Musings on the Taipei Elections: Why It’s Hard to be ‘Neutral’If I’ve struggled to find positive things to report on about the Lien camp, it’s because it hasn’t provided much to work with
I’ve already written a number of articles about the ongoing nine-in-one elections, and it therefore isn’t my intention here to engage in a deep analysis of their proceedings and impact. My aim here simply consists of jotting down a few impressions of what’s happened to date, and to briefly discuss the challenges — especially in the race for Taipei, where I have resided for nine years — in remaining a “neutral,” though interested, observer.
The first thing that comes to mind is what a Taiwanese couple in their 50s told me when we briefly chatted during the “Hug for Taipei” walk in support of independent candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) on Sunday. As we neared the Zhongxiao-Fuxing intersection, the husband approached me and asked the usual questions — where I was from and what I did in Taiwan. Having dispensed with those, we then moved to pithier matters: Could I vote? Did I have a favorite candidate? Was my reporting on the election neutral? And had I, as a journalist, attended other rallies, especially the one held the previous day by Sean Lien (連勝文), the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidate? The answers were no, yes, no, and no, though I did watch the Lien rally on TV.
Questions One, Two and Three were not unrelated, and I felt compelled to expand on the subject. Although foreigners, however long we have lived here, have no right to vote, I feel that this election in particular will have an immediate impact on my life and that of the many others who, like me, do not have a voice — at least not a voice in the form of a ballot. Far too often in maturing democracies, elections have been a “choice” between candidates with very similar platforms, which thus forces voters to choose the “least bad” politician, or to fall back on determinants such as party affiliation or charisma.
This time around, the contrast between the two frontrunners in the Taipei election could not be starker. The personalities are markedly different, but what matters even more is what Ko and Lien symbolize. As someone who has made Taipei his home and genuinely loves the city, I find the Lien family’s close ties with Beijing rather troubling, though the impact of that relationship would probably be felt more intensely if Lien were running for high office, not a municipality.
My main issue with Lien, however, is his family’s connections with real estate (due diligence documents from the 1990s which I have had a chance to peruse, already showed Lien Sr. owning more than 30 pieces of real estate across the capital, some of them acquired via rather dubious means). In other words, urban renewal — and the attendant evictions and erasing of local flavor — would very likely be much more of a problem under Mayor Lien than it would under Mayor Ko. In fact, though this hasn’t been mentioned very often, there would be a huge conflict of interest in Lien, a “princeling” who has positioned himself as pro-business, serving as mayor. Who ends up mayor would directly affect me, as the neighborhood I live in has been targeted for urban renewal; the small streets, 50s-era buildings, small local markets, to be replaced by high-rise buildings, shopping malls, and convention centers amid plans to expand Taipei International Airport (Songshan). Somehow I feel that my rights as a resident of Taipei would have a better chance of being respected under a Ko administration than a Lien administration. And that’s where the China connections come in: under Lien, chances are that more Chinese investment would pour in, with major projects such as the Songshan expansion especially attractive. After what I witnessed at Huaguang, the community that was completely wiped out last year to make room for a Roppongi-style luxurious complex, can I be blamed for not trusting a KMT mayor, especially one who has the aforementioned connections? As a resident, I don’t want Taipei to lose its local flavor and turn into another Singapore: sterile and unaffordable.
In a nutshell, this was my answer to questions One and Two. As to question Three, I told the couple that while I had done my utmost to remain neutral in my coverage and analysis, circumstances had made it very difficult for me to do so. Besides, as I just mentioned, the fundamental differences between the two men, the nature of their campaigns has very much influenced my reporting. For all his faults and inexperience, Ko has run a very human and down-to-earth campaign, and he has strived to position himself as “colorless” — in other words, neither KMT nor DPP, but rather closer to the people, very much in line with the spirit of the times following the Sunflower Movement in the spring. Conversely, Lien’s campaign, bereft as it has been of actual policies, is all about big business plus a strong ideological component that, frankly, shouldn’t have figured so prominently in local elections (e.g., a Ko mayor would be the end of the Republic of China; trade with China; renaming a street after a former dictator, et cetera). Evidence that people associated with gangsters and pro-unification groups gravitated around the Lien camp and physically assaulted protesters during a Lien rally, certainly didn’t help.
Even worse has been the negative campaigning that the Lien camp has engaged into. In fact, it seems that attacking Ko was the main strategy of his campaign. Led by campaign director Alex Tsai (蔡正元), the Lien camp has been relentless in its attacks and did not hesitate to spread lies in order to damage Ko’s reputation. It didn’t matter that in every instance, the evidence proved them wrong, or that racist comments by KMT dinosaurs harkened to an era that the majority of Taiwanese left behind long ago; they kept at it. Ko was a “demon,” a “bastard,” a Japanese colonial subject, a traitor to the “Han race,” he harvested the organs of Falun Gong victims, murdered patients at NTUH to reap their organs, abused his staff, misused hospital budgets, is a closet independence activist, he wiretapped his own office to prevent his opponent from winning an election, and so on and so forth. (Even the fundamental Christians who oppose same-sex marriage weighed in, with claims that Ko supported “sexual liberation,” presumably because of the multicolor rally he held at the weekend. Residents where therefore encouraged to “pray” for Taipei so that the “right” — that is, KMT — candidate was elected. Never mind that some influential businesspeople and KMT figures have close ties to those Christian organizations.)
So to return to the question, was I fair in my reporting? If being fair means writing about the facts, about who did and said what, I believe that I was. If my reports had one side showing a human face while the other engaged in outrageous fabrication and character assassination, it’s because those were the strategies that the two camps chose to adopt. If I’ve struggled to find positive things about the Lien camp to report on, it’s because the latter hasn’t provided much to work with, not because of my ideology, or who my employer is. In other words, had it been Ko, not Lien, who did so, my analyses would have been very different. But that wasn’t the case. The Lien camp made fools of themselves and pretended to be victims, when in fact they led the charge in a campaign that makes a travesty of democratic ideals. Residents of Taipei, “blue,” “green” or “colorless,” have every right to be angered with buffoons like Alex Tsai, who denied them the opportunity to hear the candidates talk about their policies. Instead, what we got was mudslinging (and in the few instances when Lien had a chance to shed light on his platform, he underwhelmed his interlocutors, even when on friendly turf in the studios of pan-blue media).
For months now the Lien camp has fed us lies, ethnic hatred, and fear. If that is how Mayor Lien would govern Taipei, I want none of it, and I believe that the capital’s residents deserve better. As a resident who doesn’t have a vote, I think I am entitled to say this much.
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.