Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Ma's plans for the economy?

CHIAYI,Taiwan--Even though Ma hasn't officially taken office yet, there's already been several changes (or talk of changes). So keeping in mind Ma's platform of improving the economy, let's take a look at what's been reported so far (in chronological order):

Plans to change "Taiwan" on stamps back to "ROC"

This is hardly surprising, considering his vow to change it back, but it is ironic since he kept saying he was "Taiwanese" before the election. It also has nothing to do with the economy.

I guess when he said "immediately", he meant "after I attempt to eradicate Taiwanese identity/nationalism".

Raise gas prices

Previously, gas prices were frozen (an act the KMT promoted before the election). However post-election, KMT officials claimed, "oil companies are losing money and will go bankrupt within a month".

It's been a month since this was reported and there's no sign of bankruptcy.

According to one source, they have more to gain by selling it to other countries. Basically they'd make more money by exporting it than selling it to people in Taiwan.

Build a new White House in a new location

This is proposed by Ma himself -- apparently the old one has too much history because it was built by the Japanese. The new location is pretty far and remote from the other governmental offices, so it will be inconvenient unless you move all of those buildings too.

How does this affect the economy? Let's see -- first buy up massive chunks of land (NT: 1.5mil-1.8mil/acre), then spend several years planning/building.

Where is the money coming from? I can only assume it will be from taxpayers.

I'm sure the project will benefit big construction companies though.

i-Taiwan 12 projects

Here's a link to the poster he made. First of all, it's interesting to note that he includes figures for 8 years. Second thing I noted is that of the 12 projects, only 1 does not involve construction in some way.

That one project (8) is for farmers, and outlines money allocated to farmers as well as an organizational system to determine which lands are "not useful", so that they can be given up to the government for other purposes.

Unfortunately the poster does not include implementation methods, and I was unable to find separate explanations. It seems that it's mostly a plan to beautify Taiwan by building stuff and making them tourist spots.

All these building projects lead me to wonder how all of this will be financed. I found one article where Ma vows not to raise taxes (aside from 3 categories: tourism, health, and finance).

From my impression of the projects, most of them can fit under tourism, health, or finance in some way.

So instead of lying outright, he says he won't raise taxes except for x,y,z, where {x,y,z} = {set of all possible categories which need money}. Very clever.

Maybe I need to buy Ma's dictionary because his definition of working on the economy seems to mean, get rid of Taiwanese nationalism, raise costs on necessities (such as gas/oil), start multiple construction projects, take land from farmers, and raise taxes.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Who needs national security?

CHIAYI, Taiwan--A few days ago, there was a news report on tv describing the conditions of a hallway in Taipei International Airport.

The report noted the number and types of rooms along this hallway, as well as the width and how long it takes to walk from end to end. From the number above the door of entry to who frequents it the most -- even down to the color of the carpet, not one detail was spared.

I was shocked to find out that this was actually the National Security Secret Hallway (國安密道) used by the president and his family.

Searching online for related articles, I found one whose title was: "First Exculsive! Taipei International Airport 'National Security Secret Hallway' Exposed! Chen Hsin-yu has the highest rate of usage!".

Really?! I cannot understand how giving away the exact location and dimensions of a top secret hallway could be a good thing, much less elicit so much excitement. I felt like I was watching a segment out of Entertainment Tonight.

After reading several articles on the subject, I learned that five KMT congressmen arrived at the airport in order to "make sure it was really a national security hallway" and to "investigate misuse of the hallway".

I can't help but wonder why it takes 5 grown men to do such an investigation. Or why they felt it appropriate to invite crews of press into the hallway on a tour. I'm not making this up -- the video I saw showed people crammed neck to neck into at least half of the hallway.

That kind of breach of security seems akin to inviting press into the White House, showing them the exact location of the entry into a secret escape tunnel, giving them a tour, then letting them wander around as they liked so that they could measure how long it took to get from end to end. Is any investigation worth exposing top secret facilities and putting the leader of the country at risk?!

I've heard conjectures that it's a deliberate attempt to blow national security so that China can take over whenever they want. Obviously that's a bit extreme, but the only explanations I can think of is that these men are either particularly stupid, or that none of them care about national security.

None of these options give me any comfort whatsoever.

Friday, April 11, 2008

When is it time to be pragmatic?

TAIPEI, Taiwan--Last week, I caught an episode of “Sisy’s World News”, hosted by the one and only Sisy Chen (陳文茜). I have already lamented on the lack of international news coverage in Taiwan. After all, we are (literally) just a dot on the world map. The show was simple and classy. It was just her and the camera. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

My opinions of her have not been all that favorable. In the past, I’ve seen her hosting with her dog on the table in front of her. She’s been linked (romantically or not) with the likes of Shih Ming-teh (施明德), Hsu Hsin-liang (許信良) and Li Ao (李敖). Like those men, she has also moved all over the political color wheel. But without a doubt, she is an intelligent woman. Maybe shrewd too.

She mentions the story of Zaha Hadid, an award-winning female architect from Iraq. She submitted a design for an international contest to build the Taichung Metropolitan Opera House and came in 2nd place. The winner was Toyo Ito from Japan. At the end of the story, Sisy mentions that the only government-commissioned, internationally-designed buildings in Taiwan are the Taichung Opera House and the Kaohsiung stadium for the World Games in 2009. I decided to look up who designed the latter, and guess what?

Toyo Ito was also hired to design the stadium. While Ito may have won the Taichung contest fair and square on his own merits, did we really need to give him such a monopoly? We could’ve had another masterpiece by a woman with revolutionary ideas who has proven herself at a big boy’s game. Not to mention that she was born in Baghdad. That is the kind of story that grabs the world’s attention (she certainly caught mine). Having her design a building in Taiwan would have allowed us to share in some of it. Sisy claims that it would be near impossible to hire her since she’s a bigshot architect. She’s probably right.

Speaking of attention, if China were to invade Taiwan, would the international community speak out on our behalf? It would be nowhere close to the extent of the Olympic torch relay protests we’re seeing now. Tibet has someone like the Dalai Lama, whose fluent English skills, hearty laugh and celebrity friends have allowed him to reach out to the world.

Right now, Taiwan has Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who has recently proposed that the country use Chinese Taipei in its bid to enter the WHO. What kind of stupid name is that? But he says that it’s the only name that has worked so far, and he may have a bit of a point. While Taiwan is a member of the WTO under the name “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu”, unofficially it gets shortened to Chinese Taipei (even on the WTO website). This is also the name that Taiwan uses at the Olympics. I don’t think people thought it mattered until Chen Shih-hsin (陳詩欣) and Chu Mu-yen (朱木炎) won gold in 2004, only to see that the champions couldn’t salute their country’s flag or hear their national anthem. When it comes to health issues, it will definitely matter in this age of air travel. Being out of the loop is a timebomb. Given an ultimatum, either enter the WHO as Chinese Taipei or be out of the loop forever, I really have to scratch my head on that one.

This was the scene at a professor’s house. After dinner, we went around the room announcing our summer internships.

Me: I’m going to Taiwan to intern at the Ministry of Health.
Classmate #1: I’m going to work for the US CDC at their office in Thailand.
Classmate #2: Wow, that’s great! You and Daphne can have lunch together.
Me: OK, Taiwan and Thailand are 2 different countries!


Oooh, this is too good of an opportunity, I thought.

Me again: Taiwan and China are also 2 different countries!

(more laughter)

I’m proud to be Taiwanese, but it’s also hard being Taiwanese. I am in favor of anything that increases Taiwan’s fame, competitiveness and leverage on the international playing field. Respect may be a limiting factor, but if we want to make any progress does it also have to be the deciding factor?

[My thanks to Sam for permission to use his photograph]

Sunday, April 6, 2008

What is the ultimate sacrifice?

TAIPEI, Taiwan--I’ve been thinking about the Vice President Annette Lu (呂秀蓮). As she nears the end of her term, now what? I know that she has purchased a place close to where I’m living now, and it’s a lot of space for just one person. At the end of the day, are there really no regrets that she spent the prime of her life fighting for Taiwan? I’ve seen her shed tears talking about not being able to attend her mother’s funeral because she was imprisoned. She has certainly paid her dues in other ways for a noble cause. At the least, she was rewarded with the vice presidency for 8 years.

I can’t help but notice that the DPP is much more sympathetic towards women (and other marginalized groups for that matter) than the KMT. You could tell that there were far fewer women involved in the higher-ups of Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) campaign (not talking about his fans here). Yet, somehow this was all overlooked when just one woman, Ma’s wife Chow Mei-ching (周美青), finally came out of hiding.

I also can’t help but notice that in addition to Lu, there are several other female DPP politicians who are single. After Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) was elected in 2000, I read a book entitled “不一樣的女人”, which roughly translates to A Different Type of Woman. In it were the stories of the 10 or so female members of the new Cabinet. It was inspiring in a professional career kind of way but not too optimistic for personal development.

Of course, marriage is by no means the magic key to having it all. Just look at the President’s daughter Chen Hsin-yu (陳幸妤). Chao Chien-ming (趙建銘) was a handsome, orthopedic surgeon from the nation’s best medical school and from Tainan, the same city as her parents. At first, she seemed content with her new life. Who could’ve known that he would turn out to be such a thug?

There must have been warning bells. His father Chao Yu-chu (趙玉柱) was an elementary school principal who already had a reputation for having sub-par character. Could she really not have known? Or did she want to escape the life of being a politician’s daughter that badly?

Who can blame her?

As a young girl, her mother Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍) was run over in a KMT-motivated accident, paralyzing her from the waist down. To add to the trauma, her father was sent to jail shortly after. He certainly wasn’t the only one. The history of Taiwan’s democratic movement is like an episode of “Where have all the fathers gone?”

I went to middle school with a girl whose father was sent to prison. Years later, I was flipping through one of his books. In the section with all the photographs, I was rather touched by this one drawing he made. It was a depiction of his cell, and it was also her birthday present. Growing up, you’re taught to be good and that it’s the bad people who get sent to jail. Only now can we say that it’s a bad government that sends the good people to jail.

In 1989, Cheng Nan-jung (鄭南榕), the husband of Yeh Chu-lan (葉菊蘭), committed suicide rather than be arrested, leaving behind an infant daughter. February 28 is a sore spot in Taiwan’s history. In 1947, thousands of Taiwanese people were killed by the KMT regime. On the same day 33 years later, the emotional toll for former DPP chairman Lin I-hsiung’s (林義雄) family would become much greater. How could he have imagined that while he was imprisoned, his mother and twin daughters would be brutally murdered inside their own home?

On the day before the 2008 election, Judy Linton (林奐均), Lin’s sole surviving daughter, wrote this letter to Ma supporters:

http://blog.vivataiwan.tv/?taiwan=10370 (in Chinese and English)

The sacrifices made by the previous generation of activists, whether it was with part of their life or all of it, have allowed us to be the nation that we are today. I’ve only mentioned the well-known stories. There are too many other unsung heroes…

Saturday, April 5, 2008

It’s the economy, stupid.

TAIPEI, Taiwan--This is the platform that led Bill Clinton to the Oval Office in 1992. It is also the reason for Ma Ying-jieu’s (馬英九) convincing win in 2008.

Frank Hsieh’s (謝長廷) campaign focused on just a handful of issues. He beat them like a dead horse, but in the end he still couldn’t bring down the horse. It was a contest with Hsieh going on the offensive with negative attacks, while Ma played defense the entire time. His strategy was simply not to blow the big lead and just wait for the final buzzer to sound.

Hsieh camp: Ma still has a valid green card.
Ma camp: It became invalid after he applied for a US visa.

It’s a gray area. Ma couldn’t produce evidence that he formally renounced the green card (because he didn’t), but the unwritten rule goes that if you don’t set foot on US soil for a year it automatically becomes invalid. Why else do people go to Guam?

Hsieh camp: Taiwan will become the next Tibet.
Ma: Taiwan is not China. Neither is it Hong Kong.

While the Tibet crackdowns may have been good timing, Taiwanese people tend not to focus on international news. Rarely do big stories elsewhere get substantial airtime. Unlike Ju Rong-ji’s (朱鎔基) finger-wagging in 2000, this was not a direct threat. Double endorsements from Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Lee Yuan-tse (李遠哲) didn’t have much of an effect either. The Nobel Laureate’s credibility had gone down the drain after endorsing Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) the past 2 times.

Hsieh camp: One-party rule will be just like the old KMT days.
Ma camp: We will exercise restraint.

Hsieh faced an uphill battle. President Chen was elected on a platform of ruling out the “black-gold” corruption of the KMT, and he messed up. He should take much of the heat for this election loss, and kudos to Duan Yi-kang (段宜康) for finally coming out and saying so. It’s hard to have any sympathy for Chen and his family when you see them enjoying the good life. Not only was Chao Chien-ming’s (趙建銘) bank account getting bigger and bigger but so was his waistline.

Hsieh camp: A common market will be destructive.
Ma camp: It will improve the economy.

The Trojan Horse at the DPP’s 316 rally was a brilliant attempt at warning people of the dangers of a common market. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. I’m no NAFTA expert, but I do know that neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama want to touch that issue again with a 10-foot pole. In the 1990s, Americans sure found those nice, cheap Japanese cars hard to resist, leading to a huge trade imbalance. Though I’m sure parents will be less tempted to buy Made in China dolls, you know, those stuffed with used (but bleached) maxi pads.

President Chen asked the South to carry the DPP to victory again, but they actually lost the vote there. Free rides on the brand-new Kaohsiung subway didn’t help. Kaohsiung voters ditched their former mayor in favor of hopes of prosperity. That had to hurt. When you see the incredible leverage that China has in the world, it’s hard not to get jealous. Closer ties with China may be good for Taiwan’s lagging economy, but these are delicate issues that are beyond Ma’s abilities without selling us out. I can only hope that Vincent Siew (蕭萬長) is a brighter bulb.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Don’t cry for me, Taiwan

Now thanks to her, 42% of the Taiwanese population will no longer make the “yay!” gesture when having their picture taken, which is really for the better.

TAIPEI, Taiwan--This take on the most famous song from Evita (sung as part of a victory celebration) may have become the most famous part of Frank Hsieh’s (謝長廷) concession speech. He took full responsibility for the loss and blamed no one.

In 2000, KMT supporters, shocked by the victory of Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and Annette Lu (呂秀蓮), rioted outside their own headquarters asking for the resignation of then chairman Lee Teng-hui (李登輝). Ma Ying-jieu (馬英九) was right there with them. In 2004, having lost for the 2nd straight time, Lien Chan (連戰) demanded that the results be invalidated because he felt the assassination attempt on Chen and Lu the day before was a DPP-concocted conspiracy. Right…

The KMT’s actions in those 2 elections can only suggest that they believe their party is entitled to the highest office in the land for the next 5000 years. The DPP has been spoiled by miraculous comebacks the past 2 times. How are their supporters reacting to this tough blow? They’re consoling each other. They’re looking inward and going forward. They’re writing blogs.

I doubt that the KMT and their supporters truly understand or respect the democratic process. I was particularly annoyed at the media attention given to a bunch of has-been celebrities living overseas who returned to vote, as if they were still important (or famous) enough to have any sway at all. One of them was the actress Brigitte Lin (林青霞). One reporter even interviewed her inside her hotel suite, and she started to show off her LV bags and Chanel suits, pondering what to wear for election day. Why in hell is this news?

Of course, cameras followed her to the polling station. It took her 2 full minutes to come out of the booth. The next day, there’s a report that she cast an invalid ballot because she stamped her name on it. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time that she’s messed up. 4 years ago, she came out of the booth blowing on the ballot (to let the ink dry) like it was hot oatmeal about to go into a baby’s mouth and flashed it before the cameras.

Perhaps it’s forgivable that she failed to appreciate one of the most basic tenets of democracy--the anonymous ballot. But this is not: while DPP officials cast a ballot for both UN referendums, Lien Chan did not. Ma only voted for the one sponsored by his own party. Former President Lee pulled his wife away from the referendum table entirely. These people are supposed to be leaders of the country?

There was another fundamental problem with the voting procedure that was adopted by the central government. It was not truly a one-step process. Your choice of whether or not to take the referendum ballots at all labeled you. When I took those few extra steps to the referendum table, I already felt like an outcast. No words were spoken, but you could understand through people’s eyes.

When Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote his song, Argentina was in the midst of civil unrest. When Hsieh addressed the crowd with his words, he ensured that Taiwan would not follow the same path.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Taiwan opposition triumphs in elections

TAIPEI, Taiwan--This CNN headline from March 23 is technically correct. However, it is off the mark symbolically. In fact, I had to do a double-take to make sure that they got the right winner.

The DPP (somewhat miraculously) has held onto the presidency over the past 8 years, but the KMT has been anything but cooperative or conducive to progress. This is a party that imposed themselves on the island more than 50 years ago. What followed was the 228 Incident, the White Terror era and martial law, one-party rule. The Nationalists and their 2nd-generation offspring may insist that they are Taiwanese, but does a gradient exist? The native Taiwanese and indigenous people have been here for centuries, and their ties to China (or elsewhere) have already been broken.

While Taiwanese identity was a non-factor in the election results and the issue does get kind of old, it is still divisive because not enough generations have passed. James Soong (宋楚瑜) outlawed the use of Taiwanese while he was director of the Government Information Office, but on the campaign trail it comes rolling off his tongue (and Ma’s although not as steadily). President-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) is a product of the old KMT system. Now that his party is in power, will the same faces be more of the same old, same old?

After the election, I watched a short biography on Ma. During his time as a student in the US, he would write articles for a propaganda magazine. In one of them, he tells the story of an American asking him if he considered himself Chinese or Taiwanese. Ma said that he wanted to ask back, by analogy, whether the man was American or Californian. Maybe it was youthful naïveté, or perhaps that is still what he believes deep down.

I don’t trust the Chinese government and question the KMT’s allegiances. Months ago, I read Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree, his treatise on globalization. I am not big on economics and thought the book was okay. The take-home message was that in our world today, countries want the Lexus (representing money) as well as the olive tree (representing a nation’s identity, culture, language, etc). It’s possible that in the near future, national status won’t matter as we’ll all be inter-connected into one big globalized entity. Still, everyone is entitled to a sense of respect. I am afraid that if we give the Chinese government an olive branch, we will end up losing all of our olive tree.

The truth is that I’ve been disappointed in President Chen Shui-bian’s (陳水扁) performance over the past 8 years. But there is a reason for my renewed interest in Taiwanese politics. Over the Lunar New Year (when most people are wining and dining), a small group of young people, led by former National Youth Commission chairwoman and student activist Cheng Li-chun (鄭麗君), walked from the southern-most tip of the island to Taipei, a 510-km journey that took 22 days. For them, it was a way of showing their strong ties to the island. For Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃), the former premier and DPP chairman, it was a show of repentance. He was the biggest figure of the walk (and the oldest), but he maintained a quiet presence. The story goes that when he had to go to Taipei to take care of other matters, he made up the distance at night and thus completed the entire journey. Their display of love was reciprocated, as people joined them, high-fived them and fed them along the way. Could the KMT have come up with this?


Only time will tell how President-elect Ma responds to the high expectations. Who knows, I may be pleasantly surprised. I’m certain that we will not let him or the KMT get away with its old ways. Too much progress has been made, not just in Taiwan but in the rest of the world. For the DPP, having lost the presidency and the legislature, it returns to its old status for the next 4 years. The DPP may be at its best as the real opposition party, but the bigger question remains whether it takes this bitter defeat as a learning experience and can ever return to Kategelan Boulevard.