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Meet The Woman Who Has Just Become China's Biggest Headache

Tsai Ing-wen has been sworn in as the new president of Taiwan, and will become its first female leader.

Last updated on May 20, 2016, at 3:46 a.m. ET

Posted on January 15, 2016, at 2:15 p.m. ET

Tsai Ing-wen has been sworn in as the new president of Taiwan, making her the first woman to hold the position.

Tyrone Siu / Reuters

In January, Taiwan went to the polls and Tsai, who has said she's ready to change the way the island has dealt with mainland China for about the past decade, led her party to a landslide victory.

Ashley Pon / Getty Images

The relationship between Taiwan and mainland China can be described as "complicated," if you're feeling charitable. The short version: After the Communist takeover in 1949, the former regime fled to Taiwan, with both sides saying they represented all of China.

Over the years they've sunk into an uneasy truce, with the Chinese government maintaining that Taiwan is a part of China but giving the island some autonomy as long as it doesn't declare independence. Both sides are heavily armed and there have been a few near-misses of war between the two since the 1950s.For its part, the United States said in the 1972 Shanghai Communique establishing relations with the People's Republic of China that it "acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position."
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Over the years they've sunk into an uneasy truce, with the Chinese government maintaining that Taiwan is a part of China but giving the island some autonomy as long as it doesn't declare independence. Both sides are heavily armed and there have been a few near-misses of war between the two since the 1950s.

For its part, the United States said in the 1972 Shanghai Communique establishing relations with the People's Republic of China that it "acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position."

For the last eight years, Ma Ying-jeou, head of the Kuomintang (KMT or Nationalist) party founded by the leaders who originally fled the mainland, has led Taiwain. Despite that history, Ma pushed for stronger ties with Beijing through his two terms.

Sam Yeh / AFP / Getty Images

After two terms, Ma was ineligible to run again, meaning the race pitted Tsai — leader of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — against KMT candidate Eric Chu to succeed him.

Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images
Sam Yeh / AFP / Getty Images

Tsai, 59, is no stranger to presidential politics — she's run twice before, including in her attempt to unseat Ma during the last election.

When not running for office, she's held numerous high-level positions in Taiwan, including serving as chief trade official, a national security adviser under a KMT president, and minister dealing with mainland China. Before that, she studied at Cornell and the London School of Economics, where she gained a slight British accent.
Aaron Tam / AFP / Getty Images

When not running for office, she's held numerous high-level positions in Taiwan, including serving as chief trade official, a national security adviser under a KMT president, and minister dealing with mainland China. Before that, she studied at Cornell and the London School of Economics, where she gained a slight British accent.

Tsai had been confident about her chances of defeating the KMT's candidate for months. Last year, she told a Time journalist who she cooked breakfast for that the reporter could say she was served by "the next president of Taiwan."

“When January 16 comes, a new era begins,” she told a rally of supporters before the election. “A new era means comprehensive reform: our food safety system needs reform, our elderly care system needs reform, our pension system needs reform. In the past eight years, the government didn’t do much about these pressing issues.”
Ashley Pon / Getty Images

“When January 16 comes, a new era begins,” she told a rally of supporters before the election. “A new era means comprehensive reform: our food safety system needs reform, our elderly care system needs reform, our pension system needs reform. In the past eight years, the government didn’t do much about these pressing issues.”

She had good reason to be so optimistic ahead of the vote: Polls showed she had a 20-point lead over Chu.

Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

(Sidebar: She's also very popular with The Youth, a trend helped along by her two cats, Ah Tsai and Think Think.)

Facebook: tsaiingwen

Tsai's victory — a potential first ever majority for the DPP in Taiwan's legislature — could spell trouble for relations across the strait.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will likely be less eager to have the sort of leaders meeting he had with Ma last year with Tsai, who in her 2011 autobiography wrote, "I walked out of a Taiwan that was under the Nationalists' martial law and I was washed in America's democracy. That is how I established my identification of what is a nation."
Pool / Getty Images

Chinese President Xi Jinping will likely be less eager to have the sort of leaders meeting he had with Ma last year with Tsai, who in her 2011 autobiography wrote, "I walked out of a Taiwan that was under the Nationalists' martial law and I was washed in America's democracy. That is how I established my identification of what is a nation."

No need to panic, though: Tsai has indicated in her public remarks that she wants to retain the status quo and not declare independence anytime soon — an act that would likely send thousands of Chinese missiles flying.

“She has a very strong sense of Taiwan’s rightful place, as she sees it, in the international community, and that rightful place is now being undermined by what Ma Ying-jeou has been trying to do over the past few years, pushing Taiwan closer to China,” Gerrit van der Wees, a Taiwan expert who has spent time with Tsai, told The Guardian. “So she wants to push that more in the right direction.”
Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

“She has a very strong sense of Taiwan’s rightful place, as she sees it, in the international community, and that rightful place is now being undermined by what Ma Ying-jeou has been trying to do over the past few years, pushing Taiwan closer to China,” Gerrit van der Wees, a Taiwan expert who has spent time with Tsai, told The Guardian. “So she wants to push that more in the right direction.”

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