A recent opinion poll by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research Co showed that as many as 74.9 percent of people believe the threat of bankruptcy facing Taiwan’s various pension funds is a severe national crisis. The survey also showed that 68.1 percent of respondents believed that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) should work with the opposition parties to solve the crisis, while only 19.3 percent believed the KMT should try to solve the problem by itself.
The poll clearly shows what the public thinks about the proposal by former Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and current DPP Chairman Su Tseng-chang (蘇貞昌) that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) call a national affairs conference, and Ma’s rejection of the proposal. Undoubtedly, Ma is once again doing something that hurts his image.
Although the KMT enjoys a legislative majority, the public clearly still thinks Ma is not capable of initiating reform. Apart from knowing how incompetent Ma is, the public understands all too well that it is the KMT regime that gains the most from the pension system.
For example, the only way the KMT manages to hold on to power is by using the ridiculously unreasonable pension system for retired military personnel, public-school teachers and civil servants, in which they enjoy a 18 percent preferential interest rate on their retirement funds, and an income replacement rate in excess of 100 percent. Therefore, if we want reform, we need to rely on powers from outside the regular system.
In the 1990s, when then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) was pushing two major reforms — full elections for the legislature and freezing of the provincial government — he realized he was not capable of doing this alone, yet he was still very determined to bring them to fruition. As a result, he turned to using forces outside the system to bring about reform by holding a national affairs conference to build a consensus.
Former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) copied this strategy down to the smallest detail when he was determined to overthrow the “no haste, be patient” China policy that Lee left behind. As with Lee before him, the strongest resistance to change came from within his own party. As a result, Chen held an Economic Development Advisory Conference to build a consensus by including different sectors of society to promote the policy of “proactive opening and effective management” to break through the restrictions of Lee’s policy.
These examples show that when those in power are powerless to carry out reform through the established system, holding a conference calling on forces from outside the system is a worthwhile approach. Ma’s rejection of a national affairs conference may have seemed like he was willing to take on the responsibility for reform himself, but, after gathering the premier, the legislative speaker and the president of the Examination Yuan and proclaiming their determination to reform the pension system, their first proposal was to maintain the 18 percent preferential interest rate on retirement funds.
That showed the ulterior motive behind Ma’s rejection of a national affairs conference — he refused because these reforms would have hurt him badly if they were to ever go through.
The DPP also faced an internal crisis after former premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) went to China, proposed his idea of “a constitutional one China” (憲法一中) and took advantage of the situation to turn around and attack the DPP leadership.
Su’s response, to establish a China Affairs Committee, then failed, throwing the party into a crisis — a “China crisis.” The level of this crisis is very high and it is not a simple, isolated policy problem, like questions over whether Chinese students should be allowed to study in Taiwan or whether the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement is a good idea.
Hsieh’s proposal of “a constitutional one China” conflicts with the DPP’s three resolutions on Taiwan’s sovereignty and this needs explaining, because it refocuses the issue from a simple matter of individual policies to bigger questions about the DPP’s basic values, future vision, and mid and long-term policies. Hsieh’s actions revealed that not only does the DPP lack an overall consensus, but this lack of consensus is also creating sharp conflicts over the party’s direction.
Now the DPP faces the same problem that Taiwan as a whole faces over the pension issue: It needs a meeting outside of the regular system to build a consensus, with the participation of people from every direction within the party, just like Taiwan as a country needs the participation of every political party to solve its problems.
Both a great debate and a national affairs conference focus on allowing people of different opinions to fully express their ideas. This means that the problem can no longer be avoided and this is how problems are solved. Unfortunately, Su has made himself convener of the China Affairs Committee and Ma is trying to solve the pension issue with the help of the premier, the legislative speaker and the president of the Examination Yuan.
These approaches are the same in that they both stop people from fully expressing their opinions at a consensus conference.
The problem with this approach is that opportunities to solve problems are lost.
My advice to the chairmen of the KMT and the DPP is to face a consensus conference head-on.
Lin Cho-shui is a former Democratic Progressive Party legislator.
Translated by Drew Cameron