Taiwan’s baggage of bought loyalty

By Jerome Keating  / 

Sat, Nov 10, 2012 - Page 8

The past is past and cannot be changed; no one denies that. In the same vein, what happened, has happened, it is done and gone; do not cry over it. That is true also. However, such dicta are not the whole picture.

Accepting the fact that the past has happened does not mean that the baggage and unwanted residue of that past must also be accepted. That is totally different and something that can be rectified. Hence Taiwan’s current labor and pension fund discussions. The naive may say that the one-party state of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is a thing of the past, so stop railing against it. They fail to grasp that the railing is not against what was, but rather it is against the unwanted baggage of that past that still remains. Such inequities need not be perpetuated forever.

On the one hand we have the Labor Insurance Fund and Labor Pension Fund, funds that apply to the average worker. According to estimates these funds will have a deficit by 2017 and be bankrupt by 2027. The average worker with a lump sum retirement and no year-end bonus is in danger. On the other hand we have a select group: the military, public school teachers and civil servants who have a different pension plan, one that can include a guaranteed monthly income of approximately 75 percent of their previous earnings, a guaranteed 18 percent annual interest on select deposits and additional annual bonuses.

This group has no fear of bankruptcy for they have a government guarantee that it will pick up any deficit. Is that equality?

What then brought about this apparent disparity? The roots of this special privilege go back to the KMT’s one-party state in Taiwan. They go all the way back to the post-World War II years when Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his government-in-exile officially came to Taiwan as a diaspora on the run in 1949. The KMT laid claim to Taiwan, a claim, that ironically remains in complex limbo since the US repeatedly maintains that its official position on just who Japan was to hand over Taiwan to after the San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1952 remains “undecided.”

Regardless of this, when the KMT relocated in 1949, it brought with it from China its national flag, a Constitution, a raft of government departments and officials, and imposed all of them along with its one-party-state on Taiwanese. Incorporated in this imposition is what can be termed the numerous trickle-down “loyalist privileges.” It is the annual bonus element of these particular privileges for the military, civil servants and public school teachers that is now being discussed.

When a government in exile imposes itself as a one-party state on a much larger group of people, that government needs to ensure the loyalty of at least three groups essential to preserving its rule. Those groups are: the military (needed to quell dissent), civil servants (needed to keep government functioning) and teachers (needed to indoctrinate the young in the values of the state). This bought loyalty provides the backdrop against which the contrast in retirement privileges must be seen. Unable to give members of these three groups high salaries, the one-party state government can, in lieu of their lower wages, promise them a set of guaranteed retirement benefits that others would not have.

Of course, these three groups were not the only ones with paid-for privileges. These are all part and parcel of any one-party state’s trickle down system of privileges and perks beginning at the top and working its way down to the lowest-ranking civil servant.

The man at the top, Chiang in addition to the presidential palace and monies, had about 30 specially built guesthouses for his tours of the small island of Taiwan. About 380 members of the Legislative Yuan (as of 1950) as well as more than 700 members of the National Assembly and numerous others, had their lifetime “iron rice bowl” positions.

The full extent of all such guaranteed iron rice bowls has yet to be fully documented; the surviving 1947 elected legislators lost their iron rice bowl privileges with the free elections and their “forced” but well-rewarded retirement in 1992. The 1947 National Assembly members faced new elections in 1991 and the assembly, being redundant, was eventually disbanded in 2005.

Thus, when current civil servants and those in the military question why their privileges and benefits, which have been in existence for “more than 40 years,” are suddenly being taken away or reduced, what they are really asking is why they cannot still maintain their share of the days of a one-party state. They have a point; there remain a lot more privileges that have yet to be examined.

For example, how can people like former vice president Lien Chan (連戰) and many other government officials make more money in retirement than when they were actually working? Why can some KMT party members count their years of party membership as counting toward the required number of years of service for civil service retirement benefits? Most important of all, why does one party, the KMT, have wealth and profits estimated at at least 700 times more than all other parties combined? These privileges will only be rectified when Taiwan gets a Legislative Yuan not controlled by the KMT.

Premier Sean Chen has bought a little time in trying to head off the growing crisis. For one year, he has restricted the year-end bonuses to the needy (those with an income of under NTS$20,000 a month) and to those military families without support. Ironically, such cases make up only a 10th of all receiving such benefits. Nonetheless, the premier has avoided the real issue, rectifying the baggage of the one-party state days. This is a reality far beyond the retirement benefits of the three select groups. The KMT’s one-party state days may be over, but the baggage, privileges and aftereffects of bought loyalties remain.

Jerome Keating is a commentator based in Taiwan.