Minister of Justice Wang Qingfeng 王清峰 was forced to resign over her refusal to carry out executions; she is against the death penalty. Public opinion is firmly in favor of retaining the death penalty, and a large number of KMT legislators, the Premier, and the President all took the position that, until the law is changed, the Minister of Justice must carry out whatever sentences the judicial system produces, including the death penalty.
I do not think this episode has very much to do with the death penalty or some principle of carrying out the law. I think this is all about politics. For some reason (and I’m not clear what this is), Wang was not being a team player. I think the president ordered a purge, and it has been orchestrated brilliantly.
Let’s review the episode. This whole thing started a couple of days ago when KMT legislator Wu Yusheng 吳育昇 brought it up in an interpellation. Wu is one of President Ma’s 馬英九 closest associates in the legislature; he was part of Ma’s “little cabinet” while Ma was Taipei City mayor. Wang clarified her position the next day, setting out a very strong line. She is not going to sign any execution orders. Yesterday, a large number of KMT legislators held press conferences criticizing her position and calling for her to resign. Actress Bai Bingbing 白冰冰 was a featured guest and outspoken critic in these press conferences.[i] The United Daily News also had a poll, featured on the front page, that showed 74% support the death penalty and 51% thought Wang should resign. After insisting that no Minister of Justice anywhere in the world had been forced to resign because of opposition to the death penalty, Wang changed her mind and offered her resignation last night. Premier Wu 吳敦義 took all of seven minutes to decide to accept the resignation.
Wang is against the death penalty for human rights reasons, and she believes it is a worldwide trend to abolish the death penalty.[ii] As such, she has not signed any orders to carry out executions since she became Minister of Justice two years ago. Now, this has hardly been a radical position before the past couple of days. While Ma signed off on dozens of executions while he was Justice Minister in the mid-1990s, he has also stated that he is against the death penalty and would like to see it abolished. The Minister of Justice from 2005-2008 didn’t sign any execution orders for the same reason as Wang is giving, so there was presumably already a backlog of people waiting to be executed. In 2008, when Ma appointed her, he apparently wasn’t too anxious to have all those people executed. And while the government spokesperson yesterday insisted that she couldn’t simply commute the sentences, that there was a proper procedure for that. In fact she was not actually commuting sentences; she was merely delaying the executions. These people all still carry death sentences, and they can be executed tomorrow if the paperwork is signed. So that was a nice sleight of hand by the government spokesman.
Still, the most important reason I don’t think this whole episode is really about the death penalty is that no one cares about the death penalty. It simply isn’t an important issue. Sure, 74% are for it, but we have opinions on lots of things that we don’t really care about. You could also do a poll on whether motorcycle helmet laws should be enforced more strictly, whether the Central Cross-Island Highway should be re-opened, or the Jilong City government should take over management of Jilong Harbor. You would get some distribution of opinions on all of them, but none of them really matter in the big picture. These opinions simply aren’t as important as opinions about Taiwan’s relations with China, the extent and execution of disaster relief after natural disasters, how to fund universal health care, food safety, corruption, and the other dominant questions in Taiwanese politics. Other than Bai Bingbing and a handful of activists on either side, there simply aren’t many people who think that the death penalty is an important issue.
So why was Wang forced out? Given the carefully orchestrated events, which have the KMT leadership’s fingerprints all over them, I can only concluded that President Ma, Premier Wu, and/or Secretary-General Jin 金浦聰 decided that they wanted her out. I think this probably starts with Jin, who then got Ma to sign off on it. Jin was probably also the puppetmaster.
Wang has never been a party insider. She is a social activist, who made her name as a lawyer with great character, honesty, and morals. She was one of the main figures pushing for justice for comfort women, and she was Chen Lu-an’s 陳履安 running mate in the 1996 presidential election. Chen’s campaign was based on his moral authority. In 2008, Ma tapped Wang as Justice Minister and got a figure whose moral standing was beyond reproach. I think this is part of Ma’s pro-governance, anti-politics philosophy. If you simply put good people into office, they will make good policies. The flaw in this philosophy is that (good, honest, incorruptible) people disagree (for honest, moral, and rational reasons). Just because the official is a good person does not mean that he or she will produce policies that you think are good. I think a political logic is far more effective than this governance logic. In a political logic, you bind people together to a common platform by means of a party (which needs the platform to make mass appeals and construct a loyal support base). Any party member, regardless of their personal morals, is then bound to implement a policy that is consistent with the party’s interests.[iii] My guess is that Ma is slowly coming around to understanding the importance of party politics. The fact that he has to face the possibility of losing in 2012 (never really a possibility in 2002 or 2008) probably has something to do with that. Wang was probably acting as a non-partisan Minister of Justice, not as a KMT Minister of Justice. (Note: This is the weak point in my argument. I don’t know what they would have been dissatisfied with.) With important elections coming up over the next two years, they probably wanted a team player at the helm of the Justice Department.
If the scenario that I am laying out is correct, then the most important thing about this episode has nothing to do with the death penalty. Rather, Ma is finally consolidating power. He started his term by granting power to lots of people. These were grants, not delegations. He simply gave people power and let them exercise it as they saw fit. He did not delegate power with specific instructions to follow or goals to pursue. He did not keep a tight rein on that power and withdraw it whenever someone did something he didn’t like. The first year of his administration was marked by Lien Chan 連戰, Wu Boxiong 吳伯雄, and various other KMT figures running amok. I think Ma realized that this does not work and is slowly grabbing the power back. Becoming party chair was important, but bringing Jin Pucong back as his hatchet man was more important. Slowly, he seems to be transforming the KMT into a one-headed beast, something it has not been since the late-1990s. This bodes well for Ma’s re-election prospects. Unfortunately for him, this process is really two years too late. When he was elected in 2008, Ma was far more popular than his party, and he could have demanded that everyone follow him. That Ma Yingjeou would have been able to concentrate power and do anything he wanted. Now that his popularity has waned, he will not be able to consolidate power in the same way. He also will not be able to demand that his party follow him. To give an illustration of what this means in practical terms, imagine how the American beef issue would have played out in 2008 with power concentrated around Ma. He would have demanded that KMT legislators vote as instructed, and they would not have dared to oppose him. That is no longer the case and won’t be the case even if he continues to consolidate power. His window has closed quite a bit.
There is also a certain irony in this episode. A little more than a decade ago, the KMT forced another Justice Minister out because he had been cracking down on vote-buying among (mostly KMT) county assembly members (and corruption and organized crime more generally). The KMT could not stomach this attack on its grassroots machine, and demanded the Justice Minister be replaced with someone who would be more of a team player. That idealistic Justice Minister was, of course, Ma Yingjeou.
[i] Bai’s daughter was murdered in sensational kidnapping case in 1997, and she was insistent that the kidnappers be executed. (They were, eventually.) There’s a lot more to this story, but that’s a different essay.
[ii] This is a terrible defense of her position. You have to get a little more specific than that. Some vague reference to human rights is never going to win a public debate.
[iii] If you haven’t guessed, Frozen Garlic has a strong bias toward party politics. This little paragraph doesn’t even begin to explore the reasons for that bias.