Written by Ben Goren.

In Taiwan there are ominous signs that newly elected President Tsai Ing-wen, her Premier Lin Chuan, and his cabinet, may be so scared of governing with fortitude and in defence of progressive principles that they are developing a political flinch in anticipation of an inevitable hostile reaction to their policies. This attitude is surprising given that the DPP has recently won the Presidency with a clear majority and gained a solid working majority in the Legislative Yuan for the first time. Taiwanese voted for a break from the ideology and policies of the KMT. Will Tsai deliver?

It is too early to pass judgement on this. Tsai’s inaugural address was a masterpiece in moderation, inclusion, democratic ethos, and much needed pragmatism. It signalled awareness of actual institutional and social problems that concern the Taiwanese people, and it sent a powerful message to the outside world that Taiwan’s government is headed by an intelligent leader capable of handling cross-strait relations in a reasoned and reasonable manner.

Three weeks into her Presidency, there are signs that the government has been working hard to reverse unpopular policies of the Ma administration and introduce greater democratic oversight. In education, the much opposed curriculum guideline revisions have been rolled back and students brought into a consultation mechanism for the first time. A local government reform act now requires speakers and deputy speakers of local councils to be elected by open ballots. Tsai has also signalled her intention to issue a formal apology to indigenous Taiwanese and establish a truth and reconciliation committee to restore indigenous land rights. These important policy steps represent a sensible mix of symbolic and substantive change that is meaningful to voters and demonstrates that Tsai intends to meet her election campaign promises. That is good for Taiwan’s democracy as it serves to reinforce the trust of voters. In contrast, the KMT, under the leadership of Hung Hsiu-chu is flailing wildly in the margins, it’s opposition now largely reduced to a spectacle of sullen irrationality and hypocrisy. Tsai’s slow and steady approach is not making waves and is demonstrating competent administration. What then is going wrong? Three cases raise potential concerns.

First, at the recent meeting of the World Health Assembly, the Minister of Health and Welfare Lin Tzou-yien (林奏延) delivered a speech in which he did not mention ‘Taiwan’ once, thus angering a number of pro-Taiwan groups. They wanted him to defend the dignity of the nation following WHO Secretary-General Margaret Chen’s unilateral insertion of the One China Principle into the invitation for attendance letter sent to ‘Chinese Taipei’. Some Taiwanese were understandably confused as to why Tsai could refer to Taiwan as a nation twenty three times in her inaugural address but Lin couldn’t do it once in an important international forum where health, and not politics, is supposed to be the focus of discussion. The excuse that ‘Chinese Taipei’ is the name registered with the WHA rang flat to many ears as a fudge and an evasion, the kind that the nation had become used to hearing from the previous administration. An argument could be made here though that Tsai was landed in hot water by the previous administration and didn’t have sufficient time to prepare a strategy for WHA attendance, in the end making the best of a lose-lose situation. As the WHA session was the first occasion when Tsai’s government would interact on the international stage, it was perhaps important to not give China fodder to accuse Tsai of ‘separatism’ or ‘provocation’, thereby undoing the political capital gained when Tsai neutralised the ‘1992 Consensus’ birdcage issue in her inauguration address, in the process leaving Beijing in need of an entirely new Taiwan strategy. The end result of the WHA test was not great but it could have been a lot worse.

Another legacy issue handed to the Tsai administration is capital punishment. Although the DPP have shown more willingness than the KMT to move towards ending the death penalty in Taiwan, it is an impassioned issue that cuts across party lines and surveys consistently indicate the Taiwanese public overwhelmingly support retaining it, despite a number of high profile cases where the wrong person has been executed. A series of gruesome murders in the past year have been framed and amplified by the media into a narrative of public safety crisis which the previous Minister of Justice, Luo Ying-shay (羅瑩雪), responded to by signing off on an execution just nine days before Tsai took office. Ten days after her inauguration, the new Minister of Justice Chiu Tai-san (邱太三), in response to questions in the legislature about his stance on the death penalty, stated that ‘Taiwan maintains the death penalty — both in law and in practice — and his ministry has decided to continue carrying out the execution of death row inmates after grave consideration.’ This position runs counter to the spirit of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Taiwan became a signatory under the Ma administration, and which states that signatories have consented to make abolition the ultimate objective.  Here then Chiu was signalling an effective continuation of the Ma administration’s policy, when there was no obvious need to do so. Chiu appeared to flinch in the face of what he probably imagined would be a media outcry had he been ambivalent on the issue or declared a moratorium.  His response was neither creative nor courageous. He could have pointed out that Luo had rewarded Cheng Chieh (鄭捷) by giving him exactly what he wanted and that handing Cheng the death penalty had not acted to deter Wang Ching-yu (王景玉) from killing Xiao Deng Pao (小燈泡). Chiu’s timidity wasn’t exactly regressive but it certainly positioned him way from the claimed value evinced by the name of the party in power. He hadn’t squandered Tsai’s electoral mandate in this regard but hadn’t he demonstrated moral leadership either.

Finally, and perhaps symbolically of most concern, Minister of Education Pan Wen-chung’s (潘文忠) comments on question of how to allow female students unconditional access to their dorms at any time, a freedom long enjoyed by their male counterparts, worrying indicates the continued presence of retrogressive thinking amongst ministers in the Tsai government. Following a long and concerted protest by students at private Fu Jen Catholic University, the school board voted to eliminate curfews and penalties for female students who return to their dorms after 12am, replacing conditional access with an electronic card system. When pressed on the matter at a meeting of the legislature’s Culture and Education Committee by DPP Legislator Hsu Chih-chieh (許智傑) as to how he would respond to students if he were the dean of Fu Jen, Pan said that he would probably issue identification cards to female students, granting them unlimited access to their dormitories via a card reader, provided that the time at which the students leave and return to their dormitories is recorded and forwarded to their parents.

Putting aside how this issue intersects cultural Confucianism, class, gender, and the problem of how female sexuality in Taiwan is regarded as either an object to be sold and consumed or a dangerous taboo, Pan’s suggestion of ‘alternative management rules’ before the curfews are lifted illustrates a reactionary and conservative passive-aggressive hedging of the kind Taiwanese have become all to familiar with over the past eight years. Giving freedom whilst adding layers of more subtle monitoring and control is exactly how the KMT carried out democratic reforms that left legacies such as the Parade And Assembly Act, an icon of KMT resistance to democratisation which the DPP sought for a long time to amend, only to end up compromising in a way that allegedly ignored the act’s core problems. The only bright side to this story appears to be that Pan acceded that the university has sole jurisdiction in this matter. If the new DPP administration was seeking to differentiate itself from the previous one then this is probably the exact opposite way of doing so. I can only speculate Pan feared that if he appeared to condone giving female students the same autonomy and responsibility as their male peers, conservative education and parents groups would whip up a storm of protest on social media and at the gates of the ministry demanding he resign for encouraging promiscuity, or some such contrived pseudo-moral indignant accusation. Once again though, here was a member of the Tsai government engaging in the act of essentially appeasing an imaginary opposition.

Whilst it is sensible for the Tsai administration not to waste the political capital of its electoral mandate by deliberately making waves or antagonising the public by moving too fast ahead of public opinion, by restricting itself to a concept of what is politically ‘acceptable’ as executed by the KMT administration, it risks squandering its mandate altogether when voters start to suspect that the substantive differences between the DPP and KMT mostly only lie in an identification with Taiwan or China. A real test ahead in this regard lies in the issue of nuclear power. With climate change having an ever greater impact, the issue of stable and renewable power generation will only get more salient over time. The DPP government has thus far indicated it seeks to eventually make Taiwan non-nuclear but it must surely be aware of how the issue of the fourth nuclear power plant dominated Chen Shui-bian’s first term in office and damaged Ma’s second. If Taiwan has very hot summers that push power production to capacity and force rolling power cuts, will Tsai reopen and bring online the mothballed fourth nuclear power plant? Will the pro-KMT state monopoly Taipower attempt to force her hand on the issue? What seems clear is that media and analysts who only see Taiwan through the lens of cross-strait relations will be hopelessly unable to understand the how and the why if or when public opinion turns against Tsai and her government. In Taiwan’s digital democracy, the reputation of a government now survives or falls on how it handles itself across a range of domestic issues, rather than its management of obvious elephants in the room such as predictably manufactured Chinese tensions. There will incessant domestic  pressure from all quarters to protect and promote specific interests, regardless of whether this puts Tsai in the position of breaking her promises. If her government is too timid to define itself and show some conviction it could become a multicoloured piñata administration that breaks up under the weight of its own aversion to conflict. If the Tsai government does not explicitly demonstrate that it is different from the Ma administration, that it is indeed a government of the Democratic Progressive Party and not the Faux Progressive Party, then it will be its own biggest liability come the next round of elections in 2018 and 2020.

Ben Goren owns Letters from Taiwan and tweets @BanGaoRen. Image by Stephane Corcuff.