Who is Taiwan’s President-elect Lai Ching-te?

Former VP Lai Ching-te won Taiwan’s presidential election amid warnings from China, which sees Lai as a ‘separatist’.

Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, left, celebrates his victory with running mate Bi-khim Hsiao in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, Jan. 13
Taiwanese Vice President Lai Ching-te, also known as William Lai, centre, celebrates his victory with running mate Hsiao Bi-khim, right, in Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday, January 13, 2024 [Louise Delmotte/AP Photo]

William Lai Ching-te from the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), who is seen as a “dangerous separatist” by China, has won Taiwan’s presidential election.

Lai, the current vice president, who has asserted the self-ruled island’s sovereignty, beat his nearest rival Hou Yu-ih of the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) by more than 900,000 votes in Saturday’s elections.

With Lai’s win, the DPP secured an unprecedented third consecutive term in power, signifying that the majority of Taiwanese stand behind the party’s values of preserving democracy.

The DPP does not represent the mainstream public opinion on the island, Beijing said after Lai was named the winner of Saturday’s vote, adding that the vote “will not impede the inevitable trend of China’s reunification”.

In his victory speech, the 64-year-old Lai congratulated voters for refusing to be swayed by “external forces” trying to influence the election in an apparent reference to China, which claims Taiwan as its own territory.

He said he wanted to cooperate with China – Taiwan’s biggest trade partner – and maintain peace and stability, but pledged not to be “intimidated” by Beijing.

Here’s more about the president-elect that China has vocally opposed:

Steering Taiwan as vice president

In his most recent role as vice president, Lai helped promote Taiwan’s interests internationally.

Last August, he made a diplomatic mission to Paraguay, a move criticised by Beijing. The Latin American country is one of a dozen that still maintains formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Taiwan, however, has trade ties with countries around the world.

Lai has also drawn a line between Taiwan and Ukraine and the rise of authoritarianism globally, saying the phenomenon has “awakened the international community to the fragility of democracy”.

During his and outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen’s tenure, Taiwan increased arms acquisitions from the United States, which is bound by law to provide the island with weapons needed to protect itself. Washington does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan in line with its “one China” policy.

As such, during his run as VP, Lai talked about the need to build up Taiwan’s military deterrence capabilities, strengthen its economic security, and forge partnerships with democracies worldwide.

“We are telling the international community that between democracy and authoritarianism, we will stand on the side of democracy,” Lai told his supporters on Saturday night.

Relations with China

China has been vocal about its opposition to Lai, calling him a dangerous separatist. Beijing had, in fact, called the poll a choice between war and peace.

The new president-elect, however, has repeatedly said during the campaign that he wanted to keep the status quo with China and has on numerous occasions offered to talk to Beijing.

Lai once said the head of state he would most like to have dinner with is Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he said needs to “chill out a little”.

With the leader now elected, what is at stake is peace, social stability and prosperity on the island, as Beijing builds up military activity around the island, which it has said could be retaken by force if necessary.

Taiwan is home to the world’s leading semiconductor industry, producing tiny chips used in everything from Bluetooth headphones to missile systems.

These silicon wafers are the lifeblood of the modern global economy, placing great responsibility on Lai to maintain a careful balance on tensions as the United States and China tussle over technology exports.

In running for president, Lai advocated for domestic issues such as reviving the sluggish economy and housing affordability.

From humble origins to Harvard-educated

Lai grew up in northern Taiwan and hails from a humble background as the son of a coal miner who died when the president-elect was a small child.

He left his medical career as a physician specialising in spinal cord injuries to pursue politics.

Before becoming president-elect, Lai held several prominent jobs including vice president, premier, legislator and mayor of the southern city of Tainan.

The new leader of Taiwan has a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University in the US.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies