Inside Taiwan’s Political Scene
The 1999 Taipei Mayoral Election, a Personal Retrospective
December 01, 1999
Well, the much publicized “Three in One” elections in Taiwan are finally over. I campaigned for New Party (NP) candidate, Wang Chien-hsuan for Mayor of Taipei. Wang was acknowledged to be by far the best qualified man in a hotly contested three way race, even by rival campaign strategists from the far larger Kuomintang (KMT) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Asia Money And Finance voted Wang the “best Finance Minister in Asia” in 1992. Yet it was clear from the start that given Taiwan’s current political climate, Wang had only “a Chinaman’s chance” of emerging victorious.
Instead, the second best man, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou won. Ma’s not a bad guy, even if he is an attorney — a Harvard Law School Juris Doctor. (Just kidding.) Frankly, I was relieved that NP votes of conscience for Wang didn’t lead to Ma’s loss. Three fourths of the NP’s membership, after painful soul-searching, crossed party lines to ensure Ma’s victory, or perhaps more accurately, to ensure that the worst candidate by far, the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian lost.
Wang and Ma are acknowledged to be among the few clean public officials on this corrupt island. Even the separatist DPP does not deny that both men are above reproach. In fact, the two men orignally lost their powerful appointed offices because they were too good at their jobs.
While Wang was Finance Minister he did too good a job of cleaning up Taiwan’s corrupt banking practices. When he went after financial institutions with ties to Lee’s KMT political machine, “Mr. Democracy” wasted no time handing him his walking papers. Similarly, while Ma was Justice Minister he did too good a job of “shao hei” or “sweeping out darkness,” i.e., prosecuting triad members. When Ma netted several crime bosses who were Lee’s cronies, Lee unceremoniously canned him. Wang, a devout Christian, retired to preach the gospel. Ma went back to teaching law. Until they were each recently drafted by their own parties to run for mayor.
Ma was born in Hongkong of mainland refugee parents. He opposes independence, but hasn’t been ballsy enough to draw a line in the sand between himself and Lee, who is KMT Party Chairman and whose support he needed to field his candidacy, even after Lee screwed him over. That made NP members slightly wary of supporting him. For his part, Lee endorsed Ma’s candidacy extremely reluctantly, after months of foot-dragging and searching for a “better” alternative. “Better” meaning someone in his own party who could beat Chen but who also favored separatism. Alas, he couldn’t find anyone. No surprise. Everyone knows that in the ROC’s current political landscape, no one else in the KMT has the charisma to beat Chen. The women voters on Taiwan love Ma. He looks like a leading man from a HK movie. Year after year he wins “Sexiest Man Alive” type awards in questionnaires conducted by local glossy womens’ magazines.
The only other A List player in the KMT is highly popular former Governor James Soong, a “mainlander” who speaks three of the major dialects on the island, Mandarin, Ming Nan, and Hakka. A real “man of the people” and vote-getter. But Lee stabbed Soong in the back when Lee shredded the ROC Constitution and poof, the Taiwan Provincial Government along with Soong’s democratically elected office as Governor of Taiwan vanished. Just like that. Ironically Lee would never have risen to power had Soong not stood by him loyally, and in retrospect, foolishly, during a critical power struggle following the death of Chiang Ching-kuo. Lee once declared that “the two people I love most are my granddaughter and James Soong.” Where Lee’s wife fit into this lovefest remains anybody’s guess. But that was then, this is now. Lee and Soong are barely speaking to each other. So much for undying love among politicians. Lee could not and would not nominate Soong. He settled for Ma.
The elimination of Taiwan’s provincial status was instigated by the DPP and carried out in cahoots with Lee’s so-called Mainstream Faction of the KMT. This faction consists of Lee and his contemptible yes men, some of whom secretly disagree with his separatism, but all of whom cling to his power base for their own self-aggrandizement.
When Lee Teng-hui decided the Taiwan Provincial Government had to go because its mere existence constituted prima facie evidence Taiwan was part of China, the National Assembly stood in his way. What did “Mr. Democracy” do? With the collusion of the DPP Lee ordered closed circuit TV cameras installed inside the National Assembly hall to record who voted “the wrong way.” He ordered illegal wiretaps of recalcitrant assemblymen, even his own party’s. He sicced Taiwan’s IRS onto holdouts with guerrilla tax audits. He arranged for triad hoodlums to phone undecided assemblymen to inquire “Do you know where your children are?” He persuaded parents and kin of Assembly members to threaten to disown or shun them.
Finally, as a capper, Lee nullified all village level elections. Thousands of popularly elected officials have since become Lee’s personal appointees. On the other hand, the directly elected and immensely popular Governor James Soong, is out of a job. The ballots of millions of ROC citizens, “native” and “mainlander” alike were swept into the trashcan like so much waste paper.
Soong opposes separatism, and has been tenatively endorsed by the New Party as presidential candidate in 2000. The NP is the closest thing to the USA’s Libertarian Party (LP) on this island. Not surprisingly, it’s the smallest of the three major parties. On the plus side, it is much larger in proportion to the ROC’s population than the LP is to the USA’s.
Other New Party supporters like myself who preferred Wang voted for Ma, with reservations, to prevent a split vote among the anti-separatist camp. A split vote is exactly what happened four years ago, when Chen Shui-bian got into city hall with a plurality. This was akin to when Perot caused Bush to lose to Clinton. New Party supporters vowed, not this time. Anything but a second term for the Taiwan “independence” movement’s rising star. They bit the bullet and voted for Ma.
Immediately after the ballots were counted Ma thanked, and Chen denounced the New Party for casting the crucial swing votes. The election result was comparable to a scenario in which libertarians hold their noses and vote for a moderate Republican to prevent an ultraliberal Democrat from winning. NP members sacrificed their own beloved candidate and party for their nation.
Fortunately Chen Shui-bian, incumbent and Taiwan “independence” rabble-rouser par excellence lost. His defeat is considered a serious setback for separatism, as the Taipei mayorship is considered the springboard for the presidency. Chen now faces serious challenges from more moderate rivals within his own party who propose some sort of accommodation with Beijing and will point to his reckless radicalism as politically unmarketable.
Chen turned out to be a corrupt petty tyrant who has alienated even city council members from his own party. Quite a feat. Those who know Taipei probably have been to the old Wan Hua district. It’s a major tourist attraction. Chen went after the legal prostitution trade in the area. Big reformer going to clean up Taipei, right? Wrong. He coordinated the cleanup with major campaign contributor, the Typhone corporation, the Dole Pineapple of Taiwan. Property in a red light district can be had on the cheap. Who wants to live next to a whorehouse? Let me rephrase that. What nice conventional middle-class family would invest in real estate next to a whorehouse? Typhone bought up the surrounding land for ten cents on the dollar. Only then did Chen conduct his sweeps, throwing legal prostitutes into the street, literally. They protested, begged even, for a two year transition period to retrain themselves for other, legal employment. Did Chen relent? Are you kidding? Typhone wanted their windfall profits. Now. Not in two years. Chen and Typhone have “cleaned up” in Wan Hua, all right, though not in the way Taipei citizens had in mind.
Hey, but Chen is merely following in the footsteps of fellow separartist, Newsweek magazine’s “Mr. Democracy” Lee Teng-hui, the real master of Asian cronyism and corruption. Lee is implicated in mind-boggling kickbacks from the procurement of warships for the ROC Navy. We are talking billions here. Ying Ching-feng, a naval officer about to blow the whistle on the whole stinking mess a la Watergate’s “Deep Throat,” was seen being hustled into a car by two men the night before he was to present an audio tape to the media. His body was later discovered floating in the Pacific off the Keelung coast by fishermen.
A special commission went through the motions of investigating for several years before being disbanded, and its members retired quietly overseas. The tactic of “sha ji jing ho” (“kill the rooster to intimidate the monkey”) seldom fails. Ying’s widow and 22 million people on Taiwan know the case will never even be investigated, let alone solved, as long as Lee is in power. So perhaps I can be forgiven for wanting to puke when I have to listen to the jingoist hawks at the New Republic and the Weekly Standard prattle on about how America has a solemn obligation to defend Taiwan’s “maturing democracy.”
About a month ago Chen announced that he was “taking a vacation” from his job as mayor “so he could devote full time to campaigning for reelection.” He ignored protests from the City Council that they were smack in the middle of policy reviews, and just walked away. He then proceeded to misappropriate city funds and resources, including buses to display, free of charge, his re-election posters. Yet his supporters stand by him. This reminds me of Washington, DC, where petty tribalists re-elected Marion Barry merely because he was “one of us.” Yes, he was framed by the fibbers, but is that any reason to inflict a crook on oneself? I for one refuse to believe the African-American community has no better candidates than Marion Barry for mayor of America’s capitol. I could rattle off a dozen names from the top of my head.
The DPP accuses the NP of being a “mainlanders’ party”. They allege that the NP is elitist and looks down its nose at “native” Taiwanese. Let’s look at the facts. Over two thirds of the NP’s elected officials are Minnan Taiwanese. Less than one third were born on the other side of the Strait. I supported a highly qualified Minnan NP candidate named Lai Shi-bao. He won. I cheered. As is always the case with me, my support was based on ideology, not ethnicity.
The DPP on the other hand, fielded 50 officials last election, not one of them a “mainlander.” The DPP was cofounded by a pro-democracy, anti Chiang Kai-shek mainlander who was forced out immediately after. Wang noted that if the DPP had forsaken its strident separatism and virulent hatred of “Chinese Pigs” it would have displaced the KMT as the ruling party on Taiwan years ago.
The victorious Ma must not permit a wrong take on the so-called “New Taiwanese” identity slogan which helped him to garner enough middle of the road Minnan votes to win, or else his win could be worse than a DPP win. It could lend a moderate, seductive human face to incremental alienation from the mainland. He must do the right thing. He must not imply that while harmony among Chinese residing in Taiwan is indispensible, that harmony across the Taiwan Straits is not equally indispensible. He must not imply that “New Taiwanese” are not also Chinese. He must, however cautiously, acknowledge that he is also a “New Chinese”. If he has the will, he will find a way. He can work with the Reform Faction of the KMT and with the NP for gradual reunification, a la Germany and Korea. It’s up to him.
My father, a retired high-ranking diplomat with 40 years experience in the Taiwan government, says Ma, having been democratically elected, with his own independent power base in Taipei, will now be able to thumb his nose at Lee. Lee must step down as KMT Party Chairman in 2000. After that he will have no more power than George Bush. Nil. I am skeptical, but guardedly optimistic. Time will tell.
I can’t help but think of Mel Gibson’s film, Braveheart. Wang, like Braveheart, tells it like it is. He runs a campaign so clean and so consistent I’ve never even seen any Democrat or Republican in America run as principled a campaign. Only LP candidates have lived up the kind of example Wang set for Taiwan. Naturally he gets martyred. Ma is like Robert the Bruce. He compromises, bides his time, even when his heart screams out to him: Stand up for Braveheart! In the movie Scotland is saved. Hopefully Ma/Robert the Bruce’s realpolitik will not backfire in Taiwan, and will lead to a happy Hollywood ending.
I hope this gives the political scene on Taiwan a human face. The Washington Post, CNN, Time, Newsweek have all done a sorry job of laying out the complex three way power struggle between the KMT, DPP and NP. Only Singapore’s Straits Times has gotten the Taiwan scene consistently right.