Does Taiwan Need a Ko Revolution?

Reforming the system is absolutely necessary. But what can society do if entrenched interests and status quo powers stand in the way of what needs to be done?
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT
J. Michael Cole

On many occasions since the members of the Sunflower Movement voluntarily exited the Legislative Yuan after a more than three-week occupation in April 2014, I have found myself correcting the perception among a number of foreign journalists and at academic conferences overseas that the dramatic events in the spring constituted a revolution. Though the term “Sunflower Revolution” was repeatedly used, it was a misnomer: It was never the intention of the Sunflowers to overthrow the system or to replace it with another. Rather, the sole objective was reform of existing institutions. Therefore, notwithstanding the “extreme” nature of their actions, the Sunflowers overwhelmingly agreed that the prevailing political system should continue to exist, though they wanted to see its many flaws remedied, and unaccounted officials expunged.

We still don’t know to what extent the Sunflower Movement succeeded in achieving its goals. What is clear is that governments can rarely implement in the whole the maximalist requests of civil society; after all, politics is the art of compromise — at least in democratic societies. The controversial services trade agreement that sparked the occupation remains stalled, and an oversight mechanism for future cross-strait negotiations, one of the conditions set by the activists before they vacated the legislature, is under consideration.

There were other less easily quantifiable successes. Despite official claims to the contrary, the Ma administration’s reputation suffered a terrible blow. The drama re-energized civic activism, bringing political awareness among the population to levels unseen in years, and generated substantial interest overseas by making Taiwan exciting and newsworthy. Finally, the occupation undoubtedly had an impact on the Nov. 29 “nine-in-one” local elections, in which the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was roundly defeated.

As I argued in a commentary a few months ago, the next step for the Sunflowers and the young activists the movement inspired is for themselves to enter politics and work from the inside. Since then, it has been encouraging to see a number of them choose to do so. Some of them ran in the Nov. 29 elections, while others started their own party or decided to join an existing political party — in almost every case the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), a more natural ally, given its ideology, than the KMT.

A few weeks ago I ran into a young Taiwanese man who I knew had been actively involved in Ko Wen-je’s (柯文哲) campaign for Taipei mayor. Ko, who ran as an independent, easily defeated the KMT’s Sean Lien (連勝文), who besides running a terribly incompetent campaign stood for everything that in the eyes of the population was wrong with the system. I asked him why he had decided not to join the Ko administration and had instead rejoined an educational foundation.

His response was very interesting. While he was delighted with Ko’s election, he didn’t think that the surgeon’s populist style (his words, not mine) was the right thing for Taiwan as a whole. In other words, Ko appeared at the right place at the right time, but his model should not — could not — be emulated elsewhere in Taiwan.

The young man may or may not be right, though I tend to sympathize with his sentiment. It is difficult to conceive of politics being overtaken by mavericks with little or no political experience to speak of. Ko, and the fact that he was elected (in Taipei of all places), is an aberration.

But what an aberration this has turned out to be! Despite his social awkwardness and unusual leadership style, Ko has already transformed the face of politics in the capital. In fact his awkwardness and unusual style are the very reason why Ko has been able to do the necessary to turn the situation around. By dispensing with the usual platitudes and courteousness, Ko has declared war on corrupt officials and powerful conglomerates whom his predecessors either feared or whose unethical — and perhaps illegal — activities were possibly facilitated by the administration.

In many ways, Ko is the embodiment of society’s discontent with the status quo. He is both the symptom of and the solution to everything that is wrong with the system. His is indeed a revolution in governance. Ko’s ability to transform politics in the capital is contingent on his decision to dispense with protocol and to surround himself with enablers who are willing and empowered to make the jump with him. (This is easier said than done, as Ko has already stepped on very powerful toes.) The fact that he doesn’t belong to any political party is also a major factor in this, and something that we should keep in mind as we look to 2016 and beyond.

Elsewhere, the progress has not, sadly, been as promising. The two main political parties are the system, and despite efforts at reform (among other things by hiring young people), dinosaurs on both sides are doing everything in their power to prevent new voices from changing the score. The status quo officials are threatened, and rather than adapt, they clamp down on the new employees, engaging in behind-the-scenes political machinations to damage the youths’ reputation, prevent their ability to climb in the ranks, or simply to nip their ambitions in the bud. As a result, many of the new hires have grown completely disillusioned with politics; some have already quit, others are on the brink of doing so.

Six months in, and the young idealists who entered politics to improve their country are embittered, their aspirations poisoned…

Eric Chu (朱立倫), who recently assumed chairmanship of the KMT, and DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) may have the best intentions in the world, and may be truly committed to reform. Unfortunately, they are held hostage by extraordinary forces that militate against change. Both leaders have been forced to compromise in their appointments in order to appease factions within their parties, which while securing stability in the short term, also dilutes their ability to transform politics. The more the dinosaurs succeed in elbowing out the new blood, the more difficult it will be for Tsai and Chu to rejuvenate their institutions, which for all intents and purposes have become little more than machines meant to do one or two things: winning elections and personal enrichment.

Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) of Academia Sinica, who has been very active in social movements, was absolutely right when he said a little while ago that for the DPP to regain the trust of the public, it would first have to “fire a lot of its people.” Needless to say, his remarks earned him no small amount of opprobrium among senior members of the green camp, who may have recognized themselves among those who deserve to get axed. The problem for Tsai is that if she were to act on Huang’s sound recommendation and throw the dead wood out — and there is plenty of it, as the Dec. 25 elections showed us in Tainan — she would face a mutiny.

The same holds for Chu should he decide to address, as he has promised, the party’s illegal assets or target “black gold” politics and corruption within the KMT.

Ceteris paribus, under the prevailing system the party with the most money and whose influence extends the farthest within society will continue to have the advantage.

Meanwhile, in a most unfortunate turn of events, activists and professors who refused to join existing parties and formed their own are now at each other’s throats and splitting into factions, an outcome that needless to say has caused rejoicing in both the KMT and the DPP, especially among the dinosaurs who have had no compunction in devouring their own youths.

The system itself has become rotten, and those who benefit from it are actively working to ensure that the rot continues. It may be good for them, but there is no doubt that it is bad for Taiwan’s long-term prospects. Maybe the young man was wrong. Maybe the Ko model, a clean break with the past and total disregard for protocol, should be extended nationwide. Whether such change can emerge from within the system, or will need to be imposed from the outside, is anyone’s guess. Regardless, that would be a revolution in the full sense of the word!


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

10 Responses to “Does Taiwan Need a Ko Revolution?”

February 05, 2015 at 2:51 pm, talkinjay said:

Thank you for the interesting news regarding Freddy Lim forming a new party! That’s just brilliant!
I’d like to add only three things: First, the way I see it Ko-P wasn’t part of the Sunflower movement at any point, and I don’t think he claims to have been. Second, while his campaign made excellent news of new (social) media, this is not were the green camp has been structurally disadvantaged. I don’t think Ko-P actually played the (traditional) media, but rather the other way round: They caught up with increasingly popular trends for their own ends. Third, Ko-P was not on the political radar before his decision to join the mayoral elections (neither was he well-known), and the “Ko consensus” built up over quite some time, which is why I reasoned that this could happen anytime. It takes a favorable combination of conditions and right person at the right time.


February 06, 2015 at 2:51 pm, Echo Taiwan said:

>>> regarding Freddy Lim forming a new party!

There is another one, Aqua Tsai:

蔡丁貴:組台獨左派政黨 監督綠中國政策

Tsai is the TIer on the extreme side. He believes in street movement and protest on the ground will gain TI more surport than persuading the voters does. He is a firm believers of splitting a force into multiple fronts is a better approach.

He claims that several TI groups give him positive response and the new party will launch when the time is right.


February 06, 2015 at 3:00 pm, Echo Taiwan said:

>>> First, the way I see it Ko-P wasn’t part of the Sunflower movement at any point, and I don’t think he claims to have been.

I don’t see any one claimes that. There is a wave and both Ko-P and the Sunflower rise on the wave.

>>> Third, Ko-P was not on the political radar before his decision to join the mayoral elections (neither was he well-known),

We probably focus on different sides of Taiwan.

>>> It takes a favorable combination of conditions and right person at the right time.

That’s basically what I said, isn’t it ?


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