Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Presidential Election

As I write, the polls are opening in Taiwan's 5th popular elections for President.

I've belatedly been watching a few videos about the election including this one of the election eve rallies for CNN iReport and this one, a rap in Chinese subtitled "Keep Taiwan Free", which can only really be interpreted in one way regarding Taiwan-China relations and the respective positions of the political parties. Having said that, the lyrics in Chinese could be mean anything for all I know. I think I caught something about haircuts in amongst pictures of Tienanmen Square and crowds of activists turning out in all weathers dressed in disposable plastic raincoats and traditional rice farmers' hats.

The final rallies for the pro independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the pro China Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) transform their respective areas of Taipei into a street party populated by people of all ages and walks of life. The energy and enthusiasm is palpable with a 75-80% turnout expected, and this in a country where most people retain their household registration (and thus vote) in their hometowns until they get married, leading to a mass migration on the night before the election. Some expats even fly back from the United States just to cast their ballots or take part in the campaign. Given the voter registration system mentioned above, the tribal nature of Taiwanese politics and the authority held by the senior family member, it is also a good opportunity for overseas Taiwanese to catch up with their extended families.

Seeing Taiwanese people demonstrating such passion for their respective causes, albeit in a political environment with tribal undercurrents and dominated by a single political issue, makes me want to be there among them more than ever. Elections in Taiwan, at least some of the time, have an innocence missing in the west. With 1500 Chinese missiles pointed at Taiwan, an economy increasingly intertwined with China's and few diplomatic allies, the issues at stake could not be more serious. However, there is an endearing quality to Taiwanese election campaigning, in part due to the Japanese influenced ke-ai (cute) culture as demonstrated in fluffy dolls or cartoon representations of contemporary and past leaders (Mao, Chiang Kai-Shek, Sun Yat-Sen). What could be more adorable than a figurine of a psychopath responsible for the death of 70 million people?

That's not to say there are not fist fights in the legislature or outbreaks of hysteria in the street. But this is because politics matters in Taiwan. Taiwanese people do believe in their causes, even if making money takes precedence over lofty ideals in their day to day lives. The way that politicians demonstrate their dedication to their cause is to fight for it, just as the way a doctor demonstrates his competence is by prescribing multiple drugs.

During what was the longest period of martial law in modern history (1949 to 1987), opposition and independence activists were imprisoned by the KMT government, including some members of the previous generation of leaders of the DPP. The former President Chen Shui-Bian was among those imprisoned in the 1980s and he is in jail again now, convicted of corruption.While it is likely there is an element of truth in the charge of embezzlement  (as much as for any Taiwanese politician and perhaps no more than he could reasonably expect to be considered normal in that culture), his conviction and the length of his sentence are widely believed to be politically motivated under pressure from Beijing.

So, politics matters in Taiwan. Despite the apparently superficial lives of many young Taiwanese who are blissfully unaware of how hard won their freedoms were, despite the preoccupation with making money, despite the absence of any great differences in socio-economic ideology between the technically liberal/social democratic DPP and slightly more conservative (though in its early days in China, socialist) KMT, and despite the sometimes juvenile appearance of its discourse, there is optimism to be found in the politics of Taiwan, one of the freest countries in Asia and the only example of a culturally Chinese democracy. So long as the election is clean, I wish its winner well, on the one proviso that they do not sell out the people who elected them either by directly negotiating unification with China without consulting the people, or by engineering the economy such that in the long term there is no realistic choice.


  1. Actually, quite a few of my students are excited to vote for the first time. A very high turnout is expected. We will see!

    1. Yes. I was having difficulty trying to express the mixture of apolitical apathy of some young people, with the heartfelt feelings and dedication of others. I found the optimism and belief of some of the young people in the videos above very moving.

  2. You mention Sun, Chian and Mao. Were they all psychos that had a regime in place that killed so many people?

    1. No, Sun and Chiang didn't come close to Mao. Chiang was an authoritarian. In power for 50 years, I think he can reasonably be called a dictator. He was involved in political purges and did some not very nice things to his opponents. But he was no Mao.

      What I know of Mao mostly comes from Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's "Mao, the unknown story" which was rigorously researched in China over 10 years, with first hand sources. Some of the descriptions of torture are quite horrific. On whether he was a psychopath, Jung Chang says in an interview elsewhere:
      "Well, I think it depends on how we define psychopath. And he certainly enjoyed violence and atrocities. You know, when he first encountered mob violence, when people were beaten to death in ghastly ways in 1927 in the villages in Hunan, Mao said that he felt kind of ecstasy he had never felt before."


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