Team Tsai Ing-wen: a Who’s Who of the New Cabinet

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 9

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen took office on May 20 with no shortage of challenges ahead. Her inaugural speech focused on five specific areas: transforming economic structures; strengthening the social safety net; addressing social fairness and justice; promoting regional peace, stability and cross-Strait relations; and contributing toward diplomatic and global issues. The domestic focus shows that Tsai recognizes that broad political unity will be key to tackling her agenda (Central News Agency, May 20). Nowhere is unity more important than in Tsai’s Executive Yuan Council (or cabinet, 內閣), the chief policymaking organ of the Taiwanese government comprised of nearly forty ministers and led by Premier Lin Chuan (林全) (Apple Daily, April 28).

Tsai’s cabinet selections were greeted with a lukewarm response from many Taiwanese, yet the eclectic groups represents an intentional effort to forge political unity (TVBS Poll Center, May 12). President Tsai’s inner circle is overwhelmingly male—there are only four women—and older than Ma Ying-jeou’s cabinet, with a median age of 60.5 years. Over half of the new appointees have completed Ph.Ds. or a degree overseas. Tsai and Premier Lin deserve credit for pulling candidates into government from across both the professional and political spectrums. Though the cabinet is weighted heavily toward academics (19 former professors), 15 people have government experience and 6 bring private industry experience. Also noteworthy is that the cabinet is predominantly independent in its political leanings (62.2 percent), with those linked to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and Kuomintang comprising 29.7 and 8.1 percent, respectively (Storm Media, May 16).

Building on these data points, an examination of top cabinet members’ backgrounds provides a useful rubric for understanding President Tsai’s policies going forward.

Promoting and Protecting Taiwanese Freedom

A senior cabinet member that should be familiar to any Taiwan-watcher is Chao-hsieh “Joseph” Wu (吳釗燮), the new secretary-general of Taiwan’s National Security Council (NSC). With a strong media footprint, a track record of academic publications, and, more recently, appearances on the think tank circuit in Washington, Wu now leads the highest advisory body in the Taiwanese government (CSIS, January 19).

Born in Changhua just before the end of the civil war, Wu comes from a “red and green” family (Phoenix, April 15). His grandfather opposed the Japanese occupation in favor of the communist motherland; one of his uncles was known for close ties to the independence faction (独派); another uncle was a well-known unification advocate (Taipei Times, October 12, 2008). Exposed to the full political spectrum, Wu’s interest in politics led him to study political science at National Chengchi University, the University of Missouri at St. Louis, and eventually Ohio State University, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1989. His academic publications have focused on Taiwan’s democratization, the comparative experience of divided nations, and the macro-level implications of China’s rise.

Wu has taken advantage of the revolving door between academia and policy. He began his teaching career at National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations, a series of posts he left in the early 2000s to serve as deputy secretary-general to then-president Chen Shui-bian. He succeeded Tsai in service as chairman of the Mainland Affairs Council (2004–2007), and replaced current Minister of Foreign Affairs David Lee as head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington, DC from mid-2007 to July 2008 (he was the only non-Kuomintang-affiliated representative of Taiwan to Washington). Beginning in 2014, Wu began work as the DPP secretary-general while continuing duties as representative to the U.S. and executive director for the DPP’s policy platforms.

What Wu brings to the table—aside from a strong foundation in both academia and political affairs (能文能武)—is an extensive track record of discussing and explaining DPP policy (Phoenix, April 15). In his role as MAC chairman for instance, he spoke about Beijing’s Anti-Secession Law in terms of Taiwan’s policy objectives, stating that misunderstanding should be minimized and mutual trust built via “normal interactions” (Mainland Affairs Council, January 7, 2005). Nearly a decade later, his ideas are only minimally repackaged: “we will do our utmost to find a mutually acceptable mode of interaction…to safeguard peace and stability between the two sides” (CSIS, January 19). Regarding other issues, Wu has spoken about the Taiwan Relations Act as a “blueprint” for a strong Taiwan-U.S. partnership, and one that is more relevant nearly forty years later than ever before (The Diplomat, May 14, 2014). In his capacity at the NSC, Wu must also manage issues beyond the cross-Strait and Taiwan-U.S. relationships—including governance, the economy, and indigenous defense development—in overseeing both internal and external security and well-being of the Taiwanese people (Formosa Foundation, September 2006; ThinkTech Hawaii interview, October 26, 2015; Taipei Times, October 7, 2015).

Fulfilling Taiwan’s Global Duties

Leading Tsai’s foreign policy team is Ta-wei “David” Lee (李大維). Mr. Lee has been on the diplomatic circuit since the 1990s, and as with other cabinet appointees, has had a career that blended academia and policy work. Born in Qingdao in 1949, Lee fled to Taiwan with his parents and grandparents after the Communist victory (United Daily News, April 15). He completed his BA at National Taiwan University in international relations before enrolling at the University of Virginia to complete Master’s and Doctoral degrees. His research on Congress and its foreign policy toward Taiwan enabled Lee to access high-level U.S. government officials otherwise reluctant to see Taiwanese diplomats given the sensitive nature of the cross-Strait relationship.

Lee returned to Taiwan to serve as principal assistant to Lien Chan, then-minister of foreign affairs, before transitioning into an adjunct professorship at National Taiwan Normal University and using the time to publish a book on the legislative processes underpinning the Taiwan Relations Act. From NTNU, Lee was drawn back into government, this time as deputy director-general for the Department of International Information Service in the Government Information Office. He then moved to Boston to serve as director-general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO).

After a final tour at the Government Information Office in the late 1990s as director-general, Lee officially entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) as a deputy minister in 1998. With a few years in Taipei under his belt, he was posted to Belgium, Washington, Ottawa, and Australia. His time in Washington coincided with the turbulent second term of former President Chen Shui-bian. Despite the ups and downs U.S. policymakers encountered throughout Chen’s tenure, for Lee, his time in Washington helped him develop “unparalleled knowledge of the United States and extensive connections in Washington” (Lowy Interpreter, April 20).

Lee enters his ministerial role with bipartisan support, due in part to his own affiliation with the now-opposition party, the Kuomintang (KMT). President Tsai herself has justified Lee’s appointment in terms of shan yong guang yong (善用廣用)—something that is good, even if from the opposition party, should be put to broad use (Liberty Times, March 26). Lee has over eight years of experience working with the DPP; as Secretary-General Wu put it, Lee is highly regarded across the Taiwanese political spectrum for his “rich qualifications” (Liberty Times, March 26; United Daily News, March 27).

Our knowledge of what ideas Lee brings into his new role is somewhat limited, largely due to the low media profile Lee has maintained throughout his career. For Lee, diplomacy is built upon national interests rather than party affiliations (Storm Media, March 26). It remains to be seen how Lee will tackle tough issues at the top of the agenda, such as the invitation to attend the inauguration of the expanded Panama Canal on June 26, the extradition of Taiwanese nationals to the mainland (as in recent cases of Kenya and Malaysia), spats in the South and East China Seas, and any future diplomatic fallout from countries switching recognition to the PRC (Apple Daily, May 1; China Post, March 25) .

Defending Taiwan

Filling the shoes of the Minister of National Defense (MND) is retired Republic of China Air Force general Shih-kuan “Kent” Feng (馮世寬). General Feng rounds out the cabinet as its oldest member and the only appointee with a military background (Liberty Times, May 1). He was born in Jiangsu province at the end of the Chinese civil war, moving with family to Taiwan and growing up in one of the military dependents’ villages (眷村) established for Nationalist soldiers after the retreat of 1949 (China Times, April 15).

Feng graduated from the Chung-Cheng Institute of Technology in the mid-1970s with a degree in aeronautical engineering. He then joined the Taiwanese Air Force and was trained as an F-5 fighter pilot. He later served as military attaché to both the United Arab Emirates and the United States, eventually rising to vice-chief of the general staff of the MND before retiring in 2006.

Upon his retirement from the air force, he took up a position as chairman and CEO of the Aerospace Industrial Development Corp (AIDC漢翔航空工業股份有限公司), Taiwan’s then-state-backed aerospace manufacturer known for building the island’s first homegrown fighter jets and supporting the F-16 fleet. In a 2008 interview with Defense News, and nearly six years before AIDC would successfully privatize, Feng outlined three goals for AIDC: meeting national defense needs, expanding the scale of Taiwan’s aerospace industry, and reinforcing strategic business alliances (Defense News, August 18, 2008).

Feng’s time at AIDC important for understanding how he fits into the Tsai administration. One of Tsai’s biggest policy pushes has been for the growth of an indigenous defense industry, a point made even clearer through her visits to both AIDC and weapon systems developer Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology (國家中山科學研究院) (FTV, March 28; China Brief, April 21; Taipei Times, March 16). Arguably no one that understands indigenous R&D and procurement processes better than Feng. Critics, however, suggest that Feng is too close to the defense industry due to questions about a Chen-era arms firm, Taiwan Goal (鐽震), which came under suspicion for corruption. While Taiwan Goal was ultimately dissolved—and those accused of scandals all proven innocent—the opposition is concerned that Feng’s new government role may mean the DPP will try to resurrect similar tactics (China Review News, February 26, 2008; China Post, April 19).

Transforming the Feeble Economy

Taiwan’s new minister of economic affairs, Chin-kung Lee or C.K. Lee (李世光) brings an applied sciences background in both policy and academia. Born in Taipei in 1959, Lee completed a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering at National Taiwan University before completing a Ph.D. at Cornell University. His time at Cornell is touted broadly across Taiwan, as he is frequently heralded as the inventor of modal sensors and actuators, not to mention the recipient of dozens of other awards for his research and engineering designs (Journal of Applied Mechanics, June 1990; Epoch Times, April 15).

Throughout his career in both the private and public sectors, Lee has continued his research on photoelectronic and automation technologies. He worked for over a decade at IBM as a researcher before moving back to Taiwan for various levels of professorships at National Taiwan University. Beginning in the early 2000s, Lee served as a consultant, an advisor to the Ministry of Education and chief executive for the Institution for Information Industry (财团法人咨询工业策进会) after completing short stints at both the Industrial Technology Research Institute (工業技術研究院) and the then-National Science Council (now the Ministry of Science and Technology 中華民國科技部). Lee likely learned to tailor R&D agendas to the policy objectives of his government clients during his time in close proximity to policymakers—a capacity well-suited to his new ministerial post.

Lee’s engineering background may not be that of a traditional economic adviser, yet his expertise in and recognition for key technological innovations is a further indication of Tsai’s determination to hitch Taiwan’s economic future to a green, indigenous, and tech-savvy economy. Arguably the largest task for Lee, and one that underpins his ability to keep promises of relatively stable energy prices to the Taiwanese public, is the mandate of developing green, sustainable energy (China Times, May 6). The Tsai administration intends to progress toward a nuclear-energy-free island by 2025, a goal that requires an overhaul to the island’s existing energy dependencies (Epoch Times, April 15). Fortunately, Lee also has a background in energy research that, paired with his undergraduate work in civil engineering, is guaranteed to come in handy. In 2014, he was named CEO of National Energy Program Phase-II (第二期能源國家型科技計畫), to oversee research and implementation of steps to support collaboration on “green energy” and lead opportunities to strengthen Taiwan’s energy sector.

Insofar as energy policy is concerned, the Tsai administration is clearly in good hands. But Lee’s ability and comfort handling macro-level economic policy formulation and implementation is unknown. He will be aided by a vice minister, Shen Jong-chin (沈榮津), a Ma Ying-jeou era appointee that the DPP administration has opted to keep in place. Shen is best known for leading a delegation to Vietnam in mid-May 2014 to assist Taiwanese businesspeople hit by unrest and protests linked to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea (Taipei Times, May 22, 2014). Like Lee, he has a background in industry, though Shen’s career has been spent climbing the ranks of MOEA (Ministry of Economic Affairs, May 20).

Overseeing “Proper Management” of Cross-Strait Relations

In her inaugural address, Tsai pledged to work with China to maintain mutually beneficial, stable relations but stopped short of endorsing the 1992 Consensus (Central News Agency, May 20). While acknowledging the reality of a historical meeting between the two sides of the Strait in 1992, she offered an alternative basis for continuing cross-Strait discussions. The new Taiwanese government will “conduct cross-Strait affairs in accordance with the Republic of China Constitution, the Act Governing Relations Between the People of Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area, and other relevant legislation.” Leading these endeavors is Mainland Affairs Council minister Hsiao-yueh “Katharine” Chang (張小月).

Chang is one of only four women in Tsai’s cabinet, and the third woman to ever lead the Mainland Affairs Council. A career diplomat, Chang completed a Bachelor’s in Diplomacy at National Chengchi University and a Master’s in International Relations at Long Island University. Her first post in the diplomatic service was within the Department of International Organizations in the late 1970s; she spent a decade thereafter as secretary of TECO in New York (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 20). She rotated through several other posts pertaining to North American affairs, serving as deputy director-general of MOFA’s Department of North American Affairs and director-general of the TECO office in Seattle. Chang returned to Taiwan for a few years as director-general and spokesperson of MOFA’s Department of Information and Cultural Affairs, and in between Taipei Representative Office (TRO) posts to the Netherlands (2003–2006) and the United Kingdom (2007–2011) served as vice minister of foreign affairs. She starts her post as MAC minister having just completed four years as TECO representative in Australia.

Chang’s resume is testament to her diverse experience in diplomatic affairs, but at least on paper, she has never been directly involved in the nuances of cross-Strait relations. She has previously commented on the “precious” nature of Taiwan’s democracy and the impact it has upon the mainland; and in a 2013 blog comment, noted the “clear, firm, and fruitful” policy Taiwan has toward both the mainland and the United States (United Daily News, April 15; East Asia Forum, April 4, 2013). Prior to Tsai’s inauguration, she held a series of “deep” conversations with out-going MAC minister Andrew Hsia, even listening in on the sidelines of his final briefings (United Daily News, May 6; United Daily News, May 11). But in terms of substantive comments that Chang has made about the cross-Strait relationship, little can be gleaned from the press. More likely is that Tsai herself will direct cross-Strait policy for the next four years, abating concerns about Chang by closely managing her and her deputies, Cheng-yi Lin (林正義) and Chiu-cheng Chiu (邱垂正) (United Daily News, April 15).


Nearly a month before taking office, Tsai warned her cabinet about the problems ahead, urging both humility and discretion from the new batch of ministers (Taipei Times, May 1). She has consistently advocated putting the people of Taiwan first; now it is up to each of the ministers to fulfill their political mandate in support of the vision Tsai and the DPP have set out for the island. The new government will have no honeymoon period, as daunting challenges lie ahead. Tsai’s inaugural speech has prioritized domestic reforms and economic development, but certainly not to the expense of Taiwan’s outward-looking and cross-Strait agendas. Only time will tell if Tsai can shepherd her cabinet to her advantage and in service of her expansive agenda, or whether zero-sum thinking will lay claim to her presidency.

Lauren Dickey is a Ph.D. candidate in War Studies at King’s College London and the National University of Singapore, where she focuses on cross-Strait relations and Chinese strategy toward Taiwan. She is also a member of the Pacific Forum Young Leaders program at CSIS.