Wayne says no

Wayne Chiang 蔣萬安 has announced that he will not run for Taipei mayor. You might think that it would be no big deal for a person who has been in politics for all of two years and has never publicly declared his intention to run to clarify that he is, in fact, not running. You would be wrong. To give you an idea of how important some people see this, here is the front page of today’s China Times.

Wayne Chiang is, as all you fine readers are doubtless already aware, the son of former Foreign Minister John Chiang, grandson of former president Chiang Ching-kuo, and great-grandson of the generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. There are family politicians, and then there are political royalty. So when Wayne* announced he was entering the political world in 2015, he was immediately a media star. It’s not just that he is young and reasonably good looking, moderately charismatic, and a scion of the imperial household, it’s also that he is all of those things at a time when the KMT is facing an acute shortage of leaders. One of the most devastating legacies of the Ma presidency is that Ma did not cultivate a large cohort of potential successors. They have old warhorses like Wu Den-yi, politically damaged figures like Eric Chu, Hau Lung-pin, and Yi-huah Chiang, and not much else. They are desperate for a savior, and many people have projected all their hopes and dreams on Wayne. He’s the Lion King; his name is Wayne, but lots of people look at him and see Simba.

[*I would normally refer to Wayne Chiang by his last name. However, in order to avoid confusion with the other members of his family, I’m going to call him “Wayne.” This is purely for clarity and is not meant as a sign of either disrespect or familiarity.]

I’m in the early stages of a project on family politics, and I’m still working out how to think normatively about politicians who inherit their power bases. On the one hand, family politicians still have to win elections. The voters have to confer power on them through a democratic process. It would be strange to disqualify a group of citizens from democratic politics simply because their parents held power. On the other hand, the children of politicians are far more likely than other citizens to become elected politicians in their own right. This is true of every profession, but the advantage in politics is greater than in almost every other profession. To quote Dal Bo, Dal Bo, and Snyder, “power begets power.” In a democracy, the notion of hereditary political power is disconcerting. (This is especially true in the modern world, in which Picketty reminds us that the returns to capital are returning to historical norms so that people who have money are the people best positioned to continue to have money. If democratic politics also perpetuates wealth and power and cannot counterbalance the concentration of wealth, what hope do we normal people have for an equitable or just society?) I think it is safe to say that most people’s actual behavior suggests that the former discourse is the dominant one. People might occasionally complain about politicians from political families, but voters generally seem quite happy to vote for them. It certainly doesn’t seem that family politicians pay any electoral penalty (though I haven’t produced any systematic evidence on that yet).

Wayne is a fairly popular politician who seems to enjoy the benefits of coming from a prominent family without paying much penalty for that advantage. He won his seat almost entirely on the strength of his family name. That is, if he had merely been a 37 year old American-educated lawyer, he would not have been able to defeat the KMT incumbent legislator in the party primary. In campaign events, he made sure to remind voters of his heritage, even though everyone was already quite aware of it. If you only know one thing about him, it’s going to be his family pedigree. The hardcore KMT supporters see him and think of the glory days of the ROC, when the prestige of the Chiang dynasty was unchallenged. What’s more interesting and a bit surprising to me is the extent to which the rest of the electorate does not seem to hold that past against him. It isn’t as though he has renounced or questioned his family’s record (even to the extent that some other members of the fourth Chiang generation have). He has shown zero signs of anything other than fully embracing the Chiang legacy, but somehow he hasn’t been painted as a reactionary, extremist, or ultra-nationalist. Quite the contrary, his support of marriage equality and his opposition to parts of the DPP’s revisions of the Labor Standards Law have allowed him to present himself as forward-looking and progressive. Small wonder that many in the KMT wanted him to run for mayor!

If Wayne did run, I think he would have a reasonably good chance of winning. In the 2016 election, Taipei was almost a tossup between the blue and green camps. Before that, however, Taipei reliably produced sizeable blue majority. None of us really know whether the 2014-2016 electoral lines were ephemeral or will prove durable, though most in the KMT seem to believe that 2018-2020 won’t be as bad as the 2014-2016 for them. If that’s the case, a KMT nominee should be favored to win back Taipei City. Longtime readers of this blog will know that I wasn’t that impressed with Ko Wen-je in the 2014 election. I still think the 2014 result was more due to Sean Lien being a historically horrible candidate than to Ko Wen-je being a particularly good one. I don’t think Ko has done much in office to build an imposing political coalition. He has alienated a lot of DPP supporters who voted for him last time. He has not been terrible, but I suspect that his support is much more fragile than it appears at first glance. Wayne might have a 50-50 shot (or slightly better) in a one-on-one race with Ko. If the DPP ran its own candidate, Wayne would become a clear favorite.

If Wayne is the KMT’s best candidate and he has a reasonably good chance to win, why isn’t he running? There are two good reasons. First, he probably realizes that he is still a political novice and isn’t ready to step onto the big stage. My first instinct was that he should wait another four years to get a more solid political foundation before making his move. However, the more I thought about it, the less I believed that. Opportunities are precious, and you have to seize them when you have them. Inexperienced people can and do learn on the fly. It’s not as if people judge mayors harshly. Unlike the president or premier, mayors get the benefit of the doubt, and you have to do a pretty bad job as mayor to get bad press. Moreover, the upside is tremendous. The mayor of Taipei is almost automatically on the short list for the presidency. If Wayne steps up to the big stage at this early age, he will be a potential president for the next two or three decades. Wayne might already have a higher probability than anyone else in the KMT of winning the presidency at some point in the future; if he becomes the mayor, he will be far ahead of everyone else.

Second, and I suspect this is the real reason, Wayne might worry that he won’t be able to control his family and their cronies in the KMT. Keeping Dad at arm’s length is an underappreciated problem for all young dynastic politicians, and it might be especially acute in Wayne’s case. Wayne knows he is still a political novice, so he will have to rely heavily on other people’s expertise to run the city government. There will be lots of people eager to volunteer, and most of them will have their own agenda. Remember what Alex Tsai did after losing the mayoral primary in 2014? He jumped into Sean Lien’s campaign team and tried to hijack it with his own schemes (like privatizing and selling off the airport land). If he couldn’t be mayor himself, having an inept figurehead like Sean Lien to manipulate would be just fine. He would have happily monetized and sold off Taipei city property to his friends while letting Lien take all the blame. Of course, Sean Lien’s father may have intervened to prevent that, since he presumably had his own ideas about how to milk the cow. Wayne’s father is not as venal as Sean’s father, but there are plenty of people in the KMT who would love to put Wayne in office and serve as the shadow regent. Wayne needs time to build up his political foundations. He needs to learn how to exercise power, cultivate talented people loyal to him, and build up the capacity to fend off the hordes of eager leeches. In short, Wayne might win the election, but he could very well see his promising political career destroyed in a corruption scandal. If he runs for mayor in 2018, I think Wayne is at least as likely to spend 2025 or 2029 in jail as in the presidential office.

Perhaps you think I’m overestimating the potential for corruption. Consider Ko Wen-je’s record in office. No, I’m not suggesting Ko has been corrupt. Quite the opposite. Ko ran as a progressive, but I don’t think he has an especially progressive record. He hasn’t gotten involved in the debate on marriage equality (unlike Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chu). He hasn’t done much for working conditions. He has built some public housing, but so has Eric Chu, who no one thinks is particularly progressive. He promised direct democracy, but his ivoting project really hasn’t gone anywhere. Putting aside his attempts at carving out an independent China policy, Ko has done two things. First, he has torn down lots of bridges and overpasses. Most politicians want to build things (to put their names on). Ko has done the opposite, tearing down lots of those unsightly and mostly unused things. The city streets now looks more open and spacious. The most spectacular example was the overpass in front of the north gate. Now that that ugly thing is gone, we have a restored view of the north gate. Ko’s demolition has reminded Taipei of its history and given it a new public symbol. Excellent! Second, Ko has paid off a lot of Taipei’s debt. Demolition is cheap, and he hasn’t launched any major spending projects. Most of the current MRT construction is out in New Taipei. Taipei’s revenue streams aren’t as egregiously high now as they were 20 or 30 years ago, but Taipei still takes in more than its fair share of revenue. Ko has taken the surplus and paid down the debt. Taipei’s debt has fallen from 160 billion to 100 billion in the last four years. Don’t expect future generations to thank Ko, because there is no chance that they will enjoy his frugality. The prime beneficiary will the next mayor, who will have as much money as he wants to launch spectacular new initiatives. Want to build a trophy building downtown? No problem. How about a dozen new exercise facilities? Fantastic. Will fifty new day-care centers help spur a higher birth rate? Give it a shot. Or perhaps you just want to line the pockets of your cronies with expensive and useless “cultural and creative” festivals. Bam! There is a golden goose sitting there just waiting to be plucked. A wise politician could use that to both make Taipei a better place and advance his or her career. A clumsy and greedy politician could end up jailed and disgraced. If Ko wins another term and continues to pay down the debt, that golden goose will still be waiting for a more mature Wayne (and a less energetic father four more years removed from power) to harvest.

 

One more thing. Let’s not assume that Wayne is definitely not running for mayor this year. I think he was probably sincere in announcing his intention not to run, but it might not be that easy. The rest of the KMT isn’t going to just give up their dream without a fight. We’ll almost certainly see a movement to draft him, especially if Ko continues to lead all other potential KMT candidates in the polls.

Twenty years ago, President Lee tried to neuter the KMT heartthrob, Ma Ying-jeou. Lee replaced Ma as Justice Minister and gave Ma a meaningless position as Minister Without Porfolio. After a few months, Ma resigned his cabinet position, famously asking “what am I fighting for” 為何而戰? Ma announced he was retiring from politics and took a full-time teaching job at the NCCU Department of Law. Supporters repeatedly implored Ma to run for Taipei mayor in 1998, as he seemed to be the only person with a chance to defeat the popular incumbent, Chen Shui-bian. Again and again, Ma refused. At one point, he answered in exasperation that he had said he wasn’t running a hundred times, and he had given the NCCU president his personal word that he wasn’t merely using the university as a launching pad for the next stage of his career. But under extreme pressure, Ma did eventually decide to run, and it was the right political decision. He beat Chen, positioned himself to eventually take over the KMT, won two terms as president, and was able to attempt to fundamentally alter Taiwan’s path. Don’t be surprised if Wayne hears a lot about his duty and unique opportunity for his party and country over the next few weeks and ultimately comes to the same decision as Ma did.

 

 

7 Responses to “Wayne says no”

  1. Michael Stainton Says:

    Always enjoy reading your analyses. Of course talking about democratic political power being hereditary, we have Trudeau#2 here in Canada.

  2. pdt090 Says:

    Do you think this changes the DPP’s stance on putting forth their own candidate? Would they perhaps rather have Ko, who they have clearly soured on, taken out in favor of Ting, whose victory would then presumably preclude Chiang from running for 8 years?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      If I were the DPP chief strategist, I would be more likely to run against Ting. My top priority would be to keep Chiang more than one step away from the presidency, so with him in the race I would be more willing to hold my nose and ally with Ko. With Chiang out of the race, I’m really not very worried that Ting will become a major threat for the presidency (or that he would sell off all city assets to the lowest bidder). As such, it’s ok to run a DPP candidate and risk throwing the race to Ting. Since Ting is (presumably) a shade less popular than Chiang, the prospective DPP candidates will also think they have a better chance of winning and be more eager to jump in the race now. The DPP base has really turned on Ko, which is why President Tsai made a comment about him needing to reaffirm his commitment to “Taiwan values” a couple days ago. It sounded to me like she is preparing to cut him loose.

  3. Alex Says:

    Your posts always remind me how little I know about Taiwanese politics, even after watching hours of talk shows.

    Please keep writing these, as they are eye-opening and very very entertaining to read.

  4. C.Y.Lieu Says:

    Hello, if the DPP don’t nominate their own mayoral candidate, would it negatively affect their city councillors’ chances?

    • frozengarlic Says:

      It’s hard to say. The argument is that green voters who are turned off by both the KMT and Ko will stay at home and thus not vote for the DPP councilors. That is plausible. On the other hand, the best way to drive up turnout is to have a close mayoral race. I don’t know whether a three-way race would be as close as a two-way race, but my guess it might not be.

  5. Posters Surrounding the Abandoned Taipei Dome Construction Site | Translating Taiwanese Literature Says:

    […] For an interesting explanation of Wayne Chiang’s recent decision not to run in the mayoral election, check out this Frozen Garlic update. […]

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