VOTE 2016: Hung Hsiu-chu’s Crusade Against ‘Populism’Given her tendency to demonize civil society by constantly comparing it to Middle East-style terror organizations, we can only imagine how activists would fare under President Hung
Seemingly incapable of coming up with a campaign platform that can resonate with the general public, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) has instead turned her rhetorical guns on the very thing that on Jan. 16 will decide who Taiwan’s next president will be: the people. Besides being a stunningly poor decision on the part of her advisers (if Hung listens to them at all), her fixation on “populism” as a supposed cancer eating away at Taiwanese society bespeaks a darker streak in the candidate’s personality — authoritarianism.
Hung’s definition of the word “populism” has an irremediably negative connotation: Whoever disagrees with her views and policies is “irrational” (an old KMT trope) and does so because he/she has been influenced by “populist” ideas. Included in that category is anyone who has participated in civic activism to challenge the authorities. In fact, by repeatedly comparing Taiwanese activists to Islamic State and the Red Guards, Hung co-equates “populism” with terrorism and extremism as a not-too-subtle way to further discredit her many opponents.
Much like her predecessor, Hung makes no mention of the fact that the so-called populists she warns us against initially used all the “rational” and “legal” channels to communicate with the government, and only escalated when the latter made it perfectly clear that such a course of action was a recipe for failure. As I demonstrate in my book Black Island: Two years of activism in Taiwan, the decision by Taiwanese activists to take direct action wasn’t in any way “irrational.” Quite the contrary, it was a very rational choice. It was a decision not to capitulate, a refusal to give ground to the undemocratic forces that were taking over the government at a crucial time in the nation’s history. Aware that the quality of Taiwan’s democracy was the main line of defense against encroachment by authoritarian China, society felt compelled to impose a corrective.
Although it succeeded in blocking some policies, such as the controversial “black box” Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), its most important and, arguably, long-lasting legacy was the warning that society sent to politicians who had become increasingly unaccountable: We will endure this no more.
Most politicians heard this warning and adjusted their policies accordingly. Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) certainly did, which explains her seemingly insurmountable lead in the polls and why, getting the sequence of events all wrong, Hung and her supporters have repeatedly compared her to a puppet master controlling armies of misguided youth. To their credit, many others have heeded that warning as well, including several members of the KMT who, as a result, were either expelled from the party or are refusing to have anything to do with Ms. Hung’s imploding campaign. (Ironically, the KMT is currently bleeding out the very people who could ensure its survival as a viable political party.) Even James Soong (宋楚瑜), the third candidate from the People First Party, has felt it necessary to keep up with the times by adopting some of the language used by civil society.
Based on what she has said thus far, Hung’s definition of democracy seems to limits itself to the narrowest sense of the word: the holding of regular elections. However, elections alone do not make a democracy. Most authorities on the subject (e.g., Dahl, Diamond) will in fact argue that the boundaries of democracy are much wider. Their more liberal and encompassing definitions of the term make ample accommodations for a vibrant civil society whose role, among other things, is to provide the necessary checks and balances, to serve as pressure-relief valves, and to facilitate constructive feedback between society and decision makers.
Be that as it may, this important component of a healthy democracy is, according to Hung, detestable and should therefore be cast into oblivion: whoever believes that democracy includes an auxiliary, albeit important, role for civil society is, in her world, a populist in the negative sense of the word. The role of society is limited to casting votes; thereafter, it is expected sit by passively and let the government determine what is in their best interests without ever challenging its dictates.
Last week, Hung’s camp continued its crusade against populism with the release of an online poll asking respondents to rank which issues were most affected by it. Unsurprisingly, the multiple-choice options are limited to the issues that prompted social groups to take action during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) era and which, over time, coalesced into the transformative popular warning mentioned earlier. They include school curricula, cross-strait issues, energy, media, land development, “gay issues” (同志議題), military justice and “other.” For every box than can be checked, we can name social groups that directly challenged the authorities, from the Alliance Against Media Monster to the Sunflower Movement, Citizen 1985 to groups supporting legalization of same-sex unions, the Taiwan Rural Front to the anti-nuclear movement. (It is unlikely that Hung’s people had White Justice, the Red Shirts, or the pro-unification gangster organizations that have physically assaulted unarmed citizens in mind when they came up with their list, as those, by being ideologically aligned with her, exist on the “rational” side of the divide and will arguably constitute “civil society” under a future DPP administration.)
By signaling her enmity toward those movements, Hung gives us a preview of the kind of leader she would be if she were to become president. Her style would certainly take Taiwan back decades, to a time when the authorities dictated policy and where there existed little, if any, space for social involvement in politics. It would be a top-down, paternalistic (or maternalistic in this case) style of governance, where the authorities know best and dissent is a symptom of irrationality that must be stamped out. President Ma already gave us a taste of that, and he paid a heavy price for ignoring the warning. However, given her tendency to criminalize and demonize civil society by constantly comparing them to Middle East-style terror organizations, we can only imagine how NGOs, self-help groups, human rights associations and vocal students would fare under President Hung.
Unless she can prove otherwise, Ms. Hung’s statements to date lead me to conclude that she is no democrat, that she is, instead, an authoritarian.
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.