“For me personally, standing by the stage watching President-elect Tsai deliver her victory speech was something I would never forget.” On January 16, 2016 Dr. Ketty Chen watched Tsai Ing-wen became the first female president of Taiwan in a landslide victory. For Ketty and the student activists who called for a break with past policies (specifically the ruling KMT party), it was a special moment. “Being part of the presidential election was the most trying, difficult, yet rewarding experience of my life so far.”
Ketty was born in Taiwan and moved to the United States just before starting middle school. She remembers going to school in an authoritarian system. “They made us sing songs praising Chiang Kai-shek and Sun Yat-sen, teaching us that we are all Chinese, and we have to speak Mandarin and be good Chinese citizens. The teachers would make us speak only Mandarin Chinese and whenever we spoke Taiwanese, she made us feel like we were lower class or inferior.” The history of Taiwan is complex. Chaing-Kai-sheck and his followers fled China to the small island-nation of Taiwan in 1949 after losing the Chinese Civil War. They established a government and the Kuomintang (KMT) became the ruling party. Although the government in Taiwan claimed to be the true China, China considers it to be part of their country. This issue of which China is the “real China” continues to be an on-going political debate between China and Taiwan as well as much of the rest of the world. Within Taiwan, a sizable majority of the population consider themselves Taiwanese, rather than Chinese, and a majority favor independence.
For Ketty, growing up in Taiwan wasn’t easy. The KMT was oppressive in its efforts to maintain control, often resorting to the use of violence and intimidation. Ketty remembered that her family moved to Texas “after a family friend, a professor in the United States, was found dead after he was called in for questions by the Garrison Command while returning to visit family in Taiwan.” But the move from Taipei to Dallas was also difficult. Ketty recalled, “kids could be mean…I would immerse myself in books and English literature to escape the torment.” She felt close to the “Aunties” and “Uncles” of the established Taiwanese-American community, and remembers that though her family could still return to Taiwan, many of the older ex-pats could not.
As she entered high school and learned more about her heritage, she became socially active. She felt a responsibility to educate people in the United States about Taiwan. As a university student in 2003, she worked with other Taiwanese-Americans to lobby Congress for improved relations between the two countries. By the 2000s, Taiwan had begun to liberalize. Free elections for president were held for the first time in 1996, though a modified KMT still controlled much of political life. Yet, changes were happening, and it was an exciting time – for Ketty and other Taiwanese.
In graduate school Ketty’s research centered on Taiwan’s democratization. She returned to Taiwan in 2012 where she spent several months meeting activists for her on-going research. A political scientist by training, she watched, analyzed and reported what was happening as student protests became more common. This culminated in 2014 with the Sunflower Movement. Ketty recalled, “During my stay in Taiwan, I attended a workshop at the Thinking Taiwan Foundation for young academics where I met the Chairperson, Dr. Tsai Ing-wen.” The two stayed in contact. When Tsai decided to run for President as the DDP candidate (the main opposition to the KMT). She asked Ketty to come along for the ride as the DDP Deputy Director of the International Affairs Division.
Ketty had no political experience, but she saw Tsai’s election as a response to the calls of the activists she had been studying, and she believed (and still believes) that Tsai will do great things for Taiwan, so she took the leap. She explained, “My tasks included composing speeches, receiving foreign visitors, liaising with diplomats, planning DPP’s diplomatic functions, and planning and accompanying the candidate on her trip to the United States. I also wrote press releases and was responsible for DPP relations with the foreign press.” It was exhausting work, but she persisted. “I don’t know how I survived the last stretch of the presidential election when media from all around the world descended on Taiwan to cover the election and the possible win of the first female president of Taiwan. During election day I was translating her victory speech as I dealt with international media.” Of course, the lack of sleep and the hard work was well worth it when Tsai Ing-wen was inaugurated as Taiwan’s President in May 2016.
After the election, Ketty left party politics. She was appointed Vice President of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD), a democracy assistance foundation. The TFD provides grants and hosts a series of events. She explains that, ““Through these events, we bring democracy and human rights advocates to Taiwan to share their experience and Taiwan’s democratization history with them. My colleagues and I also participate in conferences and events in the region and around the world on democracy promotion.”
Somehow while earning her PhD, researching, engaging in her own activism, playing a crucial role in a successful presidential campaign and now helping to lead an NGO, Ketty has time for other endeavors. During the election, she contributed to three books – one entitled Taiwan's Social Movement Under Ma Ying-jeou was recently published. She also met and married a Canadian ex-pat and the two have been raising their adorable dog together.