The hidden face of Taiwan politics

By Jerome Keating  / 

Tue, Apr 05, 2011 - Page 8

Whether one is pan-blue or pan-green, there is a moneyed side to Taiwanese politics that few know about and maybe even fewer want to know about. As in other countries, within that moneyed side are the financiers and contributors who look for and support marketers who will promote their vested interests.

These contributors search out people who, regardless of party, will act in the spotlight on their behalf, allowing them to remain in the background. On the receiving side of these contributions are the marketers (more coarsely, the shills) who, like chameleons, can change color depending where the money is.

Taiwan has several of these chameleons, but perhaps the master, bar none, is Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential nominee hopeful and two-time DPP chairman Hsu Hsin-liang (許信良).

Hsu is one of those strange entities in Taiwan; a man who has always wanted to lead the parade, but has rarely had a sustainable following. He is a man who loves to talk and press the flesh, but has not had a recognizable job in decades. Yet, surprisingly, he seems to live well enough — so much so that he makes many wonder where his money comes from.

As the presidential campaign for next year begins to ramp up, it is not surprising to see Hsu throwing his hat in the ring, letting the contributors know that this shill is available.

The pan-blue camp’s nomination process is pretty well determined. Unless a disaster happens, its candidate will be President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Little chance there.

The pan-green camp, on the other hand, is another story. Its candidate has yet to be determined and so Hsu has borrowed cash for the NT$5 million (US$171,000) needed to register and be qualified to speak at all televised presentations and policy sessions.

Some may wonder, how can the DPP allow this man back in, especially after he went over to the other side during the 2004 campaign and courted former vice president Lien Chan’s (連戰) money. However, membership in the DPP is loose. As long as one registers and pays the current dues and has not officially been kicked out in the past, then anyone, even the bluest of blues, can join. While Hsu left in the past, he was never officially kicked out.

Hsu had started out on the pan-blue side long ago. However, when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) would not let him run for Taoyuan County commissioner in November 1977, he ran as an independent and won.

The KMT looked for ways to stuff the ballot box to prevent his victory. Hsu and his people recognized this and protested strongly in what became known as the Zhongli Incident. In the end, the KMT was forced to accept him as Taoyuan County commissioner.

Now begins the more checkered side of his life.

Hsu participated in the tangwai (outside the party) movement protests in the following years and was forced out of his post as county commissioner at the beginning of 1979 because of his involvement with the movement.

This proved a blessing in disguise for Hsu, as he would be abroad during the Kaohsiung Incident in December of that year and all prominent members of the tangwai movement were arrested, put on trial and sentenced to long jail terms. Thus, while most others were languishing in prison, Hsu was learning fundraising and enjoying the benefits of free income and donations.

Hsu is partly an ideas man, but he is primarily a marketer who follows the money and enjoys the wining and dining life style that such marketing involves. As a tangwai member, he had notoriety and a ready audience who would contribute to his cause of opposing the KMT’s one-party rule.

On ideas, he has always supported the marketer’s policy of engaging China. He terms it the “Great Leap Westward.”

A marketer looks at China through simplistic sales eyes and thinks: “They have 1.3 billion people; engage them. If each one buys a toothbrush or whatever one is selling, think how rich we will all be.”

In the meantime of course, this will require many junkets, as well as wheelings and dealings to set it up. With Hsu, one has the impression that he really is not that concerned with the final outcome, the sales, etc. What is more important is that he is in on the process of wining, dining and setting it up.

From 1979 on, except for the nebulous role of fundraiser with little accountability, Hsu has really not had any recognizable jobs. True, he was DPP chairperson in 1992 and 1993, as well as from 1996 to 1998, but that position is also primarily a fundraising position for the party. In that position, the chairperson has little accountability and can sign off on much of the money.

A lot goes on behind the scenes in such situations and the man with the money can entice loyal generals to work for him. In his first term as DPP chair, Hsu is believed to have raised about NT$100 million, but like a true marketer, he managed to spend it in a variety of ways. He left under questionable circumstances, as CommonWealth Magazine was about to break a scandalous story.

At times, Hsu will take the image and role of a monk, but more often than not, he is found spending time in the finest hotels around the world courting supporters. When it comes down to the actual brass tacks of running a serious campaign for office, Hsu has tried several times for various levels on up to the presidency. Each time, he has failed miserably, garnering less than 5 percent of the vote.

How then can he keep running, especially when he has no track record demonstrating managerial and governing skills?

That is one of the hidden sides of Taiwanese politics. There are always vested interests that need their shills. Hsu has the past notoriety to attract attention and he will accommodate.

It is a safe bet that you will see his face a lot in the coming months.

Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.