The ’94 Taipei Mayoral Debate: Plus Ça Change…

Think the Taipei mayoral race in November was exceptional? Wait until you watch the debate in the 1994 elections
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT

With former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) on medical leave and a new controversy-courting populist reformer in the Taipei mayor’s office shaking things up, this is an ideal time to watch what is arguably the most riveting and revealing hour of Taiwanese politics on YouTube: the first two-thirds of the 1994 Taipei mayoral debate.

To help foreign audiences better appreciate the nature of the debate, I have translated the footage, which comes from a televised rerun first uploaded by ANDREHSU0728 four years ago, and posted it on YouTube. There are seven parts, three for the opening speeches and four for questions from the moderators.

Here is the link to the first video of this playlist. All seven are worth watching. (If the English-language captions do not load, click on the second box from the left in the bottom right corner.)

Because the rerun ironically ends right when the subject turns to how to end rampant bribery of city officials, we cannot see the ending, but there is more than enough here to allow you to draw your own conclusions about this pivotal election, the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) biggest win to that point and a pivotal moment for Chen, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) hegemony, and the deep-blue insurrection against then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝).

The confrontation between the three candidates — Chen, then at his peak as an orator; the fiery crypto-fascist Chao (alternatively spelled Jaw) Shao-kang (趙少康) of the New Party; and self-described water buffalo Huang Ta-chou (黃大洲, aka Thomas Huang) of the KMT — is memorable. The moderation by the China Times, which was then under very different management, is excellent. Most importantly, the issues are surprisingly relevant. This is a distant mirror of the political scene that exists in Taiwan today.

In his opening statement, Chen focuses entirely on municipal issues related to people’s quality of life, excoriating Mayor Huang’s administration for its failures in this respect and memorably describing the regret and suffering of the residents. Chen asks Huang: “Wasn’t the money the city has wasted earned by the blood and sweat of its residents?” Chen cuts down his opponents with rhetoric that would have landed him in a dungeon just fifteen years before. Knowing his audience (a very pro-KMT crowd) and Taipei’s electorate, Chen speaks mostly in Mandarin, employing Taiwanese mainly for colorful swearing and in-jokes for his base.

Chen implicitly steers clear of identity politics, as candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) would explicitly do 20 years later. Moreover, whereas by the 2004 presidential debate “A-bian” was Chen’s first-person pronoun of choice (because he was now on top and had to explain his actions and thoughts to everyone else), at this point he is still a legislator, and his go-to pronoun is “we,” which means him and the voters together. Embracing his role as tribune, he implies the voters are seeing the same problems he is and seeking the same solutions he wants to deliver. His catalogue of corruption reminds one of the series of construction scandals that Ko has tackled in his first month in office, with former mayors Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) looking on apprehensively.

The exhaustion that we saw at the end of Chen’s presidency is still in the future: Here he is at his young, energetic, and charming best. This Chen, not just Chen the prisoner, must be remembered.

It is fascinating to see how the Taipei Mass-Rapid Transit system (MRT) we all admire today was in 1994 the nadir of administrative incompetence and the hill that the incumbent died on. Even the moderators reveal their exasperation with the failures of the Huang administration. This indicates that the political tide turns not when people are most idealistic but rather when they have realized that the old way of doing things does not work anymore.

This was the first election of a Taipei mayor since 1967, when the government, tired of independents like Wu San-lien (吳三連) and Gao Yu-shu (高玉樹) winning office, changed Taipei’s administrative status to make its mayor a central government appointee. And by 1994, the residents of Taipei knew that the corruption and bureaucratic inertia of the KMT meant that the mayors could not even complete the party’s own plans, let alone the deliver the quality of life they wanted. Taipei transit was at that point a 24-hour traffic jam.

Chao and Huang, on the other hand, both devote the lion’s share of their time during the debate not to local issues, but instead to attacking the Taiwanese independence movement and denouncing Chen as its avatar. “Taiwanese independence will poison itself” (台獨會毒死自己), Huang predicts and puns. Chao not only proves Godwin’s Law by comparing the DPP to Nazis in his first paragraph; he even spends much of his precious speaking time on national politics that have no relation to Taipei, criticizing President Lee and comparing him to Empress Cixi for condoning pan-greens as Cixi condoned the Boxers.

It is revealing that so much of that anti-green rhetoric was repeated in the November 2014 elections. Chao’s very first line is “The Republic of China is going to be destroyed!” which is just the rhetoric used by general and former premier Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村) last October during a rally in support of KMT candidate Sean Lien (連勝文). Chao associates pan-greens with violence and says Chen is a black hand who is the real power behind all the protests against the government. Deep blues repeated that reasoning last year by alleging that the student-led Sunflower Movement was in fact a DPP conspiracy. Chao’s calls to reassert state authority to crush the forces of “anarchy” and protect law-abiding citizens were repeated by the right during the Sunflower Movement as well.

Another place were such ideology is enshrined is in a pilot history textbook published by the Shih Chi (史記) company following the Ma administration’s controversial 2013-14 textbook rewrite. It writes to youth:

The Taiwan Independence Movement is a denial of the Republic of China and the Constitution, and it will make Taiwanese society fall into a national identity crisis, which would not be beneficial for Taiwan’s future development. With respect to ethnic problems, some of the reason for that is Taiwan’s elections. Ethnic groups were originally merging, but because of the frequency of elections in Taiwan, some political parties in order to win ceaselessly distorted and instigated ethnic groups, which caused Taiwanese society to tear and take opposing sides, gravely influencing the overall development of society.

The green camp doubtless played the identity card harder and was more confrontational in regions like the south where it suited it more. That said, here in this debate it is the blues who employ identity politics again and again. Chao is even brazen enough to question Chen’s story about the car accident that paralyzed his wife Wu Shu-jen (吳淑珍), with Wu herself sitting right in front of the cameras. And Chen later makes the same remarks about having his ROC ID card in his pocket and acknowledging that he is running for an ROC government post that Ko did during the 2014 debate.

We can almost smell the fear of what would happen to the blue camp if pan-green identity were to receive mainstream acceptance. In the very long term, that fear was well founded: Every year the National Chengchi University Election study asks respondents whether they are of just Chinese, just Taiwanese, or Chinese and Taiwanese. In 1994, the answers were: 26.2% Chinese; 44.6% Taiwanese and Chinese; 20.2% Taiwanese; and 8.9% No Response.

By 2014, the numbers tell a very different story: 3.5% Chinese; 32.5% Taiwanese and Chinese; 60.6% Taiwanese; and 3.5% No Response.

So Chao was raging against the dying of the light. But his warning to President Lee — do you really think the West will protect us from China? Did you see what they let happen in Bosnia? — is still with us. Talk to any deep blue about cross-strait issues and you will find this same lack of faith in the U.S.

In this debate, Chao betrays that his real prize is the presidency. This ended up being his political peak, but it was far from the end of his influence. He has been a media mogul for years. In an interesting turn of events, Hau Lung-bin was Chao’s New Party protégé, and after becoming mayor on the KMT ticket, Hau gave Chao a plum post as spoils: an independent directorship of Fubon Financial. Chao finally stepped down from the position the day before Ko became mayor in order to avoid being ignominiously kicked out.

Chao’s remarks are replete with references to contemporary figures and issues. Here are links to help you understand what he is talking about: Hsu Rong-chi (許榮棋) and the Chuan Ming taxi driversYin Cheng-feng (尹清楓) …the ‘925 Incident’; the name Chao gave it subtly compared it to the 228 Massacre …Chi’en Mu (錢穆).

Why were there two blue candidates to begin with? Basically, as Nathan Batto explains in these two posts, President Lee, leader of a “mainstream” KMT faction (主流派) of Taiwanese and businesses, was too “pro-Taiwan” and pro-independence for the liking of the “non-mainstream faction” (非主流派) of Chinese “mainlanders” and mainland descendants who controlled the military and security apparatus. The New Party was made up of young non-mainstreamers like Ko’s future campaign manager, Yao Li-ming (姚立明), referenced in this debate because a pan-green struck him and drew blood during literal campaign fighting. The New Party’s Achilles heel, however, was that it could not hope to take over the KMT’s iron source of votes — its local faction networks. Thus it had to appeal to the ideology everyone learned in school, and it became effectively a mainlander party, and there just weren’t enough mainlanders to ensure anything more than a few city council and legislative seats.

This election result — Chen 43.6%, Chao 30.2%, Huang 26.9%, Ji Rong-zhi (紀榮治) 0.3% — made it clear there were not enough blue votes for the KMT and New Party to fight over. While the New Party ran a token candidate in 1998, that year, as in 2008, the two factions’ voters would unite around one person — a mainlander clearly more pro-China than Lee, but who had maintained a clean and moderate image and had never jumped from the party — Ma Ying-jeou.

Taipei Mayor candidate Huang Ta-chou speaks during the mayoral debate in the 1994 elections. Photo: YouTube

Finally we must comment on the avuncular mayor, Huang Ta-chou. Huang was a protégé of President Lee, a native Taiwanese who called himself both Taiwanese and Chinese and stressed a middle way that would lead to eventual peaceful unification. But Lee was a great politician and Huang wasn’t. As Batto writes in this must-read Frozen Garlic blog post about Chen’s very successful campaign and mayoral term, at the debate Huang “spoke of his incompetence. Well, that wasn’t the content of what he said, but that is what came across very clearly.”

From his first words — “Good evening…I mean, good afternoon!” — you know that comedy is on the way. Huang spends several minutes talking about how he is not a gifted speaker, and the worst part is that he did not even have to be. The public and institutions were on his side. He had decades of carefully constructed institutional mystique behind him. All he had to do was list his achievements and promise more of that to soak in the applause. Perhaps for that very reason, he seems so certain he is going to win that he willfully wastes time, patronizes everyone, and evades questions. You see why KMT candidates summarily refused to participate in debates during the Chiang eras. This public airing of a KMT leader’s incompetence is like proof that Santa Claus isn’t real.

As little of substance as he says, Huang does make an argument that is still repeated today: The Mayor of Taipei has to be an international ambassador who can welcome foreign guests and speak foreign languages, and he doubts his opponents are up to that. Former transportation minister Yeh Kuang-shih (葉匡時) expressed such doubts about Ko during the last campaign. The synchrony could be a coincidence. The wall-to-wall coverage of Ko’s watch gaffe suggests this really is considered a major political issue. But the cynic in me wonders if this issue is a dog whistle whose aim is to imply that pan-greens aren’t educated or cosmopolitan enough for high leadership.

When Huang is asked directly who or what is responsible for the MRT delays and instead obfuscates, the strongly pro-KMT crowd grows ominously quiet. You know then for sure that his days in office are over. Chen warns him: If you don’t know who’s responsible, you’re incompetent; if you do and aren’t telling, you’re hiding things from the public.

After finishing third, Huang was subsequently parachuted into the national government as Minister of the Research, Development, and Evaluation Commission and then Minister without Portfolio.

The ultimate irony is that if you ask a blue voter today who was the best Taipei mayor ever, chances are he will say it was Huang. He will credit Huang’s city planning, noting correctly that the MRT and Da’an Park transformed Taipei more than anything Ma or Hau did, and then complain that Chen just took credit for Huang’s work. What this video record makes clear, however, is that distance from the events has allowed revision of the story. While grand plans were made under Huang, he couldn’t carry them out. Chen saved his legacy by making his plans a reality. Chen turned the city around.

I enjoy sharing this video with my young Taiwanese peers and registering their surprise. Here, like everywhere else, political common knowledge would be a lot different if we relied more on primary sources.


The author is a translator based in Taipei.

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