Monthly Archives: January 2006

Linda Arrigo and the democracy movement

Michael Turton has an excellent write-up of a talk given by Linda Arrigo yesterday. Arrigo was deeply involved in the fight for democracy in the 70s and 80s, and gives a first hand account of what happened.

How many prisoners went through the system? Arrigo said that Shih estimated about 80,000. Some estimates went as high as 130,000. To put that in perspective, the population of Taiwan in 1960 was about 12 million. There was a considerably interplay of mainlanders who were pro-Taiwan independence, Chinese nationalists who were disgusted with the KMT’s exploitation of Chinese nationalism for its own power and similar types in this period.

Anyone who is interested in how Taiwan became the democracy it is today should read the whole thing.

Macking in Taipei: The ‘cool’ Taipei government

Any attempt by any government to connect to youth culture is guaranteed to be an embarrassment. A couple of days ago the national college entrance exams contained bizarre questions about internet slang, but the Taipei City Government has gone one better.

Today’s front page story on Apple Daily (the biggest selling newspaper in Taiwan) was a story about Taipei City’s official ‘English Corner’ website. The Apple Daily seems to think that the website was a guide for foreigners to pick up local Taiwanese women – while this will certainly sell newspapers, it is a deliberate fabrication by the newspaper. Anyone who spends two minutes actually reading the website (ESWN has an image from Google’s cache – the original has been taken down) will deduce:

  • The article is a joke. It doesn’t give any ‘advice’ about picking up women, but is an attempt at satire.
  • The author is Taiwanese.
  • The intended audience is also Taiwanese. The whole ‘English Corner’ website is (as the name implies) an attempt to teach non-native English speakers some English slang – the only people who might be interested in that are Taiwanese.

So, the Apple Daily finds a website which satirizes a Taiwanese guy giving other Taiwanese guys advice on picking up Taiwanese women, and turns it into an anti-foreigner front-page spread. Taiwanese newspapers have always been more interested in sensational headlines than in actual facts.

Taipei City Government tries to be cool

Of course, the real story about the English Corner website is that the City Government is so desperate to seem trendy to all the young potential voters out there in Taipei that they have produced an amazingly crass website. The dictionary of slang has words like napalm and ladyboy, and it tries to make learning English interesting with articles like “English is a disease: Catch it!“, and “English is a shirt: Iron it!“.

Just yesterday, many of us were mourning the sacking of Pasuya Yao,the most incompetent head of the national information office. I’m glad to see that Taipei City has an information office which is equally easy to ridicule …

Premier Frank Hsieh resigns

Frank Hsieh has resigned from his job as President of the Executive Yuan:

Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian said on Tuesday he had accepted the resignation of Premier Frank Hsieh in a long-expected cabinet reshuffle after the ruling party’s crushing defeat in December local government elections.

Under Taiwan’s political system, the democratically elected president appoints the premier who forms the cabinet and runs day-to-day government. Chen is head of the military and sets policy towards China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province.

This was widely expected. Hsieh offered his resignation after the December local elections fiasco – and while it wasn’t accepted then, it was pretty common knowledge that Chen was planning a major reshuffle. Clearly he was just waiting until after the election for the DPP Chairman had finished to announce it.

Hot favourite to replace Hsieh is ex-DPP Chair Su Tseng-chang – which would prove that resigning in disgrace is a good career move in Taiwanese politics, as well as showing that nice guys can get to (nearly) the top. However, as Hsieh would testify, being made premier might not be as good an idea as you might think.

What is the point of the premier?

There was almost no reaction from the stockmarket to this announcement – because the premier wields very little actual power. The premier (who is appointed by the president) presides over the cabinet (which is appointed by the president), reports on polices (which are set by the president) to the Legislature, and countersigns laws (which are signed by the president). In other words, the premier does the work of the president. It’s worth noting that in other presidential systems (e.g. the US) and parliamentary systems (e.g. the UK), the leader of the country is also head of the cabinet. That these positions are separate in Taiwan is yet another sign of Taiwan’s defective constitution.

Whoever replaces Hsieh will be the 5th premier to serve under President Chen (President Lee also got through 5 different premiers in his time). The fact that the list of premiers under Chen includes a KMT member, and DPP members who were both allies and potential challengers to Chen’s rule – but that there have been no major policy shifts between premiers shows where the real power lies.

Update (Thursday 19th): As expected Su Tseng-chang has been nominated to replace Hsieh. Either Su was being brutally honest, or the CNA misquoted him when the announcement was made:

Su thanked the president for giving a chance to serve the country and vowed that he will let him and country folks down.

Destroying the government – one Yuan at a time

Last Thursday the Legislature finally passed the budget for 2006 – or at least a bit of it. In yet another escalation of hostilities between the Greens and the Blues in government, the KMT-dominated legislature only passed 82% of the original budget.

Ending months of bickering and haggling, the Legislature yesterday finally passed the central government’s 2006 budget, cutting some NT$35 billion and freezing another whopping NT$246 billion, at the demand of opposition lawmakers.

Michael Turton has summarized the cuts which have affected all the DPP major policies, but I want to focus on just one: the Examination Yuan and pension reform.

Another Yuan bites the dust

One of my regular topics is the collapse of one of the five branches of government – the Control Yuan; In two weeks time it will have been empty for a whole year. Although you can make a case for intransigence on both sides causing this, the fact that the pan-Blues have refused to even review the nominations for the Control Yuan yet is an indicator of who is being the more childish. Anyway, this budget has effectively disabled the second branch of government, the Examination Yuan.

The Legislature has frozen two-thirds of the Examination Yuan’s budget – leaving just enough to pay salaries, but not enough to actually do anything. The Examination Yuan is responsible for the civil service, so while its paralysis won’t cause the country to collapse, it does cause problems:

Yao warned that his administration would not be able to hold civil service examinations to recruit civil servants because of a lack of operational funds. The Legislature should be held responsible for interfering with the people’s rights to work for government, which is also a violation of the Constitution, he said.

Without those operational funds, the Examination Yuan’s foundation governing pensions and health insurance for retired servicemen can no longer function, thus affecting the livelihood of some 700,000 retired civil servants and their family members, Yao said.

At a more general level, it means that Taiwan now only has three of its five branches of government active. Luckily the ones still active (the legislative, the executive and the judicial yuans) are the ones that actually matter. While Ma Ying-jeou is quite firm in his claims that Taiwan does not need constitutional reform, his party is doing an excellent job of disabling entire chapters of the ROC’s constitution.

Much ado about pensions

The reason for the KMT’s blocking of the Examination Yuan’s budget is a plan to reform pensions for retired civil servants:

The reform plan would place a cap on the amount of benefits a retired government worker could receive, an attempt to ease the government’s burden in supporting retired civil servants who are currently able to draw a higher level of compensation than that received when they worked.

This bizarre situation is caused by a guarantee of 18% interest on both their bank accounts and their pensions – this in a country where your average account gets much less than 1% interest. Unsurprisingly, the beneficiaries of this scheme are by-and-large loyal supporters of the KMT government which gave them such an excellent perk.

The complaint from the pan-Blues is that this is a politically-motivated attack on KMT supporters – despite the fact that almost everyone agrees that this is a massive (and unjustifiable) perk, that the reform proposal has been moderated several times, and that the Examination Yuan is a body independent of the President and the DPP. The justification for blocking the budget over this is predictable:

Opposition lawmakers froze the Examination Yuan’s budget on the ground that its reform programs are unconstitutional and detrimental to the rights and interests of retired civil servants.

‘Unconsitutional’ seems to be the first accusation hurled whenever a politician doesn’t like something, and in this case it is a laughable accusation. Article 83 of the Constitution:

The Examination Yuan shall be the highest examination organ of the State. It shall be responsible for matters relating to examination, employment, official grading, service rating, salary scales, promotion and transfer, security of tenure, commendation, pension for the deceased’s family, retirement, and old-age pension.

Can’t really get much clearer than that, can you? Decisions on the pensions of government employees is clearly the sole responsibility of the Examination Yuan. Stopping it from doing its job is arguably an unconstitutional move by the Legislature.

At the moment, it’s unclear how long the impasse between the two Yuans will last. If the experience of the Control Yuan is any guide, we’ll be stuck without two branches of government for a long time …

Pasuya Yao vs the NCC

Pasuya Yao, the head of the Government Information Office, just can’t keep out of the news – and it’s never in a good way. This week, his plans to regulate the amount of Korean and Japanese TV shows that can be shown in Taiwan have already been ridiculed from all quarters. Taiwanese TV already suffers from a severe case of “quantity not quality”, so the idea that space has to be made for even more low-quality local shows is just bizarre.

For me, however, the interesting thing about this story is how Pasuya thinks he can implement his latest insane idea. Taiwan is in the process of setting up a new media watchdog, the ‘National Communications Commission’, which will take over most of the responsibility from the GIO. The Legislative Yuan confirmed the members yesterday, and it is expected to start work shortly after Chinese New Year – which means that any regulation restricting foreign TV dramas would be the remit of this new body:

Receiving supporters for his plan to restrict airing imported programs, Yao said the National Communications Commission, which will take over supervisory authority over electronic media in two weeks, should ensure domestic productions account for 70 percent or more of the prime time broadcast.

So, Pasuya Yao is trying to set policy for a body in which he has no involvement. Anyone who thought that the arrival of the NCC would mean the end of Yao’s incompetent meddling will have to think again:

The GIO will still be in charge of media guidance, incentives and planning, while the NCC will take charge of media law enforcement, Yao told reporters after attending a news conference held by a Taiwan delegation that is to take part in a record exhibition in Cannes, France.

Noting that several of the GIO’s Department of Broadcasting staffers will be transferred to the NCC to help the commission deal with related affairs, Yao said he is hopeful that the division of labor will enable both sides to handle their business more smoothly.

To help the relationship between the GIO and the NCC run smoothly, the GIO is currently lobbying for a ruling on whether the NCC is unconstitutional or not. Anyway, I look forward to watching how Pasuya’s ‘guidance’ will be received by the NCC – it will certainly be more entertaining viewing that your average home-grown Taiwanese TV drama!

‘Chen the Brave’ standing up to the US?

What to make of the stories, and the subsequent denials, that Chen Shui-bian’s new year speech caused complaints from the US government?

The Presidential Office yesterday blasted a media report that said the US was displeased with President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) New Year’s speech and had asked him to change it several times.

The draft of Chen’s speech was allegedly rejected by Washington three times prior to its release, particularly in relation to constitutional amendments that Chen said would be completed before 2008, the United Daily News reported yesterday.

The report quoted unnamed sources as saying that Washington was displeased with Chen for delivering the address without changing parts of the draft it considered unsatisfactory.

The first point to make about this is that, if the reports are true, the US complaints would have been completely perfunctory. The US government knows very well that any constitutional changes have a close-to-zero chance of happening before 2008, and certainly any changes which would upset China have absolutely no chance of getting passed by the legislature. So the worst that could happen from this speech is that Chen annoys China – and the US could very well make a “please don’t wind them up!” plea about that. The US being mildly annoyed that China might get mildly annoyed is hardly a major diplomatic spat.

This then leads onto the interesting question of who ‘leaked’ the report to the UDN – and why. It’s certainly possible that one of the many Chen-haters (whether green or blue) leaked the story in an attempt to discredit Chen further, but this doesn’t really fit. What happens as a result of this story is that:

  • Chen’s major talking points from the speech get repeated in the news media for another couple of days.
  • Chen can be seen as taking a strong stance on constitutional reform and relations with China while not backing down on his principles under US pressure.
  • The fact that the US government is at least informed on speeches (but not given too much control over them) before they happen is highlighted.

While none of these points are going to endear Chen to your average KMT (or undecided) supporter, they are all very strong points for most grass-roots DPP members. Given that the DPP Chairman’s election is now only 4 days away – and the campaigns of all the candidates are revolving around CSB – you have to wonder: is this leak a deliberate effort to make Chen look like the man every DPP member loved up until last year?

Abolish ‘Taiwan Province’

The Taiwan provincial government is one of those relics of the the Republic of China which Taiwan doesn’t seem to be able to quite get rid of (a bit like their claim to be the rightful ruler of Mongolia). Its powers were slashed in the 1990s by Lee Teng-hui (much to the disgust of his good friend then-provincial-governor James Soong), and today it has almost no power. So it is no surprise to hear a couple of legislators calling for it to be formally abolished.

What is surprising is that it isn’t pan-Green politicians (who normally jump at any chance to weaken the ties to the concept of China) calling for this – but two of their pro-China KMT colleagues:

Two lawmakers of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) called Monday for the termination of the Taiwan Provincial Government (TPG) and the Taiwan Provincial Consultative Council in order to save taxpayers’ money.

Given that the provincial government is a useless reminder of Taiwan’s links to China which is also a waste of money, you might wonder why the DPP hasn’t abolished it already. The KMT legislators certainly have their suspicions …

Lin questioned the way the members of the TPG and the council are appointed by the Executive Yuan, saying they are invariably former city and county chiefs or legislators. “For the sake of the taxpayers’ money, the two organizations obviously have to be terminated,” he said.

The DPP wouldn’t be putting “Jobs for the boys” ahead of its principles would it?

Taiwanese politicans and weblogs again

Just over a month ago, there was a fuss about a Taiwanese political blog – ‘Wiego’s blog‘, which proved that soon-to-be Taipei County Commissioner Chou Hsi-wei (周錫瑋) didn’t understand weblogs at all. However, maybe blogging is moving into the mainstream in Taiwanese politics. Here are a few blogs which have caught my eye recently:

Plenty of politicians have quite extensive websites – but Hsieh’s and the DPP’s sites are the only ones I know about which are definitely blogs (using completely standard blog templates etc.). It’s a bit hard to tell whether these are spoof sites or really official. For instance, Frank Hsieh’s site has this photo which would scream ‘fake’ in almost any other country:
Happy Santa Frank Hsieh
However, as all politicians in Taiwan regularly go in for truly cringe-worthy ‘photo ops’ (has anyone got a photo of CSB as Superman from his time as mayor of Taipei?) [Update: Link to photo added – thanks Jason!], it actually lends credibility to the site.

Chen’s new year speech: Who was his target audience?

President Chen Shui-bian saw in the new year by giving a public speech; his new year speech is a couple of notches less important than his Double-10 National Day speech (which is again a few notches below his inauguration speech). Since it was his first major speech since last month’s local elections, many observers were expecting a major change in policy as a reaction to the DPP’s poor showing – Chen will have disappointed them [*]. The speech was his usual mixture of righteous defense of Taiwan’s sovereignty combined with a few policy announcements which were completely overlooked by the international media [**].

The standard bit

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a speech by Chen which hasn’t praised Taiwan’s achievements, mentioned the importance of forming a national identity, the need for constitutional reform, asserted its sovereignty and mentioned the threat from across the water.

The sovereignty of Taiwan is vested in its 23 million people, and is not subject to the jurisdiction of the People’s Republic of China. Only the 23 million people of Taiwan have the right to decide Taiwan’s future.

Of course, each time he says something like this, all the international reporters go running off to get a quote from Beijing (or if they can’t be bothered to do that, preface it with “in a move which is sure to anger Beijing …”) while ignoring the fact that a) It’s been said about 30 times before in the last 5 years, b) It was wholly predictable that he would say this, c) It’s a (mild) statement of the position that Chen was elected to uphold, and d) it’s blindingly obvious to anyone with the most cursory knowledge of the island. At least it makes life easy for all those journalists: if you can write 90% of your article before the speech is given, you’re not going to have any trouble hitting your deadline.

The new bits

Chen’s speech did touch on bits which, while hardly groundbreaking, will have an effect on the people of Taiwan – needless to say, these bits went completely unreported.

  • The biggest news from the speech was the decision to hold a second Economic Development Advisory Conference [***]. The first EDAC was held in 2001 and resulted in a big liberalization of cross-strait economic policy. Partisans from both sides of the political spectrum actually worked together along with economic experts and representatives from most areas of industry to agree on a set of economic reforms which replaced the KMT’s “Go slow, be patient” policy on links with China with a more open “active opening, effective management” policy. The 2nd of these conferences will include an equivalently wide range of participants and is a positive move from a president who is currently being criticized from all sides for making decisions unilaterally and without consultation. The only worrying aspect is that the new policy will be called “effective opening, active management” which implies the government wants to stick its fingers in as many places as possible.
  • He mentioned the reform to income tax which starts this year, which put more of the burden of taxation on companies rather than individuals. Many companies (in particular in the high-tech field) got huge tax breaks when they were trying to develop Taiwan’s industry. Those tax breaks are now less justified for established industries and are being reduced.
  • There are ongoing attempts to change the pension system in Taiwan. This is needed, but is unfortunately a political hot potato; retired military personnel and teachers are huge beneficiaries of the current pension system due to the fact that these were the standard jobs of KMT stalwarts. The KMT can be guaranteed to fight to defend these perks.

Who was he talking to?

Many intelligent commentators (e.g. Peking Duck, Michael Turton) noted that his speech was not very conciliatory (either to China or to the KMT) – but neglected to mention the most obvious reason for this. The target audience for this speech wasn’t the international community. It wasn’t China. It wasn’t even all those disillusioned Taiwanese voters who voted KMT recently. It was the loyal DPP members who will be voting for a new DPP Chairman in just under a fortnight.

Chen’s popularity with DPP members started to go downhill when he made conciliatory noises to China and the opposition. He was criticized for his attempts to work around the “One China” impasse (talks in the ‘spirit of the 1992’ meetings), was criticized for meeting with James Soong, and was criticized for his mild reaction to the Lien/Soong visits to China. If he wants to win back the support of the average voting DPP member, then he knows he’s got to revert to the sort of rhetoric he normally reserves for national elections. Hence this speech.

Of course, Chen isn’t running for DPP Chairman but ‘his’ man Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃) is, and is only likely to win if his relationship with Chen is seen as an asset rather than a liability. I suspect, Yu’s chances of winning have improved after this speech. If you consider this speech to be a rallying call to the DPP faithful, it gives it a whole new perspective. This speech was never going to be about the recent local elections – it was about the upcoming DPP elections. Remember: it’s not the last election that’s important – it’s the next election.

* Allow me to be a little bit smug that I predicted there would be absolutely no affect on national policy from the local elections the day after the election.
** This happens with every speech by Chen. Given the option between running a headline of “Chen asserts Taiwan’s independence” or “Chen announces changes to income tax laws”, you know which one everyone will run with.
*** This is not strictly speaking ‘new’ news, since Chen had been talking about this for a couple of months. It was however his first announcement of it in a major speech.