Taiwan’s election shocks

Last Saturday, Taiwan held a monumental local election. Taiwanese voted for city mayors, county and village heads, local councils, and, concurrently, voted on an unprecedented referendum with 10 items on issues like same-sex marriage, nuclear power and the official name of Taiwan’s sports teams. There were shocks in both the election and referendum as the ruling DPP (it controls the presidency and legislature, and had ruled the majority of cities and counties before this election) suffered massive losses in the elections while progressive causes on the referendum slate were defeated soundly. Many op-eds and analyses have been written about this online and in media outlets, so I will add my two cents here.

The ruling DPP, which is pro-independence and originated in the south, lost control of 7 cities and counties, holding on to only 6 of them. The KMT’s city and county winning margin of 15-6 (with the capital Taipei still undecided due to an appeal by the KMT candidate) was bad enough. However, the big shock was the DPP losing their southern stronghold Kaohsiung, the south’s biggest city, to a populist KMT populist candidate who ran a remarkable campaign. The DPP also lost Taichung, Taiwan’s biggest central city, and several southern counties. While the DPP won Tainan, another of their southern strongholds, it was by a much smaller than expected margin. The DPP’s defeat was bad enough that President Tsai Ing-wen stepped down as the DPP’s chairman, while Premier William Lai offered to resign.

This is a serious blow that has far greater ramifications beyond domestic politics, because the DPP and President Tsai had been in the vanguard of resistance against China. Now, President Tsai’s authority has been weakened and she will be vulnerable in the upcoming 2020 presidential election. The DPP has to do a lot of thinking about what went wrong and how to recover.

The KMT is openly pro-China, having originated in China and then come over after losing the civil war to the Communists. While the KMT allowed Taiwan to become democratic after decades of martial law, they have always maintained their old view of Taiwan and China being one country. Already, several KMT winners, such as Kaohsiung’s Han Guo-yu, have already said they will want to turn to China and follow the 1992 Consensus (a made-up agreement coined after a meeting between the KMT and China in which both sides are supposedly part of the same country). Obviously, the DPP and President Tsai have refused to recognize this because it implies Taiwan belongs to China, and obviously China and Xi Jinping are annoyed with this.

The DPP have been blamed for several issues ranging from a botched labor law reform effort to pension reform to economic problems to failing to be progressive enough, which brings me to the following point.

For many locals and expats, the big disappointment was with the referendum results. This was because gay marriage took up 5 of the 10 questions. Three questions were anti-gay marriage while two were pro, a reflection of Taiwan’s political freedom and quirky nature. In the end, all the anti-gay marriage questions passed while the two pro-gay marriage ones failed.

This caused some people to question Taiwan’s supposedly progressiveness, given Taiwan made international headlines in 2017 for being the first Asia nation to legalize gay marriage. However, the government did not follow through and did not pass a law to do so, hence why this issue ended up on the referendum. A lot of people think that this reflected a lack of courage from the government.

Personally, I’m not surprised the pro-gay marriage referendum items did not pass since there are still a lot of older people as well as conservative traditionalists (many, but not all who are indeed old). I also think the referendum should not have listed 10 questions which was a lot and caused voting delays in some areas, especially Taipei, as people struggled to understand all the questions.

Coming back to the city and county elections, I think the DPP failed because it overextended itself and got complacent. It made too many promises which meant a diverse array of society, from the LGBT community to pro-independence advocates, put a lot of hopes in the DPP. When change failed to materialize as quickly and as easily as thought, a lot of people were sorely disappointed. I agree with the head of a Danish NGO focused on Taiwan matters quoted here who said that the DPP’s economic initiatives haven’t taken effect yet since two years (President Tsai was elected in 2016) is not enough time. Taiwan’s economy has been in the doldrums for over 10 years and the previous president, Ma Ying-jeou, couldn’t do anything during his eight years in power. Chinese interference in the elections can hardly be ruled out, whether it be secret donations to KMT and other groups, the spreading of fake news and other forms of online propaganda.

While Taiwan’s progressive reputation may have suffered a setback, I also think that the fact many people still voted and endured long lines to do so, displayed Taiwan’s democracy is still strong. What concerns me is the weakening of President Tsai and the DPP, while the KMT now has a bigger chance for 2020.

Taiwan, China moving in different directions

One week from today, Taiwan will hold nationwide municipal, county and community elections on the 24th, as well as 10 referendums which the Taiwanese public can all vote on. This will be the latest example in recent months of how Taiwanese enjoy strong political and civic freedoms.

Last mont, Taipei held its annual Gay Pride parade on October 27, which saw over 100,000 participants enjoy themselves in East Asia’s largest such parade. The previous Saturday, October 20, Taipei also saw another massive rally, a pro-independence/anti-annexation event that also had many tens of thousands attending. The two events were not linked in any way, but they shared something in common as vivid examples of how completely different Taiwan is from China.

While Taiwan allows its citizens to enjoy a wide range of political and civic freedoms, China is ramping up censorship while further restricting its citizens’ rights. Over the last few years, China has cracked down on journalists, activists, and human rights lawyers and detained them incommunicado. Let us not also forget the country’s most famous actress, and the head of Interpol, who have both gone missing after being kidnapped by Chinese authorities. And most disturbing of all, there is the ongoing crisis in Xinjiang where China has imprisoned over a million of its minority Uyghurs.

The two sides could not be any further in terms of political systems and culture and freedoms enjoyed by their respective citizens. Yet China stubbornly claims Taiwan as an “indispensable part” of China and frequently issues warnings to the US and other countries regarding Taiwan.

What also made the two Taipei mass rallies in November striking is that attendees were not there just for a good time, but to criticize the government, something that is obviously impossible in China. Of course, protests do occur in China but they are met with violent and heavy-handed responses from the authorities and censored reporting.

At the Gay Pride parade, amid a festive atmosphere, participants called on the ruling DPP government to make good on their pre-election promise to allow same-sex marriage. The government has not done so yet, and there is a possibility of this being overturned due to two referendum items put forward by conservative groups in next week’s municipal elections which seek to ban same-sex marriage. There are also two referendum items in support of same-sex marriage in the November election (yes, this means there are competing items on the same referendum list), making for a total of 10 referendum items, something which both demonstrates the quirkiness and the progress of public participation in Taiwanese politics.

The pro-independence rally was organized by the Formosa Alliance, a civil society group whose main aim is to push for Taiwan to be able to change its official name through popular referendum, something which would be interpreted as pushing for de jure independence. While Taiwan citizens can vote for many issues through referendum, such as in the upcoming elections, constitutional issues such as Taiwan’s official name, currently the Republic of China, are off limits. The authorities are reluctant to allow this because if this succeeds, China would very likely use this as an excuse to use military force to attack.

However, the fact that citizens can still vote on 10 referendum items in November is another sign of civic progress in Taiwan. Whereas Taiwanese have been allowed to vote on referendums from 2003, rules were overhauled this January to lower the threshold for proposing and putting referendum on ballots as well as lower the minimum required voting turnout.

Taiwan’s strong media, political and civic freedoms have been acknowledged in other forms. The Oslo Freedom Forum was held just last week in Taipei, the first time it has even been held in Asia. Meanwhile, Reporters without Borders set up its first-ever Asia bureau in Taiwan last year, having reportedly considered Hong Kong, which in the past would have an undisputed choice for international organizations setting up a regional office.

China might still use stupid threats and hollow Cold War-era arguments to try to claim Taiwan belongs to it. But events like the Gay Pride parade and the anti-independence rally and the upcoming referendums demonstrate vividly why these claims of Taiwan being part of China are so foolish.

Taiwan faces many serious problems such as a sluggish economy, stagnant salaries, a decreasing birthrate, and environmental issues, but it is surging ahead with civic and political freedoms. In this, Taiwan is moving in the right direction even while China is going further in the wrong one.

Indecency at the top a reflection of society?

As we get deeper into 2017, I’ve struggled recently to focus too much on politics. It’s not that I’m unaware of major issues like Trump’s presidency, Brexit and Hong Kong’s upcoming Chief Executive election. With the US slowly descending into a political comedy, as Trump picks fights or causes controversy almost every time he opens his mouth or meets with somebody, Europe struggling, and China trying to be assertive, it’s not hard to feel that the world is going to crap. Actually it’s not, but it’s hard to think it’s getting better either. The truth is that I didn’t seem to care too much to even feel pessimistic or complain anymore. But I think I really need to shake that feeling because apathy and ignorance are probably worse than pessimism or cynicism.

A lot of people were shocked, dismayed or even revolted by the idea of Donald Trump winning the US presidency (I was quite shocked as well). Likewise, the Brexit referendum result had a similar impact on a lot of people. It’s almost as if somehow, it became alright, even laudable to be openly nasty and spout sexist, racist, and simple-minded nonsense. And it’s not just Trump. Closer to Hong Kong, you can look at the Philippines and their president who boasts of killing people and acts like a clownish tough guy, but more seriously has launched a state campaign by encouraging police and vigilantes to execute “drug dealers” in the streets. Besides the UK, far-right politicians are making headway across Europe, invoking closed borders, violence against minorities and immigrants, and extreme nationalism verging on racism. Even in Hong Kong, the localist movement (I admit a bit of sympathy) at times express stances at times that contain traces of racism and hate.

It seems like suddenly, we’ve reached the point where democratically elected leaders of countries are people championing discrimination, isolation, belligerence and misogyny. Added to this, we also have the surge of far-right movements, open hatred and violence against immigrants, and “alternative facts” – false or manipulated news that is accepted as true by many.

But honestly, I think the real danger is this is a reflection of society. There is a lot of casual racism, malice and dishonest behavior that happens all around us. Back when I used to live in China, I used to rail a lot about negative behavior, but it is apparent that callous and malicious behavior happens a lot all over. Hate crimes, for instance, seem to be on the rise in the US and Britain. Just the other day, a white American shot two Indians in a Kansas bar because he thought they were Muslims (even if they had been, it still would not be right). People seem to be indulging in the most casually obscene ways to kill others, like driving trucks into crowds of people out on the street having a good time. Cyber-bullying can become so vicious that kids commit suicide due to online taunts or extortion or their reputation tainted by being involved in unseemly incidents, even when they are the victims, which is exacerbated by social media.

Ironically, technology appears to be a big reason why there is so much ignorance and hate in society. Rather than being something to broaden our knowledge and awareness of issues and people around us, for some, technology is a tool to foster more hate and ignorance. Fake news, alternative facts, and social media all play a role in disseminating false information that ramp up hate and intolerance, and not to mention stupidity. It would be silly and amusing if it weren’t so tragic at times, like the aforementioned American who shot and killed people because of mistaken ethnic identity. While it might be faintly amusing to think the US, the world’s only superpower and supposed leader of the free world, has plunged to such depths, it’s not amusing when one thinks of the worse things that happen in the developing world, especially Asia. The governor of Jakarta, capital of Southeast Asia’s largest nation Indonesia, supposedly one of the top emerging economies, was put on trial in December for blasphemy. Remind me again what century we are living in?

I am not saying every single ignorant and racist person is a Trump or Brexit supporter, because that would be too simplistic and too lazy an explanation. Besides, it also allows us to wallow in moral complacency. In actuality, I think there were probably Obama or Hillary supporters who were not exactly good guys too. Likewise not all Brexit Leave voters are monsters or Remain voters angels. But more importantly, let’s not pretend there aren’t people in regular life spouting racist or sexist garbage or flaunting their arrogance.

Maybe I’m not expressing myself clearly – I tend to think about different things and see common strands but am unable to  tie it together well enough. But we are living in a sorry period of history, when despite widespread impressive technology and wealth and knowledge, there are a lot of people who don’t know right from wrong, who don’t know real from fake. This applies to knowledge, this applies to morals, and it applies to behavior.

When the unthinkable happens

Well, what many of us didn’t think was possible turned out to be possible and I think we all know what I’m talking about. The next US president will be a callous, racist, contemptuous billionaire who has denigrated women and Muslims and Mexicans and has no experience in public office. What is scary is that not only did he win this election despite his despicable conduct, such as being accused by many women of molesting them, being heavily reported on, but he won it with a sizable margin winning even previously staunchly Democrat states. One day after, I still can’t believe this happened, and when this man is actually sworn in in January, it will be a dark period for the world.

After Trump’s victory, I can’t help thinking about the Brexit referendum in the UK in June, when “Leave” actually won, to the consternation of a huge segment of the population, the media and pundits. Not just only because of the shock of the result, but the fact that the more supposedly unpopular and disingenuous campaign won – Leave with their scare tactics and exaggerated, false promises, and Trump with his racist and vile comments against women and minorities, not to mention his boasts about not paying taxes. Yet it would be foolish to casually dismiss, as tempting as it seems, Trump voters as ignorant, uneducated fools. His victory probably says a lot about the true state of society in the US, there are many people who are caught up in poverty, unemployment or other difficult circumstances, and/or sick of socioeconomic inequality and corporate dominance (monopolies, closure of small businesses, huge gap between executives and workers pay).

Now, the US will have to face up to an immediate future where it voted for a president who purposely antagonizes women and minorities, has simplistic views towards foreign policy and will likely push forward domestic laws that will make America a more closed and less global-looking nation. George W Bush also comes to mind, and it’s stunning to think he seems like a reasonable president compared to Trump.

A lot of American folks and the media will have to come to grips and try to understand why so much voters supported Trump. Is it because of desperation, an urge to rebel against “the system,” ignorance, or just plain nastiness? While Trump handily won more states and electoral votes than Clinton, she won the popular vote, and it should be noted that the Libertarian and Green party candidates won more than 4 and 1 million votes respectively. If only some of those 5 million votes had shifted to the Democrats, or conversely had not been drawn away from the Democrats, it could have been a different story. The Democrats also need to take a good, long look at themselves and where they and Hillary went wrong.

This week has been a bad one for politics, because before the US presidential election debacle on Tuesday, Hong Kong suffered a blow when Beijing announced it would ban two localist legislators, as I wrote in my last blog post, due to their pro-Hong Kong independence sentiments. However, the worse consequence is that by issuing this ruling based on their “interpretation” of Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45, Beijing interfered in Hong Kong’s law, a significant breach of the “one country, two systems” that is supposedly in place. There is also talk about Beijing wanting to ban more legislators due to their making certain statements during their oath-taking. Things have been happening quite fast since the weekend, and Beijing seems to be wanting to do more than just make a statement, but make it clear they have had enough. In doing so, they are showing more of their true colors, but this is something many of us already know.

Hong Kong’s legislative fiasco escalates into clashes

Hong Kong’s legislature has been in the spotlight in the last few weeks, even making it into international headlines, but not in a good way. The reason is that when all of Hong Kong’s legislators were sworn in three weeks ago, two localist first-time legislators altered the words of the oath to refer to China as “Cheena” with a bit of profanity, as well as held banners saying Hong Kong is not China. Initially Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching were told to retake the oath, but this was then overturned and the issue was taken to the courts.

But then, Beijing waded in by claiming the right to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law to determine whether Leung and Yau can be banned. To make it crystal clear, the mainland’s top official in Hong Kong said Sunday morning those two would not be allowed to be sworn in, a decision which goes against Hong Kong’s democratic process and laws, and opposes the will of Hong Kong voters. Well, thousands of Hong Kongers, as well as Leung and Yau, didn’t take that sitting down and immediately marched in the afternoon and protested outside the Liaison Office on Sunday evening, clashing with police.

In the past three Wednesdays, (when the legislature meets), the legislature has become an action-packed scene with stormings (by the two young radicals after being banned), scuffles and a walk-out inside the legislature chamber and protests outside. Leung and Yau belong to localist party Youngspiration, whose main goal is Hong Kong’s right to self-determination or basically independence. So while this controversy has propelled Hong Kong into the international news again, like with the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the bookseller kidnappings last year, the legislature has become a spectacle and unable to conduct much real business, and worse, gave Beijing a reason to interfere in Hong Kong’s political affairs by claiming the right to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law to ban Leung and Yau.

I can’t say I want Hong Kong to be independent, but the Chinese government and regime are certainly not something civilized society would really want to be under, and what many respectable citizens would want to support. Unfortunately, Yau and Leung’s actions during their swearing-in ceremony were not the most mature or effective thing to do, and the controversy it caused has resulted in two major consequences. One is it has made the legislature into a farce (which admittedly it has often been in the recent past) unable to conduct normal business, having dragged on for three weeks already. Second is it has given Beijing an excuse to interfere in Hong Kong’s political process, claiming that it needs to intervene to uphold stability and prevent independence from being discussed in the legislature by the two “traitors.”

I certainly don’t think the two are “traitors” and should be barred from being sworn in just because they did not acknowledge Hong Kong is part of China. Moreover, it shows is how weak in terms of principles that China and its Communist regime is, and why Hong Kong’s freedoms and rights matter even more. Also, the pro-Beijing lawmakers need to take some blame for the legislative circus because they were the ones who walked out when the two young lawmakers were set to re-take their oaths, causing this controversy to be prolonged.

However, I wonder if the two young novice legislators, when they did what they did, knew what they were doing. Were they expecting and prepared for the escalation of this issue and Beijing’s interference? If they did, then maybe it is a cunning way to force the issue of Hong Kong’s political reform and future to be confronted by the authorities now. But if they didn’t, then their actions during the swearing-in ceremony would have been just a reckless stunt. Given Beijing has taken the next step and the localists responded tonight with their protest, this fiasco might signal new tensions and conflicts in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong votes in localist legislators

Sunday was a momentous occasion for Hong Kong politics as the legislative elections took place, the first since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. After all the pre-election controversies with banned candidates and growing independence cries from new parties and Beijing’s ominous warnings, the burgeoning localist movement won eight seats, more than 10% of the total number of 70 seats, while the pro-Beijing groups maintained their majority with 40 seats.

The fact that localist candidates won seats will make for very interesting and potentially more confrontational political exchanges in the legislature in the near future. One of these eight winning localist candidates was Nathan Law, one of the main student leaders of the Umbrella Movement. As Hong Kong writer Jason Ng says in the Guardian, “if Beijing has raised the stakes, then Hong Kong voters appear to have seen the bet and raised it.”

About 58% of the electorate or 2.2 million turned out to vote, which is very high for the legislative elections. For myself, I couldn’t take part in this “historic” moment because I hadn’t registered and the deadline had been a couple of months ago.

However, the legislative elections represents one of the bigger problems in Hong Kong politics. That’s because the legislative system must be one of the world’s most complicated and unfair ones. Rather than first-past-the-post vs proportional representation debate, the major issue with Hong Kong’s system is one of the fact corporations and industries literally get to vote and elect actual legislators. This is because the 70 seats are divided into 35 geographical constituencies and 35 functional constituencies, though 5 of these are “superseats” open to all non-functional seat voters. The latter are the ones where industrial and other sectors get specific seats so you have insurance, finance, commerce and even agricultural and fisheries selecting legislators solely to represent their interests. As a result, a mere few hundred thousands voters get to choose these 30 seats, compared to several million for the 35 geographical ones! This system actually started under the British, as a way for the business sectors to retain some control over the running of Hong Kong, but obviously it is not a fair or effective system (disclaimer: I do work for an organization that is involved in the functional elections). This feature from HK Free Press shows exactly how complicated the system is.

Another complicated aspect of local politics is that there are a ton of parties. Just to name a few, there are the pro-government DAB and BPA, the pan-democrat Civic Party, Labour Party and People Power and localist upstarts like Demosisto and Youngspiration. To keep things simple, there are three main camps. First, the pro-China parties, which as is obvious from the description, always side with the authorities, including both the HK government and Beijing; second, the pan-democrats are a diverse bunch that strive for increased democracy and oppose the pro-China groups, and the localists, which are a younger and more radical group that openly criticize Beijing and most controversially of all, support Hong Kong independence.

Meanwhile, in mainland China, was the election covered, seeing as how worried state newspapers had been beforehand? Not at all, with the exception of a couple of articles, according to David Bandurski who searched a database through over 300 mainland newspapers. Furthermore, but not surprisingly, China also unleashed its customary censorship as Weibo posts and a BBC World broadcast about the HK elections were respectively, deleted and cut off.