Archive for August, 2015

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