In a world where the daily news feeds us a strong dose of war, famine, environmental calamity and man’s general inhumanity to man, positive stories are rare. Human goodness simply isn’t as “newsworthy” as, say, the latest bloody clashes in the streets of Bangkok.
That is not to say that there is no place in the news for nice, heart-warming stories like the one about vegetable vendor Chen Shu-chu (陳樹菊), who earlier this month was flown to New York City to receive an award for her years of generous deeds. There is always a place for such stories and many people wish there were more.
However, when a person’s selflessness is hijacked by the government for political purposes, it is a travesty and the good news turns sour. This, sadly, was exactly what has happened with Chen and President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration bears full responsibility for making a mockery of everything the humble lady from Taitung County stands for.
From the minute the announcement was made that Time magazine would honor Chen in New York, government officials turned the whole thing into a circus. Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials intervened to make sure she received a speedy visa from the American Institute in Taiwan. Then, an evidently overwhelmed Chen was repeatedly coached by ministry officials during media interviews in New York to thank Ma, the government and to state that she “represented the president and the minister of foreign affairs.”
When did the celebration of a person’s good deeds turn into a public relations opportunity for the government? Chen didn’t represent Ma, the government or the ministry — she represented herself.
For an embattled administration with unenviable approval ratings, however, the temptation was too great. Out of the blue (even if the Liberty Times first reported her philanthropy nearly four years ago and Forbes magazine hailed her in March) came this timely gift from the east in whose bright light the entire administration could bask to make itself look good. To add insult to injury, some legislators have suggested including Chen’s story in textbooks for elementary and high-school teachers. They have also floated the idea of a biography, while the Government Information Office has reportedly been mulling a movie biopic.
This would all be farcical were it not so reminiscent of state propaganda across the Taiwan Strait. Remember the young short-track speed skater Zhou Yang (周洋), who in February was chided by Chinese Vice Sports Minister Yu Zaiqing (于再清) for thanking her parents — but not her country — after winning gold at the Vancouver Winter Games? In this context, the individual becomes faceless, swallowed by a brand of nationalism that in reality is good publicity for the ruling elite and nothing more.
The government’s exploitation of Chen serves another, equally disturbing, purpose. It provides a timely distraction at a time when Taiwanese should be focusing on issues of tremendous importance to the nation’s future, among them the proposed economic cooperation framework agreement with China and whether to allow Chinese to study in Taiwan. Moreover, by bombarding us with the feel-good Chen story, the government hopes the public will somehow fail to notice that the legislature has been completely sidelined. The government hopes we will ignore its assault on the freedom of the press, the politicization of the judiciary, the secret deals with China and the exclusion of the majority from decisions that will affect the future of the country.