'Cat Warrior' aims to win DPP third term in Taiwan

December 04, 2023 10:00
Hsiao Bi-khim is vice-presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Photo: Reuters

Of the six candidates aiming to win Taiwan’s highest offices in the presidential election next January 13, one has a cv that stands out – ‘cat warrior’, Hsiao Bi-khim, vice-presidential candidate of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

She was born in August 1971 to an American mother and a Taiwanese father who was president of the Tainan Theological College and Seminary of the Presbyterian Church; it was founded in 1876 by a Scottish missionary. Her mother, Peggy Cooley, was a musician and music teacher who learnt to speak Taiwanese fluently.

Bi-khim grew up speaking Taiwanese and English at home in Tainan and learnt Mandarin while attending primary school where it was the single official language. In her teens, she moved with the family to New Jersey. She earned degrees at Oberlin College and Columbia University.

After graduation, instead of making a comfortable life in the United States, she chose to return to Taiwan to become director of international affairs for the DPP. When Chen Shui-bian became first DPP President in 2000, she served as his interpreter and advisor for nearly two years.

She served a total of 14 years as a DPP member of the Legislative Yuan. From July 2020 until November 2023, she served as Taiwan’s unofficial “ambassador” to the United States.

On January 20, 2021, she became the first Taiwan U.S. representative to attend a presidential inauguration, of Joe Biden. “Democracy is our common language and freedom is our common objective,” she said that day standing in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Raising cats at home, she adopted the nickname “Cat Warrior” to contrast herself with the “Wolf Warriors” among China’s diplomats. She also had to be as wily as a cat. Since Taiwan has no official status in the U.S., senior government officials cannot meet its representative openly. She had to make her network in the shadows, with academics, journalists and business people, and try to avoid the surveillance of Beijing’s diplomats there.

“China has opposed almost every international initiative we have tried over the last four decades. They have also opposed efforts we have made to strengthen Taiwan's democracy,” she told Politico in September 2020.

Lai Ching-te, vice-president and candidate of the DPP, chose her as his running mate for next month’s election. It was a shrewd choice. She has a network in the U.S. and overseas which few Taiwan politicians can match.

During her years in the Legislative Yuan, she campaigned for women’s and animal rights as well as human rights, making her popular among women and young people, whose votes the DPP badly needs.

From its foundation, the Taiwan Presbyterian Church has been the defender of the Taiwan identity and language, against the Japanese, the Kuomintang and now the Communists. In August 1977, it issued a historic declaration:

“As we face the possibility of an invasion by Communist China, we hold firmly to our faith and to the principles underlying the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We insist that the future of Taiwan shall be determined by the seventeen million people who live there. To achieve our goal of independence and freedom for the people of Taiwan in this critical international situation, we urge our government to face reality and to take effective measures whereby Taiwan may become a new and independent country.” It was in this environment that the young Bi-khim grew up.

Beijing regards the DPP as an “independence” party and has refused contact with it since Tsai Ing-wen became president. It has warned that, if it declared independence, it would invade.

This is one of the main platforms of KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih. He has warned that a vote for the DPP risked war and that only his party could bring better trade and policy relations with China and reduce military tensions. He is clearly Beijing’s favoured candidate in the poll.

But Hou’s room for manoeuvre is limited. None of the three candidates accept the “one country, two systems” formula Beijing says is the only method of reunification. After what has happened in Hong Kong, the vast majority of the Taiwan electorate have rejected this formula.

President Tsai has been careful in her public statements and not crossed Beijing’s red line. If President, Lai would also not declare independence.

A poll in Taiwan by the National Chengchi University’s Election Study Center last year showed that 87.4 per cent of the respondents supported maintaining the current status quo across the Taiwan Strait, with only 5.6 per cent wanting immediate independence and 1.5 per cent immediate unification.

So the best way to bring peace and save millions of dollars in military costs would be for both sides to stop discussing the issue, send their armies back to the barracks and continue their normal social and economic life.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.