The Government Is MIA in Taiwan

The starting point here is an Associated Press report (via the unlinkable SCMP) about what Taiwan president Chen Shui-bian had to say about Hong Kong on the occasion of July 1st:

Taiwan’s leader on Thursday said Hong Kong was a super-modern society living under the “heavy shackle” of a dictatorship.  President Chen Shui-bian lashed out at Hong Kong on the eve of the city’s celebration of its return to Chinese rule eight years ago. Mr Chen accused Beijing of denying Hong Kong — one of the world’s most important business centres — basic democratic freedoms.

Of course, Chen Shui-bian is entitled to his personal opinion.  Nevertheless, it is annoying when these comments are coming from a person who perhaps needs to look much deeper inside his own soul about himself and his state.  When asked whether Chinese leader Hu Jintao should meet with Chen Shui-bian about cross-straits relationship, a typical answer might be something like, "No!  Not with Chen Shui-bian, because it is pointless.  This person is incapable of being honest.  He can say one thing in the morning, but he may say the complete opposite in the afternoon.  You can't sign anything with him, because it is meaningless.  Just wait and deal with his successor."

Now here is the strange thing -- there is nothing suitable in English that I can link to about the state of politics in Taiwan.  This causes one to ask, Why?  This is once again a question of market supply-demand.  If there is no demand, the supply dries up.  Where is the market demand these days?  More stories and analyses about how bad things are in China and how it will fall apart before long.  By contrast, English-language stories and analyses about how bad things are in Taiwan and how it will fall apart before long have no demand.  Does that mean everything is going great in Taiwan?  Well, you wouldn't have that impression at all if you can read the Chinese-language media in Taiwan. 

For a dose of reality to counter the English-language kool-aid that has been freely distributed about Taiwan, here is a translation of an article by media commentator Nan Fang-shuo (南方朔) published in The Journalist.  The problems that are enumerated in this article are well known, and the biggest obstacle is that Chen Shui-bian is institutionally incapable of talking about them since he is part of the cause.

The greatest tragedy of a country is "to have officials without a government."  Today, the people of Taiwan are witnessing the chaos of not having a government.  Never mind not having any hopes, but they should be thanking the Great Mother of Heaven to still have a job, to step out of their homes without being robbed, to eat something without getting poisoned and not to drown when it rains.

In Taiwan, there are plenty of officials.  We have the president, the ministers, the department heads, the directors, the bureau chiefs, down to the base-level officers.  They can be lined up in a row with no one missing.  The higher up they are, the better dressed they are and escorted with entourages.  The people continue to pay more taxes to pay for the salaries and expenses.  What have they actually done?  Everybody knows.

We can start off with the person on the top.  He has no ability and he has no vision.  But he is unmatched in his ability to talk incoherently and change his mind from one day to the next.  If you can get away with pure talk, what is the point of worrying about anything or getting concerned about people?  If you can ascend to the top with your mouth, why waste an ounce of thought?  Recently, this person has declared that the "notion of being Chinese is only an abstract dogma," and immediately we recognize that there must be an upcoming election.  This kind of talk is always invoked when an election comes up; after the election, this gets shut down.  In any country in which the leader has no special qualities beyond talking through the mouth, the fate of the people becomes obvious.

We have the officials, but what about our government?  It has disappeared.  Recently, the fishermen of Taiwan wanted to fish, but they were harassed by foreign police and even detained.  They look to their government for help, but somehow the government has gone into hiding.  When there is mad cow disease in Taiwan, the government officials began to talk like salespeople for American beef instead of officials who are supposed to look after the well-being and health of the people of Taiwan.

The disappearance of our government is more than just that.  There was a heavy rainfall, and more than one hundred rivers became hazard areas for mud and rock slides.  Which officials cared?  Since nothing happened this time, everybody forgets.  More recently, there are many incidents in which thugs and gangsters assaulted people in the street and the police simply cowered in the background, acting as if they saw nothing.  The reason is simple: they worry about their lives whereas public safety is somebody else's problem, and so why risk their own lives for someone else's safety?  Their reasoning is the same as our war ministers who reasoned that "we can't beat the Japanese" and therefore they keep their mouths shut on the Diaoyutai issue.

Recently, the food hygiene and safety issue in Taiwan has reached unimaginable proportions.  Industrial sugar and bad quality sugar have entered into the domestic supply; bad quality product enhancers, low-quality beef, poisoned peanuts, rotten sugar products and rejected beef products are introduced; food poisoning cases occur every day.  Who is in charge here?  The people will just have to offer a few prayers and hope the gods will bless them!

Thus, today's Taiwan is a situation of "having many officials without a government."  This is a structural problem that permeates downwards.  This peril has caused the national government apparatus to become impotent and paralyzed.  It cannot generate any 'good' and it cannot eliminate anything 'bad.'  Instead, the ruling parties can use sheer talk to mislead the masses and to avoid any responsibility.  When the people on the top lead by example, everybody else follow and all ideas about trying one's best goes out of the window.  Today, everyone realizes that as long as you can talk your way out or use any other improper means to reach your goals, it is alright.  Their successes are in fact the failure of Taiwan.  Their message to the people of Taiwan is this: as long as you aren't caught, anything goes.

Is not the mess in Taiwan today due to everybody doing whatever that they can get away with, but without being caught in the process?  Beyond the infinite number of troubles caused by getting away with pure talk, the contemporary politicians also will not confront the real problems.  When they come up to a problem, they will try to talk their way out; when that does not work, they will throw money at it to please the people.  This causes a serious erosion of the governance as well as damaging the quality of politics and the attitudes of people.  This is how the gradual degradation of public policy decisions in Taiwan, the erosion of the public sphere and the detioration of public finance.

Some time ago, the "new five-year ten great projects" costing 500 NT$ billion was introduced during the election cycle.  More recently, the Education Department proposed the 50 NT$ billion five-year plan to build "first-class university and elite research centers."  These are nice-sounding slogans to mislead the people, because they are just political payoffs.  When public spending becomes chips in political payoffs, it was time to have more public projects which becomes less and less meaningful; and these so-called "first-class universities" are obviously more likely to be "second-class" or "third-class."

More recently, after some evaluation, some parts of the "new ten great projects" such as the Taiwan Exhibition Convention have been shelved and only about 50 NT$ billion remained.  At this time, one must compare the "old ten great projects" with these "new ten great projects":

The "old ten great projects" included items such as the CKS airport.  At the time, each project was subjected to long-term, detailed professional study, evaluation and financial planning; each step was subject to detailed control.  The "old ten great projects" can be said to be classical case studies for any developing country, and nobody got any special profits from those projects.

What about the "new ten great projects"?  All the considerations were based upon short-term political considerations.  From conception to proposal took about two to three months; some of them only had the first half, and there was no second half.  What kind of planning quality is that?  What kind of human quality is assumed to be concealed behind the planning quality?

The "old ten great projects" represented the uplifting of Taiwan.  The "new ten great projects" represents the downfall of Taiwan.  The five-year 50 NT$ billion "first-class university and elite research centers" plan was like the "exception plan" and the earlier reforms.  They offer a lot of nice-sounding slogans such as "reform", "exceptional", "first-class" and "elite" and they invest a lot of money, but did anyone ever figure out where the money went?  Did it really make Taiwan become exceptional and first-class?  I am afraid the answers must be in the negative.  After spending 50 NT$ billion in five years, the entire Taiwan university system will still be a mess.  Now that is truly "first-class" and "elite"!

In today's Taiwan, some people continue to serve as officials.  Taiwan still has some money left for these people to squander.  But overall, Taiwan as a whole no longer has a government that acts as the leader of the country.  

In the absence of a government, Taiwan becomes a battlefield in which everyone fights for themselves.  The social values of Taiwan as well as business domains are dissolving.  The governing rulers only know how to pay people off, to stir up trouble among people and to tell lies in order to continue its existence.  A town-level party cadre can be exposed for gross sexual abuse and yet the big shots will pronounce that this was an "isolated case" even as the diehards attack people for fomenting a conspiracy to magnify the incident.  When politics has reached this stage, why do we bother to have any political party or government?

In the past, these people in Taiwan are beyond criticism.  Those who make criticisms are said to "denigrate Taiwan."  In order to "love Taiwan," the media in Taiwan had to keep silent, or even be forced or willingly to praise the leaders.  In this silence, Taiwan has the reached the end of the road where Taiwan had managed to denigrate itself.  Today, the trust in the leadership, the governability, the economic future and even social attitudes are rapidly disintegrating.  When the day comes that the people of Taiwan finally wakes up, Taiwan may have already reached a stage where it no longer matters what people have to say about it.

Thus, in Taiwan today, we are afraid that we have reached a moment when we must seriously confront the problem of "rottenness."  The rotting of a country and society could not have happened suddenly, for it must have been a gradual process.  The key elements have to be the loss of morality in the political figures, the loss of the sense of right versus wrong, the perversion of the justice system, the existence of double or even multiple standards as well as the terminal financial deterioration.  The rottenness also reflects the chaos of anarchy and nihilism among the people, which eroded the complete society.  Social accidents and disasters become magnified, small-time thieves become big-time robbers, homicides become major crimes, trains get derailed and airplanes fall down from the sky.  Some day, people will find that they want to stay above the fray but that is an impossible dream.  From this moment, the road that Taiwan is taking is the path towards "rottenness."

During the most recent period, the mess in Taiwan -- the babbling of the politicians, the shamelessness of the politicians, the lack of self-control among the politicians, the indifference of the bureaucracy, the chaos and lack of principles of the whole society, the breakdown of professionalism -- these are worrisome signs of societal breakdown.

There are officials, but no government; there is a society, but no rules; there are media, but no sense of right or wrong.  Taiwan is rotting down this path, and is there any other way out other than continuing?

The standard immediate response is that it is great that such an article can be freely published in Taiwan.  That would be missing the point, because the author made it quite clear that it did not make a wee bit of difference to the political questions.  The next standard response is the one that Lung Ying-tai cited in The Taiwan That You May Not Know About (note: this sentence was censored when her article was published inside China):

The Taiwan citizen is used to the fact that no matter how bad things are, there will be another election; the eyes of the people are bright and clear, and he holds his voting ballot in his hand.

Against this, the reality was the Taiwan citizens had these two options during the last presidential campaign: a serial liar (Chen Shui-bian) or a perennial loser (Lien Chan).  Both persons were parts of the causes of the problems.  Of course, the citizens can also stay home or cast a blank ballot (which 330,000 did).  None of these choices would make a wee bit of difference to the political questions.

Postscript:  For clarification purposes, let me state that this blogger does not pretend to have any real expertise in Taiwan beyond reading some online newspapers or magazines.  This blog post was motivated by what he perceived as an obvious imbalance in English-language discourse about Taiwan politics, and he arbitrarily chose one article for illustrative purposes.  The blogger does not endorse the viewpoints therein.  But judging by the Technorati links, it would appear that some popular web sites were willing to concede this argument and give the courtesy to link to this post (but not necessarily on absolute merits).

More generally, the real interest of the blogger lies in the idea of what democracy is.  To this blogger, it is more than just having universal suffrage and casting a vote.  The blogger has seen so many things go wrong in Taiwan, the United States or any other place.  For those nascent yet-to-be-democratic places such as Hong Kong and China, this blogger wants to direct attention to those things that could pervert democracy (such as 'black gold', 'triangulations' and 'agenda hijacking').  If they think that universal suffrage will solve all problems, then they are quite wrong; it had better be universal suffrage with some attention against the invasion of special interests beforehand or else it will be too late afterwards.

For a counterdose of the kool-aid presented in this blog post, this blogger recommends a reading of the response to this post at The View From Taiwan.  This blogger does not oppose, but welcomes the challenge for people to consider all the implications.  To this blogger's mind, the Taiwan of today was infnitely better than the one that he knew in the 1960's or 1970's, but it is still far from perfect.