Archive for the ‘issues’ Category

Pension reform

June 30, 2017

As I start this post, the legislature has just passed the third reading of the civil servants pension bill. It now moves onto the bill for teachers, and the legislature has yet to take up the bill for military pensions. Nonetheless, now that the rules for civil servants have been rewritten, the others should follow along those basic lines. There is a lot of cleanup work still left for the legislature, but the basic fights have already been waged.

We all have a basic understanding that the current system needed some adjustment. There was too much money going out and too little coming in, and the system was going to go bankrupt in fairly short order. Even President Ma recognized the need for reform. (He quickly aborted his nascent reform in the face of a backlash from public servants, who constitute one of the KMT’s most important voting blocs.) The retirement benefits were simply too generous. Civil servants could often retire in their early fifties and collect monthly stipends nearly equal to their full salaries. Since benefits were based on their last month’s salary (ie: the highest they had collected in their entire career), that meant that the state was often paying people more in their retirement than it had while they were working AND their retirements might be as long as their working careers had been. This system may have been defensible when the GDP was growing by double digits every year, the birth rate was high, and civil servants earned a relatively low base salary. However, those conditions haven’t described Taiwan for two or three decades. Things had to change.

Pension reform was one of the three or four most important goals for Tsai Ing-wen’s first term; arguably it is the single most important domestic reform item on her agenda. Tsai has taken a lot of criticism over the past year. People who didn’t vote for her (predictably) think she is doing a terrible job, and they point to things like China’s more antagonistic stance toward Taiwan and the resulting drop in group tourism from China. They are also furious about the effort to nationalize the KMT’s ill-gotten party assets, which they see as a witch hunt (the “green terror”). Many people who did vote for Tsai are also somewhat disillusioned. Her support for marriage equality has been less than strident, her cabinet is full of old men (many of whom have ties to previous discredited administrations), some of the government’s economic policies have been presented and implemented clumsily (labor standards law, infrastructure package), the economy isn’t growing at 8% a year, transitional justice hasn’t been achieved yet, and the world isn’t perfect yet. Against this background, achieving pension reform should be a shining star on Tsai’s report card.

In fact, I’d argue that pension reform has almost perfectly embodied Tsai Ing-wen’s vision of consensus democracy. There were a lot of people who wanted the DPP to present their ideal bill and ram it through the legislature. After all, what is a majority for? Instead, Tsai took the process slowly and deliberately. Tsai’s cabinet included Minister Without Portfolio Lee Wan-yi, whose sole job was to oversee pension reform. The government held a national forum on pension reform, and Lee’s committee held several other hearings. These hearings were somewhat contentious and the opposition did not always participate in good faith. Still, most of the important political arguments were presented, and the committee was able to filter through them. One of Tsai’s stated goals at the outset was not to treat public servants as an enemy. As she put it, they were to be seen as partners in the reform rather than objects to be reformed. The Executive Yuan committee ultimately came out with a fairly moderate bill. At about the same time, the Examination Yuan came out with its own bill. The Examination Yuan members have fixed terms, and over half of them are still left over from the Ma era. As might be expected, the Examination Yuan bill was even more modest than the Executive Yuan bill. Transition periods were stretched out over more years and various formulas were adjusted to be somewhat more favorable to public servants. However, the two bills were surprisingly similar. By the time the Examination Yuan was ready to propose its bill it had become clear that some sort of reform was unavoidable, so the Examination Yuan proposed a substantive reform bill. During the first half of 2017, anti-reform forces were trying to arouse public opinion against Tsai. Various veterans, civil servants, and teachers groups held rallies, but these were generally not well attended. Surveys showed that public opinion was solidly in favor of reform, and this did not soften as a result of anti-reform activism. If anything, public opinion solidified in favor of a more aggressive reform. By the time the bills got to the legislature, the anti-reform movement was largely played out. In the legislature, the pro-reform forces took their turn trying to pass a more aggressive bill. Both the DPP and NPP caucuses demanded changes to various formulae and transition periods. They succeeded in some of these demands, and the law that eventually passed was somewhat more aggressive than the Executive Yuan bill. Nonetheless, Tsai stepped in to ensure that the most radical demands would not be adopted.

By the end of the process, the KMT found itself in a quandary. Public servants constitute a core constituency, and the KMT wanted to speak for them. However, public opinion was clearly against them, and the DPP caucus showed no signs of wavering. As the saying goes, there are two ways to resist in the legislature: civil and military (文、武). The “military” method involves physically occupying the speaker’s podium and disrupting the normal parliamentary procedures. The “civil” method involves using dilatory tactics such as introducing hundreds of amendments to stretch out proceedings as long as possible. In general, if you are sure of your position and your support in society, you go for the military option. If you are on shaky ground, the civil option is the best you can do. For months, I expected we were heading for a “military” showdown. However, the KMT will eventually crumbled. The KMT could not agree on an alternative bill, so the caucus was reduced to supporting various bills proposed by individual members. Instead of occupying the podium or offering hundreds of amendments, the KMT opted for a very weak battle plan. They would have several people speak on every clause, thus taking several days to pass the bills. The DPP was relatively happy to oblige, so the legislature has been engaged in marathon sessions all week. (A minor but telling point: When the DPP made a motion to extend yesterday’s meeting until midnight, it passed unanimously. If the KMT were really trying to resist, it would have opposed lengthening the meeting.) I’ve been sick this week, so I watched a fair amount of these debates on the LY channel. The KMT offered two main arguments against the reform. On the one hand, they suggested that the reform unfairly cut civil servants’ pensions too much. On the other hand, since the pension fund is forecast to go bankrupt in about 2049 (as opposed to in about 5-10 years under the current system), this reform doesn’t really solve the financial problem so there is no point in doing it. Note that those two positions are contradictory. If you want a reform that will be permanently sustainable, you are going to have to cut pensions even more.

In the end, Taiwan got a pension reform that both sides were a bit unhappy with, which is probably a pretty good indicator that it is a moderate compromise. Public discussion was allowed to percolate until some arguments were discredited and others emerged as superior. Opposition was marginalized, with the street protesters painting themselves into an ever smaller box. Instead of forming the vanguard of a public movement against reform, the anti-reformers demonstrated themselves to be merely selfishly interested in defending a system that unfairly privileged them. As they got smaller, their appeals got cruder and further discredited their moral position. (Example: a sign referring to President Tsai’s genitalia is not a smart way to make the case that civil servants are being unfairly discriminated against.)

If you had asked President Tsai after her inauguration when she expected to pass pension reform, I suspect she would have replied that it would take about a year. In fact, it has taken just over a year. One year to study the problem, hold public discussions, allow protesters to make their case, for supporters to reaffirm their insistence on this reform, and to pass a new law. Don’t expect the media to come out with glowing editorials praising President Tsai’s leadership. Democracy is messy, and we have been watching a messy and aggravating process unfold for nearly a year. Moreover, we ended up with something of a compromise, and no one loves a compromise. Nonetheless, I suspect this is exactly how President Tsai thinks democracy should work.

Is marriage equality a cleavage?

May 12, 2017

Last week, my colleague Wu Yu-shan gave a stimulating talk about changes in political cleavage structures around the world. Most of the talk was about the rise of pre-material cleavages (ie: nationalism) in western industrial democracies, but he also had something to say about Taiwan. He believes that we are seeing the rise of materialist (ie: a left-right cleavage) and post-materialist (ie: marriage equality and environmentalism) cleavages in addition to the old nationalism cleavage. In Taiwan’s political science world, Wu is the major voice staking out this position. The opposite view, that national identity is still basically the only cleavage that matters, has most recently and forcefully been voiced by Chris Achen and T.Y. Wang in their forthcoming edited volume, The Taiwan Voter. It is hard to overstate the importance of this debate. Depending on whether you believe Taiwan has one or multiple important political cleavages, you might come to different conclusions on many of the most central questions facing Taiwan today. Does the KMT need to change its position on China, or is returning to the 1992 Consensus a viable option? Will the NPP be able to encroach on the DPP’s pool of voters? Will it be able to appeal to voters that the DPP cannot? Did the 2016 election mark a fundamental break with the past, or is it merely a deviance from a well-established pattern? Should President Tsai push for marriage equality? Why isn’t President Tsai aggressively pushing for admission to the United Nations under the name “Taiwan”? This question of one or many cleavages gets right to the heart of our understanding of how Taiwanese politics work.

During his talk, Wu presented a fascinating graph, taken from a story on Commonwealth Magazine’s website. In this post, I want to explore what we should and maybe should not learn from this graph.

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This graph plots legislators’ positions in the political space along two dimensions. The X axis is the Independence-Unification dimension (with independence on the left), while the Y axis is support or opposition to marriage equality (with support at the top).

I don’t understand exactly what the authors did to produce this graph, but I’ll do my best to explain the methodology. The authors looked at Facebook data from each legislator. They used the two party chairs as anchors, examining people who followed both the party chair and the legislator. (Note: I don’t understand exactly how they used these overlapping followers. However, they presented this part in detail, as if they believed it was the most important thing for us to know.) They examined the “likes” on various posts and put that data into a factor analysis model. The purpose of factor analysis is to condense many variables into a smaller number. If you start with n variables, the model calculates a matrix to multiply each variable by to produce n new variables that are completely uncorrelated to each other. However, these n variables are not equally useful. Some have a lot of explanatory power, while others have almost none. Typically, we throw all the variables that account for less than 1/n of the total variance in the data. They have kept two dimensions, though they did not report how much explanatory power each one had or how many variables cleared the 1/n threshold. The final challenge in factor analysis is naming the new variables. Remember, the algorithm has simply produced new variables that are orthogonal to each other; it doesn’t care what went into them. The researcher typically looks at the coefficients that were multiplied with the original variables and decides on a name. Factor analysis has the veneer of cold, objective data analysis, but interpreting it is actually highly subjective. At any rate, I’m going to assume that the authors made reasonable assumptions and inferences in handling the data. For example, I’m going to assume that the dimensions are appropriately labeled. I’m also going to mostly ignore the possibility that Facebook likes and followers don’t necessarily mirror a legislator’s own positions or even the preferences of that legislator’s constituents.

What are we supposed to see in this graph?

I suspect the first thing people will notice is the position of the two party chairs. Tsai Ing-wen is fairly distant from her party median on both dimensions. On the IU axis, she is in the center of the political spectrum. This looks reasonable; most of us think of her as a moderate on identity and nationalism. The Y axis suggests she is also a bit out of touch with the rest of her party on marriage equality. She is noticeably higher on the plot, suggesting she is a stronger supporter of marriage equality than the average DPP legislator. I think this also fits in with the conventional wisdom. There are a few DPP legislators who are more stridently in favor of marriage equality than Tsai, but there are also a lot of hesitant legislators terrified of angering their socially conservative constituents. So Tsai is moderate on China and somewhat progressive on marriage equality. Hung Hsiu-chu’s position is rather more surprising. Hung is widely known as an extremist on national identity questions. Yet here she is smack dab in the center of the KMT caucus. Further, she has made several statements that indicate she is more pro- marriage equality than the average KMT legislator, yet here she is, again, right in the middle of the KMT caucus. These data suggest that Hung Hsiu-chu is not an extremist. She is actually a nearly perfect representation of the average KMT legislator!

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The second thing people might notice is how lonely Jason Hsu looks up at the top of the graph. He is the only KMT legislator firmly in the pro- marriage equality camp. Reporters love to interview him on this topic, and this gives the impression that there is a significant wing favoring marriage equality in the KMT. Nope. Not according to this plot.

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Third, there is a relationship between the two dimensions. In the DPP, there seems to be a tradeoff. Extreme nationalists tend to be social conservatives, while social progressives tend to be moderate on identity. Why does someone choose to be in the DPP? It is one or the other. I don’t know why it isn’t both, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. The same relationship also exists to a lesser extent in the KMT. Social progressives are slightly more moderate on identity.

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Fourth, the NPP is all located in roughly the same position (though Hsu Yung-ming is slightly less progressive and more nationalist than the other four). It is socially progressive but moderate on nationalism. I think this will surprise many people. The common perception is that the NPP is extreme on both dimensions. Here it simply looks like an extension of the progressive wing of the DPP.

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I think those are the obvious things we are supposed to see. What are some of the less obvious things?

First, this is a two dimensional plot, giving the impression that there are two equally important cleavages in Taiwan. However, the second dimension isn’t necessary. A vertical line perfectly separates the blue and green camps.

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The authors did not report the eigenvalues of the two factors, which indicate how much of the variance each factor accounts for. We don’t know that the second value was at least 1/n or that the first dimension wasn’t several times as powerful as the first. Maybe instead of a square box, this graph should have been flattened into a short and wide rectangle like this to give a better sense of the actual political space:

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If you think about the plot this way, one of the takeaways is the extent to which the DPP has captured the middle ground and the KMT has been pushed back into the far right. I’ll bet the KMT held much more of the middle ground in 2008.

Second, look at that cluster of DPP legislators in the top half of the graph. Notice anything about them? How about if I list all the DPP legislators higher than the top KMT legislator (roughly from top down):

尤美女 You Mei-nu, party list

鄭麗君 Cheng Li-chun, party list

林靜儀 Lin Ching-yi, party list

蔡培慧 Tsai Pei-hui, party list

林淑芬 Lin Shu-fen, New Taipei 2

鍾孔炤 Chung Kung-chao, party list

段宜康 Tuan Yi-kang, party list

邱泰源 Chiu Tai-yuan, party list

吳焜裕 Wu Kun-yu, party list

陳曼麗 Chen Man-li, party list

Kolas Yotaka, party list

蔡英文 Tsai Ing-wen, president and party chair

余宛如 Yu Wan-ju, party list

何欣純 Ho Hsin-chun, Taichung 7

蘇嘉全 Su Chia-chuan, party list

施義芳 Shih Yi-fang, party list

徐國勇 Hsu Kuo-yung, party list

吳思瑤 Wu Si-yao, Taipei 1

That’s 14 party list legislators (of 22 total) and 3 district legislators (of 51). Lin Shu-fen is the only district legislator occupying a clearly pro- marriage equality position. This radically changes the way I look at this chart.

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For one thing, as the party chair, Tsai Ing-wen had the final say on the composition of the party list. She seems to have packed it with social progressives. So while she might be somewhat out of favor with gay rights activists for her current tepid stance, most of the strong voices in favor of gay rights in the legislature are there because she put them there.

From another point of view, if you only consider district legislators – the ones who actually go out and win votes – the DPP and the KMT don’t look all that different. The two big parties both cover roughly the same portion of the Y axis. The DPP may be slightly more progressive, but the difference isn’t all that great.

Ignoring the DPP list legislators also makes the NPP stand out. They now occupy a distinctive space on the political spectrum (assuming the second dimension is important). They are basically the only politicians who take a clear pro- marriage equality position before the voters.

One way to think about this is that elected politicians are socially conservative, and this social conservatism probably reflects a cold strategic judgement that full marriage equality is too radical for the electorate to swallow. A different way to think about it is that Lin Shu-fen, Huang Kuo-chang, Hung Tzu-yung, and Freddy Lim all won district elections while occupying this part of the political space, so maybe there wasn’t a marriage equality penalty in 2016. It certainly didn’t seem to hurt the other major politician in the top half of the chart, Tsai Ing-wen. It could be the case that (a) there are plenty of socially progressive voters, or (b) the second dimension simply doesn’t matter. Of course, it could also be the case that the cleavage simply hadn’t fully emerged in 2016.

Still, that vertical line perfectly dividing the space is a major problem for the idea that the second dimension matters. I’ll be more open to the idea when that line needs to be drawn at a 60 degree slope. To me, it looks as though there is still one dominant cleavage line in Taiwanese politics, and it isn’t marriage equality. However, this debate is far from settled.

Protests against pension reform

March 22, 2017

This morning I was downtown, and I walked by the legislature. There is a group of people opposed to the DPP’s proposed pension reform who have been protesting outside it for a few weeks now. They label themselves the 800 heroes, and have claimed that if President Tsai persists they will turn into 8000 or maybe even 80,000. However, when I walked by I think there may have been closer to 8 than 80, much less 800. Well, it was lunchtime, so maybe they were busy.

The legislature has beefed up security. The government clearly doesn’t want to allow another occupation of the legislature by protesters.

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Anyway, they have lots of signs and banners up identifying their members and stating their views. Let’s look at some of the photos.

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This one identifies them as members of various graduating classes from the military academy.

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Here they are complaining that their benefits that they were promised are being taken away. This is supposedly the heart of the controversy.

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This sign says they are both against unfair pension reform and “mobbing.” Does that mean that they don’t believe protesters should be allowed to affect public decisions? No? Maybe only the “good” protesters should be heard.

Photo 22-03-2017, 11 29 15 AM

“Pension reform; first change the ministers and legislators.” Actually, the Ma administration tried pension reform, but it went nowhere. So just over a year ago, we changed the the ministers and legislators. Public opinion doesn’t seem to be clamoring to change them again just yet.

The sign on the right says, “Oppose Tsai Ing-wen’s cultural revolution-style struggle.”

Wait, what?  Did I miss something? While I was looking the other way, did Tsai become tremendously charismatic, institute a cult of personality, mobilize mobs of students to hold a massive demonstration demanding that she sweep away the regular institutions of government and the conservative members of the DPP in order to impose a pension reform? Are those students organizing themselves into paramilitary bands, arresting opponents, and holding struggle sessions?  Did I miss that? Well, what exactly do they think happened in the Cultural Revolution? Do they really think it was about pension reform or getting a majority of votes in the national legislature?

Photo 22-03-2017, 11 24 46 AM

Um, maybe a good place to start would be by studying some Chinese history so you don’t make a fool of yourself when you invoke the Cultural Revolution.

Somehow, we don’t seem to be talking about pension reform any more.

Photo 22-03-2017, 11 24 59 AM

Is that what they mean by reviving Chinese culture? Institutionalizing inequality? Ok, maybe that little bit of snarkiness was unfair, but what the heck is this sign asking for? Every democratic constitution in the world sets out formal equality of all citizens as a fundamental principle. Opposing equality is like opposing families or prosperity; you aren’t going to get very far if that is your appeal.

I guess I’m just a bit confused by these protesters. Maybe they are revealing a bit too much about themselves.

Effort to recall Ker

November 30, 2016

Hey, there’s a bit of election news in Taiwan. As part of the current battle over marriage equality, there are efforts to recall DPP floor leader Ker Chien-ming 柯建銘.

[As an aside, I haven’t paid particularly close attention to Taiwanese politics over the past ten months. Rather, I have watched developments in Europe and America, often rapt in horror. We seem to be on the cusp of a fundamental shakeup in the international order, and, in my darkest nightmares, I worry that a democratic implosion is right around the corner. I’m not sure if it is reassuring or terrifying that Taiwan is preoccupied with “normal” political controversies, such as how to schedule vacation days, blissfully unconcerned that the rest of the world looks like it might be about to go up in flames. Is this oasis of calm one of the few sane spots in the world right now, or is it sticking its fingers in its ears and willfully ignoring the looming storm?]

The Taiwan Law Blog speculates that I do not support the efforts to recall Ker Chien-ming. That is correct, even though I support marriage equality. I explained my general dislike of recalls in the post the Taiwan Law Blog links to, and I stand by that reasoning. When the votes are counted, the election should stop. The battle over who occupies the seat should be settled until the next regularly scheduled election.

Recalls have a role, but they should only be used as a last-ditch resort when an elected official has fundamentally violated the implicit contract with the voters. I do not believe Ker Chien-ming has fundamentally violated his contract with his voters. When he ran, I do not remember him ever taking a public stance on marriage equality. His campaign was about representing the DPP and supporting Tsai Ing-wen’s agenda in the legislature. Marriage equality was merely one, very small part of that agenda. No matter what he does on this issue, it is hard to imagine it constituting a fundamental betrayal of his positions.

What do I think would be justifiable grounds to launch a recall? To give one example, I think South Korean President Park has fundamentally violated her contract with the voters. Massive corruption, allowing an unelected and unappointed spiritual advisor to make major decisions, and all the rest of it were clearly not what the Korean voters had in mind when they voted for her.

To go back to Ker’s case, since Ker’s central appeal was being a good party soldier, if he suddenly emerged as an intransigent opponent of Tsai’s agenda and plotted with the KMT to thwart her proposals, a recall would be justifiable. If we confine the hypothetical to the issue of marriage equality, if Ker had made support for marriage equality a central issue in his campaign but then had decided to throw his support behind a separate law that did not grant full equality, I think that would probably still be defensible and not justify a recall. After all, it is eminently defensible to compromise for 50% or 75% of your original goal. If he did all that, and then we further learned that he had accepted a massive bribe from an opponent of marriage equality to change his position, then a recall would probably be justified. In that case, Ker would have ignored his voters’ demands in favor of the briber’s demands. Ker’s current behavior is nowhere near these thresholds, and I hope the recall effort fizzles out.

The Taiwan Law Blog suggests that, instead of trying to recall Ker, perhaps marriage equality activists should campaign for him to lose his spot as the DPP party whip. I think he and many others are making the same mistake that President Ma made when he tried to purge Speaker Wang in 2013. They are imagining that the party floor leader is pursuing his own agenda.

In fact, what successful floor leaders do is to help the party rank-and-file get what they want. Sometimes, this means that the floor leader has to take some public heat in order to shield the backbenchers from criticism. In the American case, the classic example is from budgetary politics. A house member knows that a particular spending item should be cut but it is also very popular back home. The backbencher needs the speaker to arrange the agenda so that he can tell his voters that he fought hard to keep the item in the budget but he just couldn’t overcome opposition from everyone else. Sometimes, the legislator will even single out the speaker for criticism, and a good speaker understands what is happening and facilitates it. In 2013, President Ma blamed Speaker Wang for not pushing the Services Trade Agreement strongly enough. Ma should have realized that Wang was protecting KMT legislators who did not want to defend support for particular clauses to their voters.

In today’s case, Ker is probably protecting DPP legislators as well. Most DPP legislators have publicly come out in support of marriage equality, probably because they cannot afford to alienate progressive activists and voters. They certainly do not want to alienate young people. (Ask Hillary Clinton if alienating young voters has any costs.) However, Taiwanese society has hardly reached a consensus in support of marriage equality. The surveys I have seen suggest that support and opposition are about evenly split. I am a bit skeptical of these support levels. While elites and young people have mostly come to a consensus on gay marriage, I suspect the rest of society has not. To put it simply, I doubt that Taiwan has wrestled with this issue enough yet. To too many people, homosexuality is simply an idea rather than an everyday reality of many friends and family. There are still a lot of moms and dads my age or older who grew up with the unchallenged assumption that homosexuality was weird and/or wrong, and you can’t simply tell them that they have been prejudiced all their lives. They will need some time and a lot of discussion before they come around. Moving too quickly could cause a backlash, and I suspect that many DPP legislators intuitively grasp that not everyone in society is comfortable with rewriting the social rules just yet. If there were actually overwhelming support for marriage equality in the DPP caucus, Ker would make it happen quickly. He hasn’t been re-elected party whip time and time again because he ignores the rank-and-file’s wishes. If he is stalling or pushing some compromise package, it is almost certainly because they are asking him to do it. Moreover, like any good floor leader, he is taking the public criticism so that they won’t have to.

So what do I suggest for marriage equality activists? Ker Chien-ming is not your problem. Your problem is that you haven’t yet thoroughly sold Taiwanese society on the idea of marriage equality. To put it another way, the DPP caucus looks like it would like to change the law, but activists haven’t done enough work changing minds among ordinary voters to make DPP legislators feel comfortable taking this step. Rather than bullying or threatening Ker Chien-ming, activists should be focusing on broader society, explaining why marriage equality is a good idea that everyone can support. The good news is that the marriage equality side has good arguments and, with a lot of discussion and persuasion, should be able to produce a stronger consensus in society. When that happens, resistance in the legislature will melt away.

J. Wang’s press conference

December 9, 2015

Today KMT Vice Presidential candidate Jennifer Wang 王如玄 held a press conference to answer questions about her investments in military housing. The KMT’s new campaign manager, Jason Hu, insisted that she needed to take this problem seriously. However, my immediate reaction is that she has probably made things worse. In addition to admitting that she bought 12 units, not the 5 she previously stated, there were lots of places left for skeptics to question. Instead of providing full details on each transaction, she merely provided her annual wealth reports to the Control Yuan. Unfortunately, the “Sunshine Law” has been defanged so much that these reports barely reveal anything. They certainly do not list purchase or sale prices, so we have to take Wang’s word on how much profit she made on each transaction. Unfortunately for her, many people are no longer taking her word for anything. The talk shows are awash in people speculating about all the missing details.

 

However, the part of her statement that I want to focus on is about the principles, not the details. To me, this part might be more disturbing. Wang stated the following:

“[Over a decade ago,] I was a lawyer and, in the course of my duties, I met a real estate agent who raised the prospect of this type of investment. At the time, I felt that there was no legal problem, so I made several investments with the real estate agent. However, today after all this controversy, I have looked in detail at the underlying policy goals of the laws, and, ethically, I have let many people down. Actually, I am disappointed in myself. Truthfully speaking, I have failed this ethical test. In addition to apologizing for the controversies caused, after looking in depth at the relevant policy goals, I deeply apologize for buying military residences, an action that is not consistent with the ethical standards that people demand from a vice presidential candidate.”

Thus, according to Wang’s own statement, someone pitched her an idea and she implemented that idea without ever stopping to think about ethics. This is extremely troubling, since the essence of a politician’s job is precisely to make value judgments. Bureaucrats ask, “Can we?” Politicians ask, “Should we?” Voters choose politicians precisely to make subjective decisions that are in line with mainstream values. If Wang is not the kind of person in the habit of asking about whether something is good or bad, she probably should get out of politics.

 

Of course, I don’t believe for a minute that Wang has suddenly, after looking into the policy goals of military housing laws for the first time, discovered that she made an enormous ethical mistake. (I also don’t believe the bosses of Tinghsin and Volkswagen were sincerely sorry about their decisions. I believe they were sorry they got caught and sorry that the exposure of their misdeeds caused financial repercussions.) She knew exactly how the laws were written and how to exploit the loopholes. Am I supposed to believe that she is so oblivious that she never thought about the reason the five year lockout period existed? She wasn’t sorry a week ago, and she didn’t see any ethical problems. No, what happened is that lots of KMT voters became furious when they learned of her investments. It’s not just that she violated the spirit of the law; it’s also that many of them wonder if she exploited unsuspecting deep blue constituents. Deep blue voters think she has failed an ethical test, so she has to appease them lest they stay at home or cast their votes for one of the other parties in the blue camp. Maybe this (and her donation to charity) will satisfy them. However, I suspect this story won’t go away. Too many loose ends remain unaccounted for.

 

[Aside: Wang is relying heavily on her financial reports to the Control Yuan, even saying that if any errors were found she would be willing to accept all legal responsibility. Sounds great, doesn’t it. The problem is that there are no legal penalties for failing to report. By law, if someone points out an error in a report to the Control Yuan, the official has 30 days to correct the error. If the error is corrected within 30 days, there is no penalty. This is why politicians routinely report that they have no bank accounts, securities, or real estate. For example, Soong’s VP candidate Hsu Hsin-ying 徐欣瑩 (who sure seems to have a lot of financial power at her disposal) reported that only she owns a Toyota Corolla. The Sunshine Law is so useless now that It is up to the general public to point out specifically what she is hiding, and then she can simply fill in that item. So when Wang says she will face all legal responsibility, it sounds to me like a weasely lawyer’s statement designed to deceive the listener.]

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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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

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We’ll print our own textbooks!

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

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

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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.”

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“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.

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

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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.

Ma on independence

May 9, 2015

President Ma has come out swinging over the past few days. Two statements are particularly interesting.

First, Ma noted that Tsai Ing-wen claims she will maintain the status quo. Ma demanded to know if she wants the status quo from seven years ago or the status quo from today, seven years later. This is a brilliant trap question, like asking a man whether he has stopped beating his wife. No matter which way she answers, Tsai is backed into a corner. If she were to answer that she wants today’s status quo (her current position), she has to acknowledge that Ma’s seven years of governing have produced something worth keeping, that ECFA has produced benefits, and that the 92 Consensus has been useful. If she answers that the status quo from seven years ago was better (not her position), she will look like someone trying to live in the past and she will threaten everyone with interests in China. Tsai will ignore the question and insist simply that she wants to maintain the status quo. However, I expect to hear this question a few more times over the next eight months.

Second, Ma responded to criticism that One China was currying favor with China by arguing that One China is grounded in the constitution. Ma proclaimed, “This is delineated in the Republic of China’s constitution. How can our constitution permit two Chinas? How can it permit one China, one Taiwan? How can it permit Taiwan independence?”

Perhaps we should allow 2006 Ma Ying-jeou to rebut 2015 Ma Ying-jeou. In 2006, when KMT Chairman Ma was preparing to run for president, the KMT placed an ad in the Liberty Times stating that independence was a legal choice for Taiwan. Ma clarified that the KMT certainly did not support independence, but it did see independence as a possible choice, albeit a lousy one. As a democracy, Taiwan’s citizens certainly had that option. At the time, this was a major step for Ma and the KMT, and it was fairly controversial within the party.

Apparently 2015 Ma Ying-jeou no longer believes that Taiwan independence is a legal option. None of the relevant parts of the constitution have changed since then, but Ma seems now to believe that Taiwan independence is unconstitutional. Taken to the logical extreme, the government should revert back to Premier Hau Pei-tsun’s suggestion for how to deal with advocates of Taiwan independence: Arrest them all.

What Ma (and everyone in Taiwan) has to decide is what the essence of the constitution is. Is the most important point that the country is China, or is the most important point that the country is a democracy? Is it a nationalist constitution, or is it a democratic constitution? If it is a democratic constitution, the citizens of the state have the fundamental right to determine the nature of the state. If they become dissatisfied with the nature of the state, they have the right to change it. If the nature of the state is set in stone and the citizens of the state are not allowed to change it, it isn’t a democracy.

Israel can either be a Jewish state, or it can be a democracy. In the short run, it might be able to remain a Jewish democratic state, but if the population changes preferences, it will have to decide. In the USA, there are many who argue that the USA is a Christian state. Again, it can be a Christian state or a democracy, but it can’t be both. Iran has confronted this head on. It is an Islamic state, specifically one that gives special status to one sect of Shiites; democracy has clear limits. Thailand also seems to have confronted the fundamental choice it faces between democracy and monarchy and opted for monarchy.

In Taiwan, most people believe that the fundamental division is between a Chinese identity and a Taiwanese identity. I wonder if the real battle for Taiwan’s soul is actually nationalism against democracy.

Chu’s China Trip

May 9, 2015

Eric Chu’s trip to China for the KMT-CPP forum is now over, and Chu has completed his first event in the international spotlight. How did it go? From where I sit, it went pretty badly.

First, the optimistic assessment. Chu’s main message to China was that the KMT under his leadership will continue business as usual. Chu promised not only to continue to respect the 92 Consensus, but even to deepen it. He went out of his way to show respect for the CCP’s sensibilities by not stating the “each side with its own interpretations” part to their faces, and even when he needed to say “Republic of China” for domestic consumption he found a way to do that that the CCP leaders wouldn’t object to. He further stated that the two sides “both belong to One China” 兩岸同屬一中, a formulation that the Ma administration had previously rejected. In short, Chu presented himself as someone the PRC can work with. That will reassure the PRC, some people in Washington, some in Taiwan’s business community, and most in the KMT’s deep blue wing.

Now, the negative assessment. Reread the above paragraph.

The most important job of any party leader in a democracy is to win elections. Power is the top priority. I’m not convinced that Chu’s trip helped the KMT in winning votes next January. The current Ma government is deeply unpopular, and the 2014 elections and data from public opinion polls seem to indicate that the electorate does not want another term of the same old policies. It isn’t clear exactly how much change the electorate demands, but it does seem clear that the KMT needs to offer some sort of change from current policies.

The 92 Consensus, in particular, is living on borrowed time. It is under attack from both sides. China doesn’t seem satisfied with continuing the status quo indefinitely. Several Chinese leaders have made statements about needing to move forward with political integration. KMT presidential aspirant Hung Hsiu-chu has echoed this, saying the 92 Consensus has performed its historical transitional role, and now it is time to move forward and sign a peace agreement. In other words, the unification forces are just about ready to throw away the “each side with its own interpretation” clause. The Taiwan-First side is also just about ready to ditch the 92 Consensus. The usefulness of the 92 Consensus stemmed from its ambiguity. The PRC has suffocated it by squeezing the life out of the “each side with its own interpretation” clause and by refusing any international space for the ROC. If all that is left is One China and the PRC, it becomes harder and harder for people who think Taiwan is a sovereign country – the large majority of the electorate – to see any space for them within the 92 Consensus. Big business still supports the 92 Consensus, but the rest of the coalition is shrinking fast.

I didn’t really expect Chu to reject the 92 Consensus, but I thought he might play to public opinion and try to differentiate his position from Ma’s. After all, the classic KMT electoral strategy is to talk about being Taiwanese, placing Taiwan first, and affirming that the ROC is an independent, sovereign state. Chu’s public image is still not yet fully formed, and he had an opportunity to position himself closer to the median voter. Instead, Chu doubled down on Ma’s position. He effectively told the electorate that he would continue Ma’s strategy of incrementally moving closer and closer to China and unification. Predictably, KMT mouthpieces complained that the green media was painting him red. Actually, the green media didn’t need to smear him. Chu went out of his way to ensure we all know that he is firmly in the pro-unification slice of the spectrum.

By deciding to attend the forum personally, Chu also signaled that he doesn’t see anything wrong with the party-to-party model of cross-strait affairs. If the KMT controls the government, it can use government channels to arrange policy. If the KMT loses control of the executive branch, it will revert to party-to-party channels to try to control Taiwan’s interactions with China. Unless I’m reading public opinion incorrectly, this is not a winning political position. The public is in favor of cross-strait exchanges, but it wants politics and negotiations to be done on a government-to-government basis. I don’t think Chu’s smug and condescending question of why the DPP didn’t have its own forum with the CCP resonated as well with the general public as he thought it would. Chu apparently doesn’t see anything wrong with undermining his own country’s government to collaborate with another country’s rulers. This, of course, is what One China means. The KMT and CCP are both from the same country, so there is no question of undermining the country.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Chu would toe the party line on the 92 Consensus. However, he could have easily differentiated himself from Ma by calling for policies that would help ordinary wage earners. Instead, he asked the PRC for cooperation on exactly the same things that the Ma administration wants. He asked for Taiwan to join the AIIB and to participate in China’s regional economic cooperation program (RCEP). Laissez-faire economists often argue that more trade and economic grown will trickle down to ordinary people, and the KMT also generally takes this stance. However, the Taiwanese public is increasing rejecting the idea that cross-strait economic integration has been good for everyone. Widening income inequality certainly seems to indicate that the gains have been monopolized by a small minority while the broader public shoulders the costs. Who would benefit from Taiwan’s participation in the AIIB and a trading block run under Chinese rules? Probably the same big corporations that benefitted from earlier rounds of integration into the Chinese economy. In other words, Chu is doubling down on Ma’s economic strategy, and he is forgoing the opportunity to try to appeal to wage-earning sectors of the voting public.

The American in me thought that Chu looked like a leader. He was energetic, friendly, and spoke eloquently without a script. This was in marked contrast to the other side of the table, which seemed dull and lifeless. However, the voice in my head that pretends to understand Chinese political stagecraft laughed at my inner American’s naiveté. Chu was overeager, a younger smiling too broadly and showing his desperation for the older man’s approval. Xi showed his dominance by giving only the faintest of smiles in the official photo. Xi read his remarks from a script without much emotion, as if this were just another – relatively unimportant – event in his busy schedule. Yesterday while I was driving home, a talk show host (on a deep blue radio station) lambasted Chu for introducing his team one by one in the reception line, as if he were presenting a group of schoolchildren to the principal for a pat on the head. Chu simply didn’t seem to have the gravitas of people like Lien Chan.

Overall, my overall impression of Chu from this visit is that he’s still not quite ready for the big stage. He didn’t take the opportunity to present any sort of independent image or vision. He seemed content to not offend anyone and to reassure everyone that he would continue Ma’s policies. Most of all, he didn’t seem to understand that he was talking to people at home as much as he was talking to Beijing leaders. His “ROC” moment was particularly instructive. Green voices always complain that blue people only talk about the ROC at home. When they go to China, suddenly they are afraid to say anything about the ROC. Chu decided that he would take this talking point away by directing saying the term “ROC” to Xi Jinping’s face. Of course, he didn’t want to offend Xi, so what he did was to say something about “back when Sun Yat-sen established the ROC…” Of course, the ROC that existed during Sun Yat-sen’s time is not controversial at all. Apparently Chu thought that Taiwanese wouldn’t be able to see through this ruse, and DPP politicians would no longer be able to claim he didn’t dare talk about the ROC in China. Maybe he thought no one was watching the 24 hour news channels? In fact, now he simply opens himself to ridicule, and DPP attack dogs will be even more likely to bring up the topic.

I guess I should remind myself that Chu hasn’t exactly had good training for national leadership. He was a professor of accounting, a one-term legislator, and head of a local government for 12 years. His one stint in upper-level national politics was a very short eight-month stint as Vice Premier, during which he wasn’t exactly the public face of the government and may not have been included in President Ma’s strategy sessions on how to deal with China and manage the economy. In high politics, Chu is a greenhorn.

Of course, we shouldn’t overstate the impact of Chu’s performance. Within the KMT, he is still the most popular figure and the overwhelming preference for the presidential race. Now that he has come back and the deadline for deciding the presidential candidate is fast approaching, the KMT is putting the pressure on him to run. We are now in full flattery mode. “Only you can save the party from disaster.” “You are our only hope.” “We nurtured your career; you have no right to avoid a fight when the party needs you.” In 2010, Tsai Ing-wen found it impossible to resist her party’s pressure to run, even though it was pretty clear she would have preferred to sit out the race. My impression is that Chu was sincere in planning not to run, but I’m not sure he will be able to resist the pressure coming from almost all corners of his party.

If Chu does end up as the KMT’s candidate, the KMT-CCP forum will be even more awkward. It will appear as though he went to Beijing to inform Xi he was running, or, worse, to get Xi’s blessing. The forum and the presidential nomination are temporally so close that it is nearly impossible not to draw a connection in your mind. This is not helping Chu’s case with the general electorate. It didn’t have to be this way. If Chu was going to be the candidate, he probably should have sent someone else to Beijing to meet with Xi. At the very least, he could have changed the date of one of the events. Hey, he’s the party chair. He could have decided that the forum should be a month earlier or the nomination registration deadline would be moved back to June. If it looks like Chu went to China to get Xi’s imperial approval of his presidential bid, it’s his own damn fault. He shouldn’t blame the media for painting him red when he arranges events in this way.

[Of course, I could be wrong. I’m still waiting for a post-trip opinion poll to be published.]