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Analysis of President Tsai's first year

The ECCT and ICRT jointly hosted a Special Lunch on the subject of President Tsai's first year in office featuring panellists Dr Shen Fu-hsiung, Political and Economic Commentator; Dr Lee Hong-yuan, Professor at National Taiwan University and Dr William Stanton, Founding Director for the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University. At the event ICRT News Department manager Gavin Phipps and Keith Menconi, host of ICRT's weekly news talk show, "Taiwan This Week", moderated and asked questions to the panellists.

On the question as to what was the most surprising development during Tsai's first year in office, Stanton singled out the phone call by US President Trump to President Tsai Ying-wen, which at first signalled closer US-Taiwan ties (although Trump has since taken a step back in favour of improving relations with Beijing).

Shen and Lee expressed the view that while Tsai's intentions may be good, she has not implemented her plans well. Shen said that given that her popularity ratings are so low (even within the so-called "pan-green" camp), there is a danger that even good policies will be seen as failures and that her low approval ratings may drag down the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) with her.

Low approval ratings may be partially attributed to the slow pace of getting up and running, even though she had two years to prepare for office, according to Shen. He cited the example of Tsai taking seven months to fill the post of secretary general of the presidential office.

Lee described Tsai and her cabinet as unprofessional, remarking that her policy initiatives lack sufficient planning and clear goals. Citing the government's forward-looking infrastructure development plan, Lee said that for such a plan to be effective would require more extensive consultation and planning than was done. For example, Lee said that building rail systems where there is insufficient demand is not an effective use of resources.

He added that good inter-ministerial teamwork, which he said is currently lacking, is essential. Lee was also critical of the government's "Go-South" policy, saying that it lacked content.

On the subject of the government's labour reforms, panellists were not complimentary, noting that the reforms have been criticised by both business and labour organisations. Lee made the point that the president had embarrassed civil servants by implying that they earn too much money. He pointed out that [compared with their counterparts in other countries] Taiwan's civil servants are not wealthy. It is only when measured against Taiwan's meagre average wages that they appear to be so. The solution, he said was not to lower the salaries of civil servants but to raise the wages of employees.

Stanton pushed back against the overly critical statements of the other panellists, making the point that compared to some other global leaders, Tsai's performance is not bad at all. He also made the point that opinion polls vary widely depending on who is conducting them and what subject matter they cover. [While Tsai's popularity ratings may be low, her approval ratings are higher]. He noted that while some people have criticised Tsai for acting too slowly, others have said the opposite. He expressed the view that President Ma's improved relations with mainland China had brought few benefits to average Taiwanese, leading many of them to question the value of improved cross-Strait relations under the Ma administration. He cited the examples of ECFA and Chinese tourists as providing only limited benefits to small sectors of the economy. In addition, while the détente with the mainland had allowed Taiwan to attend the annual World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting (the decision-making meeting of the World Health Organisation, WHO), Taiwan was still shut out of the WHO and other international organisations during the Ma administration, which is little different to the situation currently. Lee acknowledged that the Ma administration did not do enough to translate good relations with the mainland into revenue for ordinary people of Taiwan.

On the subjects of pension reform and long-term care, Stanton said that people should be happy that the president has taken on such difficult problems. He added that she deserved praise for efforts to improve conditions for foreign white collar workers and to attract students from south-east Asia to Taiwan's universities. Given Taiwan's aging society, he said that this will help to address the future skills shortages in Taiwan. Stanton also made the point that there is a limit to what the government can do to affect the economy, which is much more dependent on decisions made by business leaders.

Shen made the point that the cost of living in Taiwan, on a purchasing power parity basis, was a quarter of that of the United States while the cost of healthcare was only one sixth of the cost in the United States. However, he noted that wages in Taiwan remain stagnant and Tsai's economic policies do not offer a way to address this given over-dependence on exports. Stanton countered that these are long-standing problems and that the president is hampered by people's expectations that taxes should remain low but still expect healthcare and education to remain cheap, which is a very difficult circle to square.

Panellists generally agreed that the president needs to do a better job of communicating and explaining her policies.

On the subject of foreign relations, Stanton said that, in addition to its relations with the United States and mainland China, Taiwan needs to make more of an effort to improve relations with major western countries such as Germany and Australia in order to raise Taiwan's profile and status.

Shen made the point that cross-Strait relations are also a headache for mainland China. He joked that he had offered a NT$5 million reward to anyone who could come up with the best cross-Strait solution but that no one so far has managed to come up with an acceptable model.