Fri, May 05, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Reforms need right historical context

By Lee Yung-ming 李永明

When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) first started teaching at National Chengchi University after returning to Taiwan from the UK in 1984, she often walked the corridors with her head down.

After joining the bureaucracy, she served as Taiwan’s top negotiator in the talks about Taiwan’s accession to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the WTO, and she also served as Mainland Affairs Council minister, legislator and vice premier, but she always maintained the approach of a bureaucrat.

It was not until she took over the chairmanship of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2008 that she gradually gained experience as a manager and supervisor, but it was evident to all that she was neither a charismatic nor a creative politician.

As a politician, she is conservative in her approach and her victory in last year’s presidential election was to a great extent the result of a changing context.

The ongoing pension and judicial reforms as well as the transitional justice process are extremely difficult and complex issues. During the final years of the Qianlong emperor’s rule during China’s Qing Dynasty, the emperor’s favorite official, Heshen (和珅), was accused of corruption. Since it was not an easy problem to solve, he left the matter to his son, the Jiaqing emperor, to deal with.

When Tiberius Gracchus, a plebeian tribune in ancient Rome, tried to push for land reform, he sacrificed his life as he was beaten to death in a chaotic situation, a victim of reform. The Qianlong emperor and Gracchus were afraid that vested interests would counterattack, but because the two handled their problems differently, the end results were also different.

During the rule of Zhao Kuangyin (趙匡胤) — the Taizu emperor of the Song Dynasty — he suddenly dismissed many military leaders during a banquet. During the rule of Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) — the Hongwu emperor of the Ming Dynasty — many founding ministers with great achievements were killed. Although the two successfully wrested back power, their reigns were authoritarian and do not serve as good examples.

The reformist Wang Anshi (王安石) pushed for reform during the Song Dynasty, but failed, as did the Qing Dynasty’s Guangxu emperor when he attempted to carry out his so-called “100-day reforms.” These examples all show how difficult reform can be.

The most successful reform in Chinese history was statesman Shang Yang’s (商鞅) launch of a new legal system in the State of Qin during the Warring States period, and that was because the time and social conditions were ripe for the change.

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government implemented a number of successful policies in Taiwan, such as the “land to the tiller” in 1953 and the introduction of the New Taiwan dollar at the rate of one NT dollar to 40,000 old dollars in 1949. However, it was only able to succeed thanks to the support of the military.

In modern times, successful judicial reform and transitional justice in nations such as Germany, Spain and South Africa could all serve as good examples for Taiwan.

Tsai’s reforms are moving in the right direction, but her administration is rather conservative in its approach, approval ratings are not high and the social conditions for reform are not ripe. As a result, she is frequently too cautious in her approach to reform and is only progressing gradually, which is probably the safest way at the moment.

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