Freedom of speech is a hard-won right in Taiwan and a fairly recent one at that. Which makes it all the more disappointing, if not downright scary, to have a democratically elected lawmaker start threatening people whose speech he takes exception to, with warnings that he could hurt their livelihoods.
Such threats, even histrionic ones, should not be tolerated.
Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元) threatened a week ago to cut Academia Sinica’s Institutum Jurisprudentiae’s budget because several of its researchers have spoken out against Want Want China Times Group’s plan to purchase China Network Systems’ cable services network. Tsai said at a meeting of the legislature’s Education and Culture Committee that he would propose cutting the budget for the institute, since the academics were politically motivated and should not be involved in what he called a “purely commercial merger.”
Academics from Academia Sinica, or any other institution, have as much right as the average person, or Tsai, to say what they think about a particular subject. Whether that speech falls into the blue, green or any other color of the spectrum camp should not matter; they have the right to freedom of expression.
It is ironic that when the government — whether the current KMT administration, the former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or former KMT administrations — wants to be seen as respectful of public opinion it asks Academia researchers, university professors and other experts for their opinions on a host of different topics, from financial reform to nuclear energy to agricultural development to environmental issues. Many of those issues are “commercial” in nature. Of course, such invitations are often politically colored because the government tries to stack the deck with experts in its favor. It is a deplorable trait, but it is a fact of life that everything in Taiwan is seen through a blue-green prism.
Justifiably, academics recently hit back at Tsai, and not just from the threatened Institutum Jurisprudentiae. Researchers at the Academia’s Institute of Sociology and Institute of Atomic and Molecular Sciences also protested that they have a right to speak on public issues. That is why they are called public issues.
One might think that Tsai would be feeling sensitive these days about criticizing someone’s speech or actions. The same week he was attacking academics, he was under attack by the Anti-Poverty Alliance and the Youth Wants To Be Rich group as one of six KMT lawmakers that were seen, through their votes and actions, to be too “pro-corporate.” Hopefully, it is not just lawmakers that he feels are the only ones who are free to express themselves.
Or maybe he just doesn’t like academics, especially prominent ones. After all, in December last year Tsai called world-renowned AIDS researcher David Ho (何大一) the equivalent of “a pimp” while criticizing Ho’s involvement with Yu Chang Biologics Co when the KMT was trying to smirch then-DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for her involvement with the firm. The Hoklo (commonly known as Taiwanese) term he used was san qi zai (三七仔), referring to a method of splitting money 30-70 with a prostitute, though he also said Ho was a terrible hustler at that.
Whether Alex Tsai, or any other lawmaker, has a phobia about academics is not the problem. It is the blatant attempt to threaten them into silence that is. It is disappointing that no one in the administration or in the KMT, not even the man who heads both organizations, has felt the need to speak out to correct Alex Tsai and tell him such threats will not be tolerated.