Taiwan held a special midterm election yesterday, selecting mayors for the island’s five largest cities; these included a new city, “Sinbei,” formed from several Taipei suburbs, which had previously had county-level status. A total of 314 city council members were selected at the same time.
The results basically affirmed the political status quo: an island divided almost exactly 50-50 between the “pan-blue” political parties, led by the Kuomintang (KMT), and the “pan-green” opposition, led by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The centrality of the green-blue rivalry was reinforced by local TV coverage, which displayed the results of races using green and blue pie charts exactly reminiscent of the red and blue ones that Americans are accustomed to seeing on election nights.
Until the night of November 26th, this election had been perhaps the most peaceful and routine in Taiwan’s history. Most previous elections had turned on the highly emotive and divisive issue of Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China. However, this midterm election, which selected mayors for Taiwan’s five largest cities, focused almost entirely on domestic bread-and-butter issues like quality of governance and infrastructure projects.
The Sean Lien shooting incident
Thus, it was highly upsetting to Taiwanese when, only hours before voting was set to begin, TV coverage was suddenly interrupted by news of an apparent assassination attempt against KMT official Sean Lien, the son of former KMT vice president Lien Chan. The incident took place in the city of Yonghe, near Taipei, just as Lien was mounting the podium to give a political speech in support of Sinbei municipal council candidate Chen Hung-yuan. A gunman rushed forward and shot Lien in the head.
Based on the most recent press reports, it appears that Lien was remarkably lucky: the bullet entered the left side of his face and exited through the right. Not only was Lien not killed or even brain damaged, but Taipei University Hospital doctors predicted that the politician, after recovering from surgery, would not even sustain noticeable cosmetic damage. Unfortunately, though, a bystander, Huang Yun-sheng, was killed in the incident.
Although Sean Lien has not been a prominent figure in Taiwan politics until recently, the same could not be said of his father, who served as premier of the ROC, vice president of the ROC, and chairman of the KMT for several years in addition to his failed presidential bid. Lien, whose detractors alleged that he became wealthy through corrupt “black gold” real estate deals, has been a pivotal figure in Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China. When Lien visited the mainland in April 2005 to meet with CCP leaders, including Hu Jintao, and toured historic KMT sites such as the Sun Yat-sen mausoleum in Nanjing, this constituted the highest-level political contact between the KMT and CCP since Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong met in Chongqing in August 1945.
The shooting had a number of bizarre aspects, even by the standards of Taiwanese politics, which for many years featured physical brawls between members of opposing political parties on the floor of Taiwan’s legislature. Perhaps the strangest was that the gunman, who was arrested at the scene and quickly identified as local gangster Lin “Horse Face” Cheng-wei, claimed that he had not even intended to shoot Lien. According to Lin, the actual target was another man, identified as municipal council candidate Chen Hung-yuan.
Interestingly, images of the two supposedly “confused” men were displayed side by side on Taiwan TV. In this writer’s opinion, the resemblance between the two was so startlingly exact that the assassin’s claim was reasonably credible. Arguing against the “mistaken identity” theory, though, was an assertion by William Hsu, Lien’s assistant, that the shooter had shouted Lien’s name as he approached him.
Almost immediately, conspiracy theories materialized regarding the shooting. The most common was a claim that the incident had been staged by the KMT to win sympathy votes that would cause the KMT to prevail in the close election. Another theory argued that the shooting was an attempt by mainland China to influence voters towards the KMT, which Beijing favors because it opposes Taiwan independence more strongly than the DPP.
Without question, the incident bore a strong resemblance to an earlier “assassination attempt” in Taiwan politics: namely, the attack on DPP presidential candidate Chen Hsui-bian (then the incumbent president) and his vice presidential candidate, Annette Lu, in March 2004. In that incident, Chen and Lu were wounded, but not seriously, by bullets fired at their Jeep as it traveled down the street in the southern city of Tainan. KMT activists later alleged that the shooting was staged to win sympathy for the DPP. DPP supporters argued, contrarily, that it was an attempt by the KMT or by mainland China to liquidate Chen, the DPP’s most charismatic leader.
In 2004, Chen ultimately won re-election by a razor-thin margin: incredibly, his opponent, who initially refused to concede while alleging dirty tricks by Chen, was none other than Lien Chan, the father of the man shot on Friday. The temptation to “fill in the blanks” is enormous: could the Liens, father and son, have seen a staged incident in 2010 as legitimate payback for 2004? Arguing against this notion is my own observation that when Lien Chan spoke to the media on Friday and Saturday, he appeared genuinely deeply shaken — if this was an act, it was a very good one. Of course — although one is plunging deeply into grassy-knoll territory by pointing this out — this does not exclude the theoretical possibility that the son arranged the incident on his own.
Others pointed the finger at mainland China, always a popular villain in Taiwan; it is common knowledge that the CCP favors the KMT over the DPP, which Beijing regards as treasonous “splittists.” In this election, it was always considered likely that the KMT and DPP would each win two of the five mayoral races; the major question was which party would take the fifth race, earning a 3-2 advantage, and a symbolic edge in the 2012 presidential contest. Because of the closeness of the vote, it is quite conceivable that the Lien incident led to a 3-2 split in favor of the KMT rather than 3-2 for the DPP: the Taipei Times quoted several voters as saying that they voted KMT in order to make a statement against violence.
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.
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.