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Violent Incident Mars Status-Quo-Affirming Taiwan Election

Taiwan's midterm election was marred by a bizarre assassination attempt against KMT politician Sean Lien — either a conspiracy or a case of mistaken identity, depending on whom you talk to.

by
John Parker

Bio

November 29, 2010 - 3:07 pm
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Results in detail

Geographically, the KMT prevailed in the north and the DPP in the south, as expected. The closest mayoral race was in the central city of Taichung, where the KMT’s Jason Hu prevailed in a close battle against DPP challenger Shu Jia-chyuan. In Taipei, current Mayor Hau Lung-bin was reelected; more may be heard from Hau in the future, given that his position has been a stepping stone to the presidency in the past — current President Ma Ying-jeou previously served as mayor of Taipei as well. The KMT also won in Sinbei (also spelled Xinbei).

However, the picture was not totally bleak for the DPP, which prevailed in the southern port city of Kaohsiung; crushed the KMT in Tainan; won a considerably higher share of the overall national vote than the KMT; and improved its showing nationally by several hundred thousand votes compared to the 2008 presidential election. Analysts said this augured well for the DPP’s chances in the 2012 presidential contest.

The election also reflected Taiwan’s nearly complete transition to a two-party system: smaller parties, of which there are several, won only nine of the 314 city council seats up for grabs. Forty-five seats went to unaffiliated candidates; the most noteworthy of these was Chen Chih-chung, the son of former president Chen Shui-bian, who was elected to the Kaohsiung city council as an independent. This was widely seen as a victory for the followers of former president Chen, who, notwithstanding his historic importance as the first Chinese opposition leader ever to take power in a free election, is now in prison serving a sentence for corruption.

The election of Chen’s son notwithstanding, the political incentives that appear to be freezing out smaller parties in Taiwan are similar to those having the same effect in the U.S.: most voters believe that a vote for a small-party candidate would be wasted; and aspiring politicians perceive that a party affiliation with any party other than the KMT or the DPP would leave them forever unable to influence events.

Firsthand impressions

Taiwan’s election was fascinating to witness for this writer, who has spent years of his adult life in mainland China but knows Taiwan only from brief visits. In person, the world’s first Chinese democracy was strikingly festive, with both parties holding huge rallies in a rock-concert atmosphere with music, speechmaking, and celebrity endorsements on offer while the party supporters waved flags and signs. In an environment of nonstop, breathless media coverage, all the politicians wore what seems to be the official uniform for political candidates in Taiwan: a vest with party emblems and slogans and a baseball cap. Out on the streets, in a practice reminiscent of Japan, sound trucks roamed playing political speeches; slick banners and flags promoting various candidates were ubiquitous.

What was most striking, to an observer accustomed to mainland China, was the public mood. Despite the attack on Sean Lien, the people at these rallies — for both parties — were happy. All one had to do was look at their faces to see the profound importance of the political disparity that has arisen between Taiwan and the PRC. The party activists were just grinning from ear to ear, having the time of their lives. Looking at these crowds, one saw ordinary Han Chinese faces — truck drivers, café owners, teachers, insurance salesmen — completely transformed by the sense of personal power and autonomy that democracy has given them.

The contrast with the mainland could not be greater. On the mainland, all the feelings associated with politics are overwhelmingly negative: fear, hatred, rage. Overtly, all this negativity tends to be directed against the supposedly malevolent “enemies” (foreign and domestic) that the CCP is constantly warning the Chinese people about; but in reality, it originates with the frustration that political impotence causes the population to feel, and their helplessness in the face of the contemptuous way they are treated by CCP officials almost every day of their lives. It seems impossible that much of this negative energy would not be directed against the CCP, were it not for the fact that ordinary mainland citizens can, and often do, suffer colossal adverse consequences for acting on any rebellious impulse.

Contrary to what the relativists say, political systems make a huge difference in people’s everyday behavior, and comparing Taiwan with mainland China is as good an example of this as has ever existed. The default public mood in the PRC, as I see dozens of times every day, is a kind of sullen, hostile rudeness; hysterical, atavistic ultranationalism lurks just beneath the surface. To be fair, this is more pronounced in older Chinese who lived through the traumatic 50s and 60s, but it’s not totally absent from the younger ones either.

After becoming accustomed to this atmosphere, Taiwan was a complete revelation to me: I saw more genuine smiles my first day in Taiwan than I had seen on the mainland in years. Taiwan was like every American’s fantasy China. It was friendly, polite, cheerfully democratic, a free-market system, a trustworthy trade partner, a loyal U.S. ally, and a nation that shows real respect for human rights, not just lip service. And yet, in spite of all this, Taiwan remained so deeply Chinese that, traveling through Taiwan, I felt that I was seeing the real Chinese culture for the first time — as opposed to a few painfully reassembled remnants of the cultural wasteland left behind by the soul-crushing wrecking ball of Stalinism. Laudably, too, Taiwan honors foreigners who have made contributions to Chinese society — Herbert Giles, George Leslie Mackay and Douglas Macarthur, to name just a few of many — instead of demonizing any foreigner who wasn’t a CCP loyalist, as Beijing tends to do.

In hindsight, this should have come as no surprise: the difference between the ROC and the PRC is exactly the same as the difference between the ROK and the DPRK, except that the latter is more extreme, due to the effects of the economic reforms in China. I’ve been all over Vietnam, and the behavior of northern and southern Vietnamese, even 25 years after reunification, shows the same pattern. And guess which half of Germany shows more intolerance and race riots? Frankly, the historical record is pretty clear: the quickest way to turn normal people into unbearable asses is to introduce socialism.

Of course, it would be wrong to say that there aren’t any nice people in the PRC, or that every person from Taiwan is angelic (“Horse Face” Lin certainly isn’t). But I have no doubt that the nice ones on the mainland would be even nicer if they didn’t have to live out their lives in an environment of constant fear and stupefying pro-CCP propaganda.

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John Parker is a freelance writer and entrepreneur based in the PRC.
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