide poisoning while in a mine when Mr Lai was a child, leaving Mr Lai’s mother to raise six children herself.
In his election campaign, Lai cited the difficulties of his past as part of his political makeup.
I have She said in a video where his family lived in a miners’ shelter in the township, which leaked water when it rained, prompting them to cover the roof with lead sheets, which were not always reliable. “When a typhoon came, the things covering the roof would be blown away,” she said.
Mr. Lai continued his studies and attended medical school. After serving in the military, he worked as a doctor in Tainan. It was a time when Taiwan was freeing itself from decades of authoritarian rule under the Nationalist Party, whose leaders had fled to the island from China after its defeat by Mao Zedong and his communist forces.
Mr. Lai joined what was then a new opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party, and later recalled that his mother was disappointed when he decided to put medicine aside to pursue politics full time.
“He won the reluctant support of his mother,” wrote Yuhkow Chou, a Taiwanese journalist, in his recent biography of Mr. Lai. When she first decided to run for a seat in the National Assembly in 1996, Ms. Chou wrote, Mr. Lai’s mother told her son: “If you can’t get elected, go back to being a doctor.”
However, Mr Lai proved to be a gifted politician. He rose quickly on his feet, aided by his appetite for hard work as well as his youthful good looks and eloquence as a speaker, especially in Taiwanese, the first language of many islanders, especially in southern areas such as Tainan, he said Mr. Jou, the former party official.
Mr. Lai became a member of Taiwan’s legislative assembly and then, in 2010, mayor of Tainan. Subsequently he served as prime minister and vice-president to Mrs Tsai. Along the way, he revealed a combative streak that gave ammunition to his critics but also won him fans in his own party.
Quote from DPP supporters clip of him In 2005, he lashed out at Nationalist Party members in the legislature who opposed blocking a budget proposal to buy U.S. submarines, jets and missiles. “The country was destroyed by you!” she said, cursing at one point. “You guys blocked everything.”
Premiering in 2017, Lai delivered the comment most often cited by his critics. Faced with questions from Taiwanese lawmakers, Mr. Lai described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence”.
At that time, the Chinese Government Office for Taiwan Affairs condemned the comment; Since then, Beijing and Lai’s Taiwanese critics have seen it as evidence of his reckless pursuit of independence. But Lai’s words were in line with his party’s broader effort to rein in tensions over the issue of Taiwan’s status, arguing that the island had already achieved practical independence because it was a self-governing democracy.
However, as president, Mr Lai will be under intense pressure to avoid such comments. China has become stronger militarily and, under Xi Jinping, increasingly willing to use that strength to pressure Taiwan. In his victory speech on election night, Lai emphasized his hope to open dialogue with Beijing.
“He remained vague and, to my ears, did not say any of the phrases that Beijing finds intolerable,” he said Kharis Templemannresearcher at Hoover Institution who studies Taiwan and has monitored the elections. “He has given himself a fighting chance to avoid, or at least delay, the harshest reaction from Beijing.”