Little more than a year into President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) first term in office, and a year away from the next Taipei mayoral election, the nation is once again seeing political reporting and opposition slide toward farce and superficiality.
Two good examples illustrate the almost inevitable phenomenon in Taiwan’s political and electoral cycles, one international and one domestic. Internationally, we have seen China accuse Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration of “desinicization” (and other related, but more grammatically convoluted variants on the same theme) for their changes to the curriculum guidelines that truthfully define the Potsdam and Cairo declarations as non-treaty events, which had and continue to have, no legal bearing on the international status of Taiwan.
Aside from being an act of interference in the sovereignty of Taiwan, China’s ethno-racially charged accusation that the revisions represented a cultural provocation and former president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) continuing to try to reify his interpretation of the events as immutable historical truths originate from a desperate desire to find something with which to smear Tsai.
Domestically, when the Environmental Protection Administration suggested that temples might cut down on the use of incense, firecrackers and burning ghost money in an effort to help protect the environment and reduce air pollution, social and mainstream media fed off each other to twist the story into the accusation that Tsai was effectively banning religion.
No amount of explanation could prevent members of more than 100 temples congregating in Taipei for a protest about a literal non-issue.
In the UK, during the summertime, when politics is slower than usual, people often categorize such minor outbreaks of misdirected or illogical grumbling as part of the “silly season” in the news cycle.
In Taiwan, with its 24-hour cable news networks scouring social media for controversy and contrarian opinions, silly season is part of the daily operating model of an industry that profits from a looped news cycle of social conflict, traffic accidents, gruesome criminality, the macabre, fluff pieces about animals, medical warnings and food scares.
However, one good thing did emerge from the protest — it drew crowds of bemused and curious onlookers keen to see for the first time so many often-competing temple processions converging.
The Ministry of Culture should encourage another United Annual Faith Bazaar for the same date next year and promote it abroad as the largest gathering of its kind in Asia.
It would certainly be a huge attraction both for local and international tourists. It should make it a 12-hour event from noon and invite other denominations such as the Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities, and Taiwan would have something truly diverse, inclusive and spectacular to singularly identify itself by on the world stage.
It would be a soft power win, which would contrast with China’s Islamophobic crackdown in occupied East Turkestan [Xinjiang] and its continued suppression of Christians and Falun Gong practitioners.
However, the underlying concern with such domestic outbreaks of misdirected ire and resentment (China’s policy-driven “warnings” aside, which are inevitable and should be responded to in kind) is that they represent a failure of political opposition that ultimately undermines the integrity and authority of the political process, a degradation of discourse and debate that the world has seen lead the UK to catastrophically vote itself out of the EU and, even worse, the US elect an ignorant, incompetent, mendacious, abusive, egotistical plutocrat as its president.
In Taiwan, formal party opposition to pension reforms and infrastructure spending bills has been both imbalanced and ineffective, providing the government and the public little in the way of constructive criticism.
In the ideological vacuum, media attention has focused on physical confrontations that have smacked more of overreaction and unwarranted hysteria than a justified existential plea for the government to reconsider its policies.
Physical protest is not new in Taiwan and is perhaps a defining feature of its democracy. The freedom to assemble and demand redress from the government is much prized in the nation and rightly so, especially given the history of the KMT dictatorship and the sterilized, Orwellian authoritarianism across the Taiwan Strait.
Big demonstrations, such as the Wild Lily Student Movement, the Sunflower movement and the “red shirt” rallies and sit-ins, have cemented themselves in the public’s mind and the nation’s history, but outside of pantomime theatrics in the legislature, protest has been frequent and has changed the debate over a range of issues such as nuclear power, media monopolization, police brutality, same-sex marriage rights, abuses within the military, environmental protection, Aboriginal rights and cross-strait agreements, to name just a few.
However, when opposition parties organize protests, there seems to be a corresponding decline in its perceived legitimacy among the public, as if it senses manipulation.
The DPP, having utilized this as a central mobilization tactic for decades, moved away from the strategy during the Sunflower movement, keeping at arm’s length and voicing support, but not bringing the party machine directly into the affair, thereby granting the student demonstration the autonomy it deserved. As a result, the public came to view the students’ actions with greater legitimacy.
Sadly, it appears that the KMT has yet to learn this lesson and its involvement in red shirt and anti-pension reform protests tainted the party as opportunistic, ignoble, petulant — willing to associate with unsavory and undemocratic voices and groups, even as they use democracy and freedom as an umbrella to shield them from criticism.
Despite the KMT having the second-largest number of seats in the legislature, being the richest political party and having the most extensive local political networks, it appears to be less effective than the New Power Party (NPP) in its attempts to hold the Tsai administration to account.
It is not that there is a lack of areas or issues on which to criticize the president and her government. The infrastructure bill was problematic and represented a massive amount of spending, some of which was questionable, and appeared to be more about building a physical legacy and the pork-barrel politics of building bridges to nowhere for votes, but the KMT’s failure to rationally discuss the policy and its budget stood in contrast with the NPP’s specific and targeted criticisms.
The KMT failed as an opposition party, because it was too busy opposing for the sake of opposition, perhaps proving that it still has not learned how not to be in power.
The KMT’s internal divisions, protracted messy leadership selections, aging party A-listers who cannot step aside for younger faces, unclear relationship to splinter organizations, through which it has laundered vast sums of state money, and its predictable promotion of at least one relative of either Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) or Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) as the next great political hope for the party signal an organization slowly decaying from within.
With China publicly declaring that the so-called “1992 consensus” does not mean that the Republic of China can have its own interpretation, even the KMT’s favorite cross-strait shibboleth has collapsed, and along with it the pretense that its “success” in China relations was anything other than just a series of private backroom deals stitched up between two Leninist Chinese nationalist parties against Taiwanese democracy and sovereignty.
Taiwanese and their democracy desperately want and need a functional, reasonable and serious opposition that can hold Tsai and her government to their election promises, while also working for the greater public and environmental good, and the interests of the nation as a whole.
If the KMT keeps failing to provide proportionate, principled and intelligent opposition, it cannot act surprised if its string of electoral disasters continues, perhaps eventually being replaced by another as the largest opposition party.
Ben Goren is an essayist, businessman and long-term resident in Taiwan.
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