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Tsai Ing-wen: The unconventional President staring down Beijing

Taiwan's president, Tsai Ing-Wen, sits down for an exclusive interview with CNN's Matt Rivers to discuss Taiwan's changing relationship with the United States.

Posted: Feb 23, 2019 7:30 PM
Updated: Feb 23, 2019 7:30 PM

On the surface, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen isn't a natural politician.

The former laywer, 62, is a self-proclaimed introvert. She values privacy and doesn't like crowds. And when it comes to selfies, she doesn't mince words.

"I hate taking photographs," she told CNN as she walked through an open-air market in the capital Taipei.

But not 30 seconds later, there she was, with a practiced smile and kind words for a supporter with an outstretched cell phone.

Such is life for Taiwan's first female president.

Caught between an aggressive Beijing on one side and an unofficial ally in Washington on the other, Tsai has to maintain a delicate balance.

Her reticence to ingratiate herself to the public has allowed detractors to paint her as a detached politician, someone who doesn't understand the average Taiwan citizen.

Tsai says any perceived aloofness is due to her keen focus on government affairs and international relations. But it's a situation she acknowledges.

"When I became the president, I seemed to be someone rather isolated and [the public] felt that there is a distance of some sort between me and them," she said.

Eating noodles in Taipei

It doesn't help that her aggressive progressive agenda, including a focus on LGBT rights and pension reform, have not been big hits with the general public.

Ahead of a 2020 re-election bid, she knows she needs to rehabilitate that image. Some polls have Tsai down as much as 30% against potential Kuomintang presidential nominee Eric Chu, who she defeated in 2016.

It's likely a key reason why CNN was given extraordinary access to the President for three days in February.

The takeaway was a leader with a dry wit and self-deprecating humor. At lunch in a Taipei hole-in-the wall, she said noodles were a bad choice.

"I just told the public to eat more rice, because it's healthy and helps support local industry," she said, shaking her head.

Asked whether she came to such places often, she said no, gesturing to the stone-faced security team watching her every move. "They kill my appetite," she said.

Across the street, while buying Chinese-style braised meet, Tsai said it should be washed down with Taiwan beer.

Tsai said one of her biggest regrets from her first two years in office was she didn't spent enough time with Taiwan voters, so they could get to know her. "Many people thought I was a bit detached from them," she said.

Shrewd tactician

Tsai may not be a natural politician, but she didn't become Taiwan's first female president by accident.

A shrewd tactician, she spent 15 years as a trade negotiator before leading Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council, which handles issues with mainland China. Eventually, she became the head of the Democratic Progressive Party.

A failed bid for the presidency in 2012 did not dissuade her, and she rode to power on a wave of anti-China sentiment in 2016.

Although Taiwan has been self-governed since 1949, Beijing still views the island as a rebel province and is increasing pressure to reunite.

"If it's Taiwan today ... who's next? Any country in the region -- if it no longer wants to submit to the will of China, they would face similar military threats," Tsai said.

Given the relative unpopularity of her domestic policies, she's hoping her hard China stance can be an election-winning issue.

Tsai has certainly been more explicit in her anti-Beijing sentiment of late. In January, she declared China needed to respect Taiwan's independence and she would protect "the free and democratic life of our 23 million people."

"If a vibrant democracy that champions universal values and follows international rules were destroyed by China, it would be a huge setback for global democracy," she told CNN.

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