The curious career of James Soong

August 13, 2015

James Soong has announced that, for the third time, he will run for president. Rather than speculating on how he will do, I thought this might be a good time to look back on the rather unusual career path that Soong has taken.

Soong is from an elite mainlander family, though it not in the top echelon of KMT royalty. Still, Soong had good enough connections that when he came back to Taiwan after getting his PhD, his first job was as Chiang Ching-kuo’s English secretary. Let’s just say that’s not a job that ordinary people could apply for. (Coincidentally, it was also Ma Ying-jeou’s entry-level job.) So Soong spent some time sitting near CCK, though he probably makes more of it than CCK would have. After all, kings have a lot of courtesans. During the late 1980s, Soong worked in the trenches of the KMT party machinery, sometimes doing the dirty jobs that an authoritarian state requires. As head of the Government Information Organization, he was in charge of cracking down on “local dialects.” That is, he was the point man ensuring that Mandarin was the language spoken in the media and in other public forums. During the late 1980s, as KMT deputy secretary general, he was involved in some of the earlier and lower level mainstream / non-mainstream infighting, pulling out Kuan Chung’s people from key positions and inserting people who would support Lee Teng-hui. LTH rewarded him, promoting him to secretary-general. In the 1992 legislative elections, which most people interpreted as a loss for the KMT, he would normally have been the person to resign to take responsibility. (Elections were far below the concerns of the lofty party chair in the authoritarian era.) Instead, the aftermath of the 1992 elections turned out to be LTH’s victorious moment. Even though the non-mainstream New KMT Alliance candidates had all won and election night looked like a big victory for the non-mainstream faction, with a fully elected legislature they suddenly discovered they did not have enough votes to support Premier Hau. Hau had to resign, and, with the help of the DPP, LTH was able to promote his protégé Lien Chan into the premier’s chair. Soong was appointed to take Lien’s former post, as head of the provincial government. Up to this point, Soong seemed to be a fairly run-of-the-mill party hack. He was involved exclusively in elite politics, and he did not seem destined to be anything much higher than another KMT technocrat.

However, as governor, Soong completely reinvented himself. He claims that he followed the example of his mentor, CCK, by getting out of his office and meeting with ordinary people. In fact, Soong did travel all over the island, meeting with regular people. Less obviously but more critically, he also met with lots of local politicians. In fact, this was the key to Soong’s governance model. Instead of sitting in an office, letting other people make financial decisions, and approving the paperwork, Soong went to township mayors, asked them what they wanted, and personally approved the funds. In doing so, he created an image of a compassionate leader who would do whatever was needed to solve problems. He also created a group of local politicians who were politically in debt to him personally. Township mayors are nothing to sneeze at. They control the local mobilization networks and distribute quite a bit of patronage. Back in those days, people who had descended from the central bureaucracy simply didn’t engage local people as an equal, but Soong actually wanted to listen to their problems and work with them to get things done.

When Soong took over as governor in early 1993, it was assumed that he would be a temporary place holder. The position was scheduled to transform from an appointed position to an elected position in December 1994, and it was understood that, as a mainlander, he had no chance of becoming the elected governor of Taiwan. Most people assumed the contest would be between two Taoyuan Hakkas, Wu Po-hsiung and Hsu Hsin-liang. However, as Soong traveled to all corners of Taiwan Province, his popularity skyrocketed and people began to rethink the assumption that he couldn’t win an election. When he announced that he wanted the KMT nomination, there was an intense competition with Wu. Wu famously proclaimed that he would run, even if all that was left in Taiwan was Alishan. However, Soong had the upper hand as he was supported by LTH, while Wu was allied with the minority non-mainstream faction (and had tacit support from the New Party). Eventually Wu yielded.

In the campaign, Soong pioneered a few things that we are all familiar with now. You know those ubiquitous vests that every politician, from legislator to neighborhood head candidate, wears telling you his name, position, and party affiliation? Soong started that by wearing a baseball cap that had “Taiwan Province Governor Soong Chu-yu” stitched on the side. It was different and kind of cool. He also turned the number 309 into his campaign slogan. Taiwan Province had 309 townships, and Soong had visited them all. For a few election cycles, the first thing every county magistrate candidate did was visit every township or even every village in the county. Before becoming governor, Soong didn’t speak anything but Mandarin. During the campaign, the DPP constantly tried to attack him for not being able to speak Taiwanese. However, Soong responded by starting to learn. He wasn’t very good, but he learned how to speak a bit, and he started every occasion by greeting everyone in Taiwanese. His implicit message was that he was trying hard to understand ordinary people. However, Soong took this one step further, and did something no one had done before. He also studied some basic Hakka, and he would throw out a few phrases of Hakka. And he learned a few phrases of Amis, which no one had ever bothered to do. Hakka and indigenous voters thoroughly embraced him, since he had shown respect in a way that no one else had thought to do. In response, Soong learned some Paiwan, Attayal, Bunon, Rukai, and other indigenous languages. The KMT has always done well in Hakka and indigenous areas, but Soong did even better than that.

Sometime soon after Soong’s triumphant re-election in 1994, something began to change. My guess is that Lien Chan began to see Soong as a threat to replace him as LTH’s successor. Lien had access to LTH’s ear, and he might have slowly poisoned LTH’s mind, reminding LTH that Soong was a mainlander and could not be trusted. Around this time, the term “Yeltsin Effect” also entered Taiwan’s political vocabulary. As the directly elected president of Russia, Boris Yeltsin had pushed aside Michael Gorbachev, who had been the indirectly chosen head of state of the USSR. Prior to the 1996 presidential election, the parallels between Russia and Taiwan Province may have alarmed LTH. Even after the presidential election, Soong could claim a stronger mandate since he had won a higher vote share in a largely overlapping electorate. Whatever happened behind the scenes, LTH turned against Soong.

LTH pushed for a deal with the DPP to abolish the provincial government. While the negotiations were underway, Soong struck back. He dramatically announced his resignation. He ended up serving out his term, but this move marked him as different from other KMT elites. Soong would not simply bow to the inevitable. He fought back. This caused LTH to try even harder to suppress Soong’s career. After Soong’s term as governor ended, the focus turned to the 2000 presidential election. All the polls showed that Soong was overwhelmingly the popular favorite. (In early 1999, typical polls were something like Soong 45, Chen 25, Lien 8.) However, there was no way LTH was going to nominate Soong. LTH was firmly in control of the party, and he used that control to give the nomination to Lien. Again, Soong refused to accept this result and announced an independent run for the presidency. The turning point in the campaign was when the KMT unleashed the Chung-hsing Bills Finance Scandal, accusing Soong of corruption. It damaged Soong, but it didn’t help Lien much. In the end, Chen Shui-bian won by less than 3%.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, returning to the KMT probably wasn’t a realistic option. Perhaps Soong could have waited for the fallout to settle, returned to the KMT in a year or two, and eventually risen to the top of the party. Perhaps he, not Ma Ying-jeou, would have become president in 2008. However, Soong opted to go his own way and form the People First Party. In doing so, Soong deepened a shift that had already started in the presidential election. In 1994, Soong was part of LTH’s mainstream KMT. He outmaneuvered Wu – who was favored by the non-mainstream – and then the New Party ran a candidate against him in the general election. By the 2000 election, he had started to shift to what would soon become labeled as the deep blue portion of the spectrum. Lien was seen as LTH’s puppet, and he was a Taiwanese defending LTH’s special state to state relationship position. The orthodox KMT swung behind the mainlander Soong, with the United Daily News decisively endorsing him a week before the election. When Soong formed the PFP, a lot of deep blue figures left the KMT to join him, as did most of the remnants of the disintegrating New Party. Of course, Soong still had his grassroots supporters, but he became increasingly identified with the unification slice of the political spectrum.

[This is where Typhoon Soudelor decided to take four days from my life. It’s ok with me if we don’t have another typhoon like that for the next few years.]

During the Chen Shui-bian era, Soong and the PFP were the reasonable hardline unification supporters. (The unreasonable hardline unification supporters were the New Party, of course.) However, as the KMT reformed itself under Lien and then under Ma, it also moved toward a clearer pro-unification position. This squeezed the political space open to the PFP. In the 2004 legislative election, the PFP lost a dozen seats and went from being a nearly co-equal partner to a clear junior partner in the Pan-Blue coalition. When electoral reform passed abolishing the old multimember districts in favor of single member districts, its disadvantageous position became even clearer. A number of PFP legislators switched parties, jumping to the KMT in order to try to save their careers. The PFP negotiated on behalf of the rest, eventually obtaining four spots on the KMT party list for PFP members, though they had to join the KMT. In effect, almost the entire PFP legislative caucus was swallowed whole by the KMT in 2007 and 2008. Rather than being a PFP faction within the KMT, these people simply became regular KMT politicians. Their former ties to the PFP were quickly forgotten.

The defection of all the hardline unification legislators back to the KMT turned out to be an opportunity for Soong and the PFP to return to their 1990s roots as defenders of the average person. Soong tended to ignore questions about China while at the same time harshly criticizing the Ma government for being out of touch with the economic pain that regular people were experiencing. Ma was pursuing grand schemes with an ideological fervor, and Soong responded by arguing that good governance requires thinking about how the details of policies will impact ordinary people rather than simply looking at the top-line economic growth statistics.

With this stance, Soong has often found himself on the same side as the DPP. Tsai Ing-wen has also stressed the importance of looking beyond aggregate GNP growth, and the DPP shares a desire to mitigate the pain that the losers of increased cross-straits trade incur.

As an opponent of Ma’s approach to governance and now freed of the hardline unification elements, Soong has also been able to go back to his allies in the nativist wing of the KMT. Most of the township mayors and other local politicians that Soong built such strong ties to in the 1990s are much more comfortable with Wang Jin-pyng’s style than with Ma’s or the defenders of KMT orthodoxy in the military system. Figuratively, Soong can speak their language effortlessly, even if he literally doesn’t speak their language (Taiwanese) very fluently.

The result is that Soong – once thought of as a classic mainlander and later thought of as the champion of pro-unification – is now trying to cultivate the light blue vote, made up primarily of native Taiwanese who increasingly no longer self-identify as Chinese. Once you think about who Governor Soong was, it doesn’t seem strange at all that he would be targeting this market. Maybe the deep blue Soong of the Chen Shui-bian era was the aberration.

Soong seems fated to be one of those figures who had the political talent and training but not the timing or luck to be president. He has kept himself relevant for three decades by thoroughly reinventing himself four times. However, he isn’t simply impressing people with a pretty picture frame. Soong’s appeal has always been grounded in substance. He was an effective party hack in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he was effective as governor. Moreover, he has always tapped into people’s concerns and desires, whether it was for effective and compassionate governance or for Chinese nationalism and stronger economic connections to the Chinese market. Soong probably has a few scenes left in the last act of his remarkable career. He probably won’t win the 2016 presidential race, but he could do very well in the election and set the PFP up for a much more promising future. After the election is over, he will need to figure out how to position his party in the aftermath of the likely KMT debacle and find a successor to lead whatever emerges. After that, Soong will probably be too old to take the front stage, and he will probably evolve into one of those wise old sages who the frontline politicians rely on for timely political counsel.

Or maybe not. Perhaps the curious career of James Soong will take yet another unlikely turn.

Scenes from the Ministry of Education student protests

August 7, 2015

Two nights ago I went to the Ministry of Education to observe the students’ protests. It turned out that they would announce yesterday that they were ending their sit-in. The announcement wasn’t surprising to me since it looked like the protesters who were still there looked exhausted. The looming typhoon was a convenient face-saving device. I’m really sorry that I didn’t get out to the site earlier, while the protests were at their height.

Here are some pictures.


This is the best shot I could get of the entire MoE courtyard. Note the stack of barbed wire bariers and the TV reporter in the foreground.


There weren’t a lot of students left. These were playing music to keep their spirits up.


Some students take a selfie. My gosh, they are so young.


I like this guy’s jersey. I want him on my team.


Outside the walls, these people were holding a petition drive about the KMT party assets.


Vendors. The most popular items were anti-nuclear and sunflower paraphernalia. Surprisingly (to me), there was not much supporting the DPP or Tsai’s presidential campaign.


Students relaxing over in the corner. By the second to last night, students were already in the minority. Most of the people there were older (like me) who had come to express support or see for themselves what was going on.


When these girls saw I was taking pictures, they jumped up and posed for me with the list of their demands.


The occupation of the courtyard was in its 143rd hour.


A few banners to give an idea of what they want. Both of these demand retracting the black-box guidelines, which was the most basic theme.


This one also stays on the theme of retracting the guidelines.


We’ll print our own textbooks!


However, many of the banners went far beyond the textbooks to talk about more basic themes.


Restore Taiwan’s true history, refuse to become slaves to the invaders.


There was a kiosk were people could write their own messages on post-it notes. I think this one from a student at Hsinchu Girls High School is particularly relevant to changing ideas of Taiwanese identity. “I am from Taiwan; I was born in Taiwan; I live in Taiwan; I am a Taiwanese; I only study Taiwan history.”


“Those who don’t identify with this land; Chinese refugees; Go back to China”

This slogan sounds a lot like those from an earlier era, telling Mainlanders to go back to China. However, there is a critical difference. This one draws the line at subjective identity, not objective heritage.  It’s also a bit different from the previous student’s post-it message, which simply assumes that all people born, raised, and living in Taiwan are Taiwanese (and of course identify with Taiwan). Keep these various ideas in mind the next time you see that NCCU Election Study Center chart of the long term trends of Taiwanese/Chinese identity. There are lots of ideas floating around of what it means to be Taiwanese, and the changing notions of what it means to be Chinese might be even more complicated.


Adults apologizing to children was another theme. Sorry that we weren’t brave enough to handle this problem.


This one thanks rather than apologizes, but it’s the same general idea. Adults have failed, and the students have had to step into the void.


The government keeps calling for an end to emotional methods and a return to rational discussion. This note says, “rational is not equal to passively watching from the sidelines.”


In the 1992 USA presidential election, Bill Clinton famously reminded his campaign team not to overthink things and get distracted with minor problems with his slogan, “it’s the economy, stupid.” This note reminds demonstrators not to lose focus on the root problem: “it’s the KMT, stupid.”


China demands. Ko caves. Or does he?

August 5, 2015

Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je had a significant breakthrough in his efforts to deal with China this past week. There has been uncertainty over whether this year’s Taipei-Shanghai Forum would occur, since the PRC insists that all such interaction should occur under the One China framework. As One China is decidedly at odds with mainstream public opinion in Taiwan, Ko has resisted China’s demands for a “friendly gesture.” However, this past weekend the deputy mayor of Shanghai visited, and the two city governments reached an agreement that the forum would be held and Ko would travel to Shanghai to take part. What kind of “friendly gesture” did Ko commit himself to that the PRC found acceptable enough to green light the event?

Ko did not “accept” the 92 Consensus. Instead, he stated that he “respects” (zunzhong, 尊重) and “understands” (liaojie, 了解) the 92 Consensus. However, he stressed that his core position was laid out in the 2015 New Perspective, which he explained at a press conference with PRC media on March 30. At that time, he stated that he would respect the agreements that had already been signed as well as the history of interaction, and on this political foundation, he would proceed according to the principals of mutual recognition*, mutual understanding, mutual respect, and mutual cooperation, all the while maintaining the spirit of “one extended family on both sides of the straits.” 他當時 提出兩岸關係「一五新觀點」,表示願尊重兩岸過去已經簽署的協議和互動的歷史,並在既有的政治基礎上,以「互相認識、互相了解、互相尊重、互相合作」的原則,並秉持「兩岸一家親」的精神。

(* This “recognition” (renshi, 認識) is closer to understanding or knowing than the term used for formal diplomatic recognition (chengren, 承認) of states.)

What does all this diplomatic gobbledygook mean? Unfortunately, I’m not a diplomat, and I don’t speak fluent diplomatese. So keep in mind that I might be missing something.

Let’s start with the part about the 92 Consensus. Ko respects and understands it. “Understand” is useless word. It does not constrain him in any way. “Respect” is trickier. I’ve asked a few people what this means, and it also doesn’t seem to have a clear meaning. That is, respecting something could be as meaningless as taking note of it. It does not seem to indicate that Ko is promising to adhere to or be constrained by the 92 Consensus. In other words, as I understand it, the whole statement that Ko respects and understands the 92 Consensus is completely empty. It sounds good, but it doesn’t actually mean anything.

If the first statement is empty, the 2015 New Perspective must be the critical part. All of those “mutual” statements are fairly meaningless. They simply say that the two sides will act civilly toward each other. They certainly don’t imply anything about One China. The final statement, about being one big family, has a tiny bit of content, since stanch Taiwan nationalists won’t admit to being part of the Chinese family in any sense. However, this statement is also full of ambiguity, since it is easily dismissed as something about common origins hundreds of years ago or similar cultural heritages. Again, this all sounds good, but when you look closely, it is mostly hot air.
That leaves the part about respecting the existing political foundation of agreements that have already been signed and of the history of interaction. Finally, here is something more concrete: Ko respects the status quo. What is that status quo? Well, it includes all those negotiations in which the ROC insisted (in varying degrees of diplomatic vagueness) on its version of One China as well as on the ROC’s right to exist (and its right to sign agreements). In other words, if you really want to find One China in that blob of historical interaction, you can. However, you can also find plenty of support for a sovereign, independent ROC in that same blob. It is ambiguous and flexible, as long as both sides are willing to let it be ambiguous and flexible.

Does this sound familiar? To me, this is strikingly similar to Tsai Ing-wen’s statement that she will maintain the status quo by respecting the existing constitutional order, including all the cross-straits agreements that have previously been signed. What does that mean? Again, it can mean lots of things. If you want to look narrowly at the ROC constitution, it is a document originally written in China in a time when One China was not in dispute at all. Or, you can focus on the fact that the 23 million people in Taiwan have exercised sovereignty for over six decades, doing things like collecting taxes, educating children, electing presidents, and amending the constitution.
The PRC sent out signals that Tsai’s position was not acceptable since she has not accepted One China. However, they seem to be willing to work with Ko Wen-je, who seems (to me) to be taking almost exactly the same position as Tsai. It might be different because Ko is a mayor in local government, or I might be missing something important buried in those statements. Still, this might be an indication that the PRC, however reluctantly, will engage with the Tsai administration rather than simply try to isolate it.

I have to admit that when I saw that the Taipei-Shanghai Forum was back on track, I expected that Ko would have made some important gesture. The news reports seemed clear that China was making this a precondition, and Ko had suggested that the Forum was in danger of being cancelled because he was unwilling to budge. The various headlines also led me to believe that Ko had, in fact, changed his position. However, as I read through the details, I was surprised to find that I could not find any significant shifts. Ko spurted out a lot of wonderful sounding bullshit phrases without ever saying anything substantive, and that turned out to be sufficient for China. I had not expected that Ko would be able to use ambiguity so deftly. My estimation of his political skills just went up considerably.

While this could be a signal of how China will deal with a future Tsai administration, it could also be that they are attempting to cultivate Ko as an alternate conduit to Taiwan. That is, rather than legitimizing Tsai’s administration and cross-straits policy by dealing with the central government, they might have decided that it is better to deal with the Taipei mayor. They might even try to build him up to become a rival to Tsai. However, to do this, they have had to accept his position, with only the fig leaf of a few pleasant sounding but meaningless platitudes. To put it another way, they weren’t able to move him toward the blue camp. If they are cultivating him, they are building up a person who has not made any public commitments toward their preferred position.

Mayor Lai is impeached

August 5, 2015

Yesterday the Control Yuan voted to impeach Tainan mayor William Lai for dereliction of duty. The Local Government Act 地方制度法 requires mayors to provide an administration report and to be available for interpellations by the city council (Articles 48 and 49). However, Lai has refused to appear before the city council since he believes the speaker election was tainted by vote buying.

From here, the case goes to the Commission on the Disciplinary Sanctions of Functionaries 公務員懲戒委員會, which is under the Judicial Yuan. That commission has two choices: it can remove him from office 撤職or it can censure him 申誡. (If I understand correctly, removal is more like a suspension. After the case is resolved, it is possible to be reinstated.)

I have several thoughts about this case.

I strongly disapprove of Lai’s actions. He is the mayor. Deciding whether someone is guilty of vote buying is not part of the mayor’s portfolio. That is a job for the public prosecutors and the judicial system. Instead, Lai has appointed himself judge and jury, and (without even gathering any specific evidence) he has proclaimed the speaker guilty. He has further decided that the appropriate penalty is for the speaker to resign, and that he is justified in not appearing before the city council until that penalty is carried out. If President Ma had told Premier Jiang not to go before the legislature after the attempted purge of Speaker Wang, would that have been acceptable? Of course not. “Deity Lai” 賴神 has decided that his personal judgment that a crime has taken place transcends the judicial system’s (slow and sometimes frustrating) judgment, but that is not how a rule of law society works.

In addition to Lai, the rest of the DPP also bears responsibility. Tsai Ing-wen, the New Tide faction, Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu, and everyone else have served as enablers. No one has publicly challenged Lai for his blatant disregard for the legal infrastructure. On the contrary, if they have spoken out, it has been to praise him.

However, while I think that Lai’s actions are unwise, contrary to the spirit of democratic governance, and detrimental to the rule of law, I’m not sure they are actually illegal. There is probably enough gray area to allow Lai to avoid a conviction. While he hasn’t physically appeared before the city council, (I believe) he has answered written interpellations and provided a written administration report. Moreover, the deputy mayor can act as the mayor’s representative. I’m simply not sure that, in the narrowest legal sense, physical presence is required.

I expect that the Discipline Commission, which is made up of senior judges, will probably come to this conclusion as well and opt for a formal censure, which is a statement of disapproval but carries no actually penalties. Personally, I think that Lai deserves a censure. (If Lai continues to boycott the city council and the Control Yuan passes another impeachment sometime in the future, the stronger penalty might be on the table.)

But enough of Lai, what about the Control Yuan’s role in this? This case is an excellent illustration of the problems with the Control Yuan. For starters, it looks like a case of partisan political persecution. The Control Yuan didn’t have anything to say about irregularities (ie: corruption) in redevelopment scandals in Taoyuan, Taipei, or New Taipei. It has decided that the Ministry of Education’s rushed procedures in the current textbook scandal are fine. It didn’t see any problems with the Special Prosecutor leaking information about Speaker Wang to President Ma for Ma to use in his purge attempt. The local government in Miaoli has borrowed well over the legal limit? No, there’s no problem there. The government used all sorts of legal trickery to give Kuo Kuan-ying – who had been found guilty of dereliction of duty – an especially generous pension. Well, certainly. What’s the connection? Those are all things the KMT did. The Control Yuan only seems concerned with looking into DPP cases, such as whether Kaohsiung Mayor Chen was guilty in some way for flooding during a typhoon. President Ma has exacerbated this partisanship with his appointments. Previous presidents, and even Ma in his first term, all paid some lip service to non-partisanship by appointing one or two people from the other side. However, this time Ma has done away with the pretence. Every member of the Control Yuan is either a blue party member or has long been identified with the blue camp. In Lai’s case, the impeachment decision was presented to the media by Zhang Kuei-mei 仉桂美. Zhang has a PhD in political science from NCCU and taught at Chinese Culture University, but the most notable part of her resume is that she seems to be very good at getting appointed to various bureaucratic commissions by various KMT administrations. As an elections junkie, I remember her for running for the legislature and National Assembly in 1995 and 1996 as a New Party candidate. Yep, a former New Party figure is the one indicting an elected DPP mayor. That sounds completely neutral.

Even if partisanship could be avoided, there is another fundamental question. Should the unelected Control Yuan (along with the unelected commission under the Judicial Yuan) be able to overturn an election? William Lai just won his race with 72% of the vote. There is no indication that Tainan residents are unhappy with him. He hasn’t been convicted of bribery, corruption, murder, or any other criminal act. He is in the midst of a subjective political controversy dealing with the balance of power between elected officials, and the unelected supervisory bodies are insisting that the political controversy should be treated narrowly as an objective legal case dealing with civil servants. It simply doesn’t make sense to me that elected politicians are lumped in with non-partisan civil servants. (To illustrate how crazy this system is, some elected officials are under the Control Yuan’s remit while others are not. The Control Yuan does not oversee members of representative bodies, such as city councils or the legislature, but it does oversee politicians elected to executive positions. The dividing line should be between politicians and civil servants, not assemblies and (anyone in any position in) executive branches.)

The Control Yuan is simply a bad idea, a relic from an authoritarian age that doesn’t make sense in a democratic society. Can we just euthanize it? Please?

Hung Hsiu-chu, Taiwanese Students, and Red Guards

August 2, 2015

A few days ago, Hung Hsiu-chu suggested that the DPP is inciting student protests in exactly the same way that Mao Zedong encouraged Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution. Apparently, Hung Hsiu-chu doesn’t know much about Chinese history.

According to this story in United Daily News, Hung criticized the DPP for “manipulating the students’ simple intentions, using money to passively push the students to the front line where they would clash with police, using slogans to arouse students’ passion, and let them recklessly destroy the culture and structure. ‘This is just like what communist China’s Mao Zedong did.’”

There are two charges in this. First, Hung is suggesting that the DPP’s role is equivalent to Chairman Mao’s. Second, Hung is implying that the Taiwanese students have “recklessly destroyed culture and structure” in roughly the same way that the Red Guards did. Both of these notions are ridiculous. However, most Taiwanese don’t know a whole lot about the Cultural Revolution, and some might uncritically go along with Hung’s charges since both cases involved students.

The first charge can be dismissed relatively straightforwardly. After all, almost all accounts of Taiwan’s current student movement (except for those coming from the KMT) indicate that the students are acting on their own initiative. This has been true of all the recent protest movements, from the Wild Strawberries to the Dapu protests to the Sunflower movement. In all cases, the youth have been thoroughly disappointed by the tepid DPP opposition and have sought to take matters into their own hands. The DPP has generally voiced support more in an effort to avoid appearing totally out of touch with activists’ concerns than in an effort to guide them in any particular direction. The notion that the DPP is the guiding hand behind the students is simply at odds with almost all accounts of the factual events.

However, for the sake of argument, let’s suspend disbelief and assume that the DPP really is behind this. It’s still nothing like the Cultural Revolution.

In the Cultural Revolution, students at a few elite schools organized into Red Guard units, probably with some encouragement from elites close to Mao. Mao then used the propaganda system to write glowing reports about these Red Guards in the party-state media, effectively endorsing them as Mao-approved forces. With this strong message, students all over the country organized their own Red Guard units to make revolution in support of Chairman Mao. Does Hung really think the DPP is so potent among the youth that it could create the current scale and intensity among students with a few lukewarm, after-the-fact expressions of support? Does she think that Tsai Ing-wen’s popularity among youth is anything like Chairman Mao’s godlike status in 1966?

In the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao mobilized the Red Guards for a power struggle against powerful cadres in his own party, such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Mao gave the Red Guards their marching orders with his famous big character poster, in which he instructed the Red Guards to “bombard the headquarters.” The students were convinced there were traitors in the party that had to be rooted out, and the Cultural Revolution became a general movement against counter-revolution. The equivalent of this in Taiwan might have been if Chairman Ma had mobilized students during the September 2013 attempted purge of Speaker Wang. The current Taiwanese student protests are not an intra-party struggle at all, and they have a very specific focus. Rather than searching for enemies of the state, the students are focused on a very specific issue, textbooks. There is no attempt to root out traitors. While there are calls for Education Minister Wu to step down to take political responsibility, this is hardly the same as purging an opponent and labeling him as an enemy of the people. “Step down, Minister Wu” 吳部長下台 is a very different slogan from “Down with Running-Dog Wu” 打倒吳走狗。

The most ludicrous element of Hung’s charge is the insinuation that Taiwanese students are destroying culture and structure in the same way that the Red Guards did. The Red Guards used physical violence to struggle against countless authority figures, including teachers, party officials, and government officials. They subjected the person to hours, days, even months of interrogation, and they routinely used physical means to extract confessions. They also held public struggle sessions, in which the accused would appear on stage wearing a dunce cap and placards stating the supposed crimes, and people in the audience would take turns screaming abuse and physically beating the accused in an effort to extract a public confession. Here in Taiwan, I don’t remember seeing Minister Wu dragged off for a struggle session.

The Red Guards actively destroyed traditional culture in an effort to create a new socialist culture. For example, they tore down many old buildings, burned old texts, destroyed temples, and tried to eradicate minority cultures, which they considered to be feudal. They also shut down schools for several years and paralyzed many local governments. To date, the most egregious thing the Taiwanese students have done is one brief and ineffective effort to break into the Education Ministry.

Most fundamentally, the Taiwanese students are protesting in a democratic context. Their goals are very specific and limited. Procedurally, they want to affect the regular institutions of government follow the written procedures, and substantively, they want to prevent rewriting the textbooks from a Chinese-nationalist point of view. These protests are conducted within established boundaries, though they arguably briefly stepped slightly outside those boundaries when they broke into the Education Ministry. Ultimately, the way to win in a democratic system is to affect public opinion and to win elections. The Cultural Revolution was conducted in an authoritarian context. Without rule of law, there were no established boundaries. The Red Guards conducted a total struggle against Mao’s opponents. Losers did not just lose the policy fight. They lost their party membership, their career, their freedom, and some, including the Chinese State President Liu Shaoqi, even lost their lives.

If Hung Hsiu-chu really thinks that the two cases are parallel, she is ignorant of or willfully misinterpreting both current events and Chinese history. Maybe it’s not her fault. Maybe she never learned about the Red Guards. I don’t think the ROC history textbooks teach a whole lot about the Cultural Revolution, since, unlike the Tang Dynasty or the Northern Expedition, that’s not “correct” history.

Two items for future reference

August 1, 2015

I’m using my blog as a storage device for two things I know I will want to find at some time in the future.

First, the greatest/worst campaign picture I’ve seen in a long time. This photo is from storm media on July 29.

Hung hypnotize

“You are getting sleepy. One China with the same interpretation is brilliant. Now wake up!”

Don’t you think someone in her campaign should have stopped her from putting the hypnotic glasses on? Oh, that’s right. She doesn’t have any experienced campaign pros working for her.

Second, I’ve referred to this article in casual conversations a few times. Hung stated that during the New Year holiday, she had decided to retire. In other words, she was not planning to run for president as late as New Years, which was February 19. This means she was not preparing to run for president until very, very late. (She formally announced her candidacy on April 3.)

In case that link disappears, here are the relevant parts:

B咖選總統 洪秀柱:其實我想退休





Quick thoughts on a few races

July 29, 2015

A few thoughts on recent developments in legislative nominations.

In Keelung, Hau Lung-pin didn’t exactly win a smashing victory in the KMT primary, with only 45% in a three-way race. On the other hand, he didn’t spend much time preparing or campaigning for the race either. I’m not terribly surprised he won. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the third place candidate was Lin Pei-hsiang 林沛祥, son of a current KMT legislator Hsu Shao-ping 徐少萍 and former Keelung City mayor Lin Shui-mu 林水木. With such high-powered parents, I had originally thought that Lin would be a fairly strong candidate. However, I recently unearthed something that made me more skeptical about whether Lin’s family still had much clout. In my real career, I’m writing a paper on candidates from political families. In collecting data for this project, I came across the case of a certain Lin Yi 林毅, who ran for the Keelung city council in 2005 and 2009. He lost both times, failing to break 3000 votes. Lin Yi’s parents are – you guessed it – legislator Hsu Shao-ping and former mayor Lin Shui-mu. This is probably a good time to remember that Hsu has never been a very strong candidate. She nearly lost in both 1995 and 1998, and she finished far behind the PFP candidate in 2001 and 2004. Her husband was last elected over two decades ago. Simply put, the family was never all that popular, and they haven’t won an election in over a decade.

The point is, the other candidates in the field were not that impressive. If one of them had been strong, the KMT might have nominated someone a long time ago. This lousy field was ripe for a shark to come in and clean up. Hau was simply playing the time-honored role of a shark, which is nice for him but also good for his party. (The classic case of this sort of cold-blooded shark might be Su Tseng-chang elbowing aside a sick and weak Lu Hsiu-yi for the DPP Taipei County magistrate nomination in 1997. It was not a compassionate move, but the DPP was ultimately much better off because of Su’s cutthroat maneuvering.)

Some people think that PFP candidate Liu Wen-hsiung will split off lots of blue votes from Hau, thus throwing the race to the DPP. This is certainly possible, but we should throw in a note of caution. Liu hasn’t run in Keelung since 2001 2007 [edit: see comments], so his mobilization networks are probably gone. Moreover, he last ran when the PFP represented the deep blue portion of the spectrum and the KMT’s Hsu Shao-ping was thought of as part of the nativist Taiwan KMT wing. This time, the deep blue voters will almost certainly go for Hau. With the PFP attempting to move into the vacuum in the light blue part of the spectrum, Liu will have to woo voters who he has never been that successful at winning over. This might be harder than it appears at first glance.

After a tortuous process, the green side has finally settled on legal scholar and Sunflower leader Huang Kuo-chang in New Taipei 12. He will be facing Lee Ching-hua. From one point of view, this is a great matchup for Huang. Lee has direct ties to the old authoritarian era, as his father was one of Chiang Ching-kuo’s most trusted aides from way back when the KMT still held the mainland. Lee is an unapologetic Chinese nationalist, fully in sync with Hung Hsiu-chu’s unificationist rhetoric. In fact, Lee might be one of the few elected politicians in Taiwan who is even more pro-unification than Hung. Huang Kuo-chang can have a field day picking at Lee’s ideological positions and his privileged family ties. To the extent that the Lee-Huang race makes national headlines, the green side should benefit.

On the other hand, Huang is pretty much the definition of a parachute candidate. He is not embedded in any local networks. About 65% of district 12 voters live in Xizhi, which is predominantly urban. Xizhi has grown very rapidly, so many people are not incorporated into the old social networks. It is also an overflow suburb; people move to Xizhi because they can’t afford to live in Taipei City. This is fertile territory for Huang. However, the other 35% of district 12 is spread around in various rural districts. These are the sorts of places in which personal connections can deliver votes. While several of them have slight green tilts, they also tend to swing to the party in power. Lee has now spent eight years cultivating these areas. He isn’t a natural fit since he isn’t what you would call a “grassroots” style politician, and he lost significant chunks of votes in both 2008 and 2012 to third party candidates. However, compared to the outsider Huang, Lee will have a decided advantage in familiarity.

Tsai Ing-wen clearly made a decision based on national political considerations that she wanted Huang in this race. On purely local merits, I think the DPP would have been better off with their local city councilor.

In Taichung 4, the green camp has two former student leaders vying for the nomination. The foreign press is fawning over Wuer Kaixi吾爾開希, but Chang Liao Wan-chien’s 張廖萬堅 history in the Wild Lily movement is probably more pertinent to Taiwanese voters. The Wild Lily movement, after all, played an important role in democratizing Taiwan. Chang Liao has also spent the intervening years organizing votes in Taichung. Doing the dirty political work usually trumps getting a short burst of international press.

Either way, the KMT incumbent in Taichung 4 turns the race into an interesting test case. The KMT shouldn’t be vulnerable here, but Tsai Chin-lung 蔡錦隆 survived a surprisingly close race in 2012 and he is one of the rare KMT candidates in central Taiwan who is actively embracing Hung Hsiu-chu. I’m curious to see how much that will cost him.

The KMT has had difficulty convincing its top people to run in many districts. Yunlin 2 is perhaps one of the more disappointing cases for them. The KMT is in disarray in Yunlin. They have lost control of the county government, and it certainly looks as if they will lose both legislative seats. The Hsu family is a spent force, and the Chang family looks as if its best days are in the past. However, the KMT does have one rising star in Yunlin. Hsieh Shu-ya 謝淑亞 is currently the mayor of Douliu City, and she previously served as mayor of Gukeng Township. She is also from a prominent KMT family; her father-in-law Liao Fuw-peen 廖福本 was a legislator (and KMT floor leader) back in the 1980s and 1990s. (Those of you with long enough memories will certainly remember “Red Envelope Peen” 紅包本.) If the KMT is going to make a comeback in Yunlin, Hsieh is likely to be the vehicle. However, she prudently decided to sit out this year’s race. Rising star or not, this is a terrible year for an aspiring KMT politician in the south to risk any political capital.

On arrests at the Ministry of Education

July 29, 2015

I’m swamped right now in my real job, so I haven’t had time to write much recently for this blog. I’m hoping to clear out the pile by maybe … November? In the meantime, in place of fully developed ideas, I’m going to have to resort to relatively short comments.

I have two thoughts about the recent student protests at the Ministry of Education. First, the students crossed an important line when they broke into the ministry, and the government was fully justified in arresting them. Protesters have the right to protest all they want out on the street. They don’t have the right to try to enforce their demands by shutting down part of the executive branch by forcibly occupying it. The legitimacy of the ministry rests on the 2012 election results, in which the KMT won a majority of votes in the presidential race and a majority of seats in the legislature. Voters gave both the president and the legislators four year terms, and those four years are not up yet. No matter how popular the students are, political power must be apportioned through elections. I understand that the executive branch has taken some liberties with the normal processes of textbook revision. Protesters have the right to scream as loudly as possible about that and to try to convince the electorate to impose the heaviest penalty possible the next time they go to the polls. What protesters do not have the right to do is to effectively overturn the previous electoral result by removing the incumbents’ power to govern.

During the Sunflower movement, Taiwan faced a similar situation. A group of protesters forcibly stopped government operations by occupying the legislature. In that case, I swallowed hard and decided that because of the extraordinary circumstances the occupation was perhaps compatible with democratic practices. At the time, the occupation was a unique occurrence. Now these new student protesters are copying the Sunflower occupation and attempting to transform an extraordinary tactic into an ordinary one. This is where I get off the bus. I do not believe that protesters should be able to regularly shut down the government by occupying government offices.

In a somewhat related story, I’m also increasingly disenchanted with Tainan mayor William Lai’s refusal to report to the Tainan city council. Lai has decided that the speaker is guilty of bribery, so he will not enter the chamber. However, Lai is not the prosecutor, judge, and jury. There are institutions that process accusations of election bribery; the mayor is not charged with this task. By asserting the right to make a unilateral judgment of the speaker’s guilt, Lai is showing extreme contempt for the regular legal framework. The KMT sarcastically calls him “God Lai” 賴神, and Lai seems not to have tried to distance himself from this nickname. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Lai seems to place himself above the law.

Returning to the student protests, my second thought on the incident last week is that the arrest of the journalists covering the protests is a disgrace to Taiwan. Whether you agree or disagree with the students’ actions, they were doing something that affects the public interest. The public has a right to know about what they were doing, and the media has an obligation to cover important news concerning public policy. These reporters were providing a necessary public service. However, the police decided to treat the media as if they were protesters. This is unforgivable. It is not as if this is a brand-new situation that the police had to figure out. By now, the police should have clearly defined protocols that distinguish between media and protesters. If Freedom House or some other international organization (deservedly) downgrades Taiwan’s freedom of the press this year, the police and their political masters will bear that responsibility.

Hung is nominated

July 21, 2015

The KMT slow-motion train wreck lumbers on, inevitably heading toward the cliff that everyone can see approaching in the distance, though some choose to avert their eyes.

One of the big themes from this weekend’s party congress was that Hung Hsiu-chu had not mentioned her “One China with the same interpretation” idea or that she could only talk about the ROC government, not the ROC itself. Instead, after a few weeks of immense party pressure, she “returned” to the formal party position of the 92 Consensus. To me, this is simply more of the KMT pretending a problem doesn’t exist. She has already laid out her preference, and she never repudiated her stance. In fact, she complained to the media that the simply didn’t understand her position and/or were misrepresenting it. In other words, just because she is strategically not talking about One China with the same interpretation these days doesn’t mean that that is not her actual position.

We have been through this before. In 2000, if you just looked at the three candidates’ China White Papers, they took very similar positions. Arguably, Chen Shui-bian had the friendliest position toward China, and Lien Chan (who was still campaigning under Lee Teng-hui’s “Special State to State Relationship”) had the least friendly position. In 2008, Ma Ying-jeou took great pains to tell voters that he was a Taiwan-first candidate. However, with hindsight we can see clearly that Lien and Ma have been clearly pro-unification and Chen tried his hardest to move the country towards independence. Talk is cheap, and campaign talk is even cheaper. This time, since Hung didn’t expect to actually get the nomination, she did us the favor of telling us all what she really wants. There is no reason to expect us all to forget that just because she has decided to stop talking about it in pursuit of votes. Certainly the DPP won’t stop bringing it up.

Hung’s actual speech was a stunning recitation of one cliché after another. She will fight hard to carry out her historical mission, uphold our cherished values, and create a better tomorrow! There was not a single concrete idea in the speech. The closest she came to an actual policy was to mention a list of problems the country faces: “global competition, economic stagnation, wealth gap, unfair distribution of resources, worsening standards of living, and so on.” However, with nary a hint of how to address those problems, she went on in the very next sentence to say that the real crisis was political strife and populism. For a candidate who insists the opponent is “empty” 空心蔡, she is running a remarkably substance-free campaign. (President Ma was much more concrete in his speech.)

At some point in the speech, it is obligatory for a candidate like Hung Hsiu-chu to talk about how much she loves Taiwan, reminding us that she has a very personal and deep connection to the island. If I had been the speechwriter, I would have had her tell some touching story from her own personal experience about the warmth and generosity of ordinary people. Instead, she chose to use someone else’s words and experience, reciting the lyrics of a song about Taiwan. To me, that is a problem. I already believe that other people love Taiwan; I want to know how she feels. There is another problem. Hung Hsiu-chu is very good at being strident and laying down the law. She still sounds like a high school guidance counselor authoritatively telling students which behavior and beliefs are Right and which are Wrong. However, she is not so good at being soft, tender, and loving. When she read the lyrics to the song, she used the same expressions and speech intonations as when she insisted that the people must unite around the KMT and its ideals. Seriously, turn the sound off and just watch her before and after 12:08, when she starts reciting the lyrics. She looks (and sounds) exactly the same. She’ll get better at this soft sell on the campaign trail over the next six months, but right now it is a disaster.

None of this is terribly unexpected. We’ve all seen this coming for the past month. Every time there was a slight hint that someone might try to pull the brake and stop this train, the effort quickly vanished. Once she passed the polls, she had too much momentum for anyone to stop her. So now Hung Hsiu-chu, who no one wanted as the candidate six months ago, will be carrying the KMT banner. She is unprepared for the job, having no security or economic training, she didn’t spend the last several years brushing up on policy questions, she is out of touch with mainstream opinion, and her party is severely divided. I can’t imagine that this will go well.

[Edit July 23, 2015]

In my rush to finish the post, I forgot to mention two of the most important parts of Hung’s speech.

At one point, she stated, “Everyone’s common feeling is that, only if the KMT does well can the country be safe and make progress, only if the KMT does well can Taiwan be prosperous and develop, and only if the KMT does well can Taiwan have a better future” 大家共同的心聲是,只有國民黨好,國家才能安定進步,只有國民黨好,台灣才能繁榮發展, 只有國民黨好,台灣的未來才會更好。This is not the normal rhetoric you hear in most democracies. Usually politicians will say that the country’s fate is the most important thing, and in comparison to that, their party’s fate is inconsequential. In the United States 2008 presidential election, one of Barack Obama’s big applause lines was that, “There are no red [ie: Republican] states. There are no  blue [ie: Democrat] states. There are only the United States.” Country first, party second. Hung has reversed that formula, putting her party before the society.

The other point is somewhat less revealing, though it is somewhat more amusing. Without any hint of irony, Hung screeched, “We must not deliver Taiwan over to those who would govern using lies, deliver it over to those who would govern using populism, and we must especially not let a party whose leaders have never reflected or apologized for their mistakes come back into power.” 我們絕對不能把台灣交給謊言治國、交給民粹治國,甚至讓一個從未反省道歉的政黨班師回朝. Ok, then.

Miaoli County government runs out of money

July 10, 2015

The Miaoli County government is completely broke. Not broke as in, it can’t afford a fancy National Day celebration and it’ll have to make do with a modest one. No, broke as in, it can’t pay basic expenses on time. Civil servants didn’t get their paychecks as scheduled this week. The county government is currently NT800m in the red, and that’s after some creative accounting is already figured in. One prominent media figure is comparing the situation to the current Greek crisis. It’s not an entirely crazy analogy.

How did this happen? As soon as the new county magistrate took office and got a peek at the county finances early this year, he immediately started screaming that the previous administration, led by Liu Cheng-hung 劉政鴻, had spent the county into financial disaster. This is not a partisan ploy. Both the prior and the present magistrates are KMT members, though they are from different local factions. The KMT owns 100% of this calamity. Their guy borrowed way too much, spent the money irresponsibly, and the central government never stepped in to slow him down. They didn’t even complain.

It should have been obvious to the technocrats that something was going wrong. I’m a novice when it comes to finances, and even I can see a problem in the numbers.

(Note: The numbers are hard to get straight. The newspaper report says Miaoli has a total debt of NT64.8b. I can’t find that number in official documents. The numbers I have found are NT48.7b in May 2015 or NT49.1b in 2013. I’m going to be using the document with the 2013 number for the rest of this post, so keep in mind that the actual debt might be 30% higher. Even if I am using the wrong year or making some other minor mistake, the broad story is unmistakable. Miaoli is not like everywhere else.)

Miaoli County debt went from NT16.2b in 2005, the year before Liu took office, to NT49.1b in 2013. That seems like a big increase. However, we need some context. Regulations governing how much debt local governments were allowed to incur were revised, so everyone’s debt went up. Further, we shouldn’t compare Maioli with Taipei. Direct municipalities run under different rules and have very different revenue streams. In this post, I will only look at the eleven county governments in Taiwan. That is, I’m not looking at Taichung or Tainan Counties (which were upgraded to direct municipalities), Keelung or Hsinchu Cities (which, as cities, don’t have the same sorts of revenue or expenditure profiles as a rural county like Miaoli), Kinmen (which is mostly funded by the alcohol factory) or Matsu (which gets nearly all of its budget directly from central government subsidies). The eleven counties in this table (especially the first eight) face roughly comparable fiscal challenges.

2005 debt 2013 debt % increase
(billion NT) (billion NT)
Yilan 20.32 25.28 24.4%
Hsinchu 22.66 27.76 22.5%
Miaoli 16.23 49.05 202.3%
Changhua 14.35 33.05 130.3%
Nantou 12.58 17.90 42.3%
Yunlin 23.58 31.99 35.7%
Chiayi 19.57 28.69 46.6%
Pingtung 17.92 28.02 56.4%
Taitung 4.52 9.08 100.9%
Hualien 8.76 12.41 41.6%
Penghu 1.12 2.18 93.7%
6 KMT counties 71.46 139.01 94.5%
3 DPP counties 61.06 88.70 45.3%

Compared to the other ten counties, Miaoli stands out. Miaoli’s debt increased by over 200%, which is another way of saying it more than tripled. The next biggest increase is from Changhua, which increased by a mere 130%. Everyone’s debt went up, but Miaoli’s debt exploded.

Since I know everyone wants to make a party comparison, I’ve summed the totals for the six KMT governed counties (Hsinchu, Miaoli, Changhua, Nantou, Taitung, and Penghu) and the three DPP governed counties (Yunlin, Chiayi, and Pingtung). On the whole, the increase in the KMT group is roughly double the increase in the DPP group. Does this mean the DPP is the party of fiscal responsibility? Hold your horses there, Sonny. There’s more to this story.

Maybe Miaoli could handle the increased debt load. If Vanuatu and the USA both borrow a billion Euros, it will be a big burden for Vanuatu while the USA will barely notice it. We really need to know something about how much debt Miaoli is capable of carrying.

2005 revenues 2013 revenues % increase
(billion NT) (billion NT)
Yilan 17.20 18.62 8.2%
Hsinchu 19.60 24.62 25.6%
Miaoli 18.01 26.33 46.2%
Changhua 28.04 35.49 26.6%
Nantou 17.05 20.30 19.1%
Yunlin 19.01 27.79 46.2%
Chiayi 14.56 20.90 43.5%
Pingtung 24.76 30.58 23.5%
Taitung 9.21 12.63 37.1%
Hualien 13.38 17.34 29.6%
Penghu 6.81 8.05 18.2%
6 KMT counties 98.71 127.42 29.1%
3 DPP counties 58.32 79.26 35.9%

Miaoli has roughly the same population as Hsinchu, Nantou, and Chiayi, so you would expect those four to have similar revenues. In 2005, the first three were roughly similar, with Chiayi trailing behind. By 2013, Miaoli was outspending Nantou and Chiayi by quite a margin, and it was even ahead of fast-growing Hsinchu. Miaoli’s revenue stream increased by 46.2%, tied with Yunlin for the highest growth of any county. (Data on revenues and expenditures can be downloaded here.)

2005 expenditures 2013 expenditures % increase
(billion NT) (billion NT)
Yilan 18.83 18.62 -1.2%
Hsinchu 21.39 25.02 17.0%
Miaoli 18.14 26.33 45.1%
Changhua 32.40 39.84 23.0%
Nantou 19.50 20.30 4.1%
Yunlin 22.36 27.79 24.3%
Chiayi 18.88 21.40 13.4%
Pingtung 26.74 30.58 14.4%
Taitung 10.78 14.40 33.5%
Hualien 15.38 17.34 12.8%
Penghu 7.69 9.43 22.6%
6 KMT counties 109.92 135.33 23.1%
3 DPP counties 67.98 79.76 17.3%

However, Miaoli also led the way in spending growth. A lot more money came in, but all that money went right back out. Miaoli’s expenditures increased by 45.2%, just about the same percentage as its revenue growth. By contrast, Yunlin’s expenditures only increased by 24.3%. This brings us to the final table, the one that really matters.

2005 debt as a % of revenues 2013 debt as a % of revenues % increase
Yilan 118.1% 135.8% 15.0%
Hsinchu 115.7% 112.7% -2.5%
Miaoli 90.1% 186.3% 106.7%
Changhua 51.2% 93.1% 81.9%
Nantou 73.8% 88.2% 19.5%
Yunlin 124.0% 115.1% -7.2%
Chiayi 134.4% 137.3% 2.2%
Pingtung 72.4% 91.6% 26.6%
Taitung 49.1% 71.9% 46.5%
Hualien 65.5% 71.5% 9.3%
Penghu 16.5% 27.0% 63.9%
6 KMT counties 72.4% 109.1% 50.7%
3 DPP counties 104.7% 111.9% 6.9%

In 2005, Miaoli was firmly in the middle of the pack. In 2013, it was far, far more indebted than any other county. I don’t know what level of debt is sustainable, but judging by Miaoli’s inability to pay its bills, I’m guessing the magic number is somewhere below 186% of revenues. The current magistrate’s complaint, that Liu Cheng-hung’s administration spent the county treasury into a crisis, appears to be entirely reasonable.

What about the comparison between the KMT and DPP? It is tempting to see that the three DPP governed counties have only increased their debt load by an average of 6.9% and conclude that the DPP is much more responsible. However, I think that is far too simplistic. Sometimes borrowing is responsible. If the money is invested wisely, increased debt can set the stage for long-term prosperity. (Miaoli is said to have blown its money on extravagances such as elaborate fireworks shows and invitations to international celebrities such as Sarah Brightman. That probably wasn’t wise.) Moreover, if we are simply to look at the fiscal situations, we must consider responsibility for the starting points. In 2005, Yilan and Chiayi were two of the most indebted counties. The DPP had governed Yilan for 24 years, so it was completely responsible for the 2005 debt. While it had only governed Chiayi for four years, the DPP county magistrate had increased the debt by 28% in the previous three years. Similarly, we probably shouldn’t give Yunlin and Chiayi too much credit for keeping their debt growth low from 2005 to 2013 since the 2005 debt levels were already so high. I don’t think we should draw any broad conclusion from a simple table like this about the performance of the two parties.

However, given the current state of Miaoli’s finances, I’m pretty confident in concluding that the previous administration borrowed and spent irresponsibly. In every one of these tables, Miaoli is the extreme case. Why didn’t the Finance Ministry step in to investigate what the hell was going on? They should have been able to see the broad trends developing, and they should have had enough contextual information to know that Miaoli couldn’t sustain that debt. And where is the Control Yuan? Sorry, I got carried away. Everyone knows that the Control Yuan is only used to harass the other party, not to investigate actual government incompetence or malfeasance. Any real oversight will have to come from the voters.


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