Rex Unbound: A Review of Rex How’s ‘Taiwan Unbound’A former national policy adviser to President Ma talks about constitutional amendments, the rise of new civic movements, and the very future of Taiwan
Rex How (郝明義), a former national policy adviser to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), published a new book in September 2015 titled 《如果台灣的四周是海洋》(Taiwan Unbound). The 384-page volume (in Chinese) presents his critical views on a number of pressing issues that Taiwan faces today, both in the political and economic spheres.
In Mandarin, the book title literally means “If Taiwan is surrounded by the seas,” which is meant to emphasize the importance of acquiring a broader mindset, using the ocean spirit as a metaphor to illustrate “open mindedness,” “courage,” “ambition” and “responsiveness.” This is used in contrast with a “continent mindset” associated with closed-mindedness, stasis, and resistance to change.
The book asserts the importance of Taiwan’s critical role in the Asia-Pacific region. “A lot of people worry about Taiwan’s marginalization,” How writes. “Taiwan only marginalizes herself when she puts only Taiwan and China together on the map. If we enlarge the map, Taiwan is always in a critical position in the Asia Pacific.”
Taiwan Unbound is divided into three sections: “The Sum of All Fears,” “The Sum of All Hopes,” and “A Case Study and Road Map for a Civic Movement.” In section one, How shares his anxieties over a dysfunctional and paralyzed government. His criticism is unsparing and sustained, especially when discussing what he regards as the government’s longstanding neglectful attitude over constitutional amendments, the central governmental system (power redistribution between the executive and the legislature), as well as daunting economic issues. On solution proposed by How is to take immediate action toward revising the Republic of China Constitution.
When tackling economic issues, How argues that Taiwan’s electronics and semiconductor industry have received too much attention and resources over the years. Meanwhile, software design, service design, the Internet, entertainment and content marketing have been neglected, he says. How, who was a participant in the emerging Maker Movement, provides brief introductions of the organization, which brings together people who love to make and hack things, high priests of the open source and open hardware innovation movement, of open-source software communities.
“The Sum of All Hopes” provides numerous conversations with younger generations and reveals a new hope of collective wisdom and the power of the crowd. How introduces groups such as the g0v community, Taiwan’s most popular tech conference, the Conference for Open Source Coders, Users, and Promoters (COSCUP for short), open-source software communities, Teach For Taiwan, and many more groups that harness the new power of collaboration. How asserts that China will continue to learn from Taiwan, including from Taiwan’s thriving open culture communities that come out of a democratic society. He urges Taiwanese to become more daring, courageous, and to acquire a different, broader view to enter a new future.
How proposes his plan for constitutional reform in a chapter titled “The Moment for Constitution, everybody gets involved,” (「憲法時刻，全民參政」). To do so, the author consulted Huang Cheng-yi (黃丞儀), an associate research professor at Academia Sinica’s Institutum lurisprudentiae, former Democratic Progressive Party lawmaker Lin Cho-shui (林濁水), and Civil Movement for Constitutional Reform (公民憲政推動聯盟) professor Chen Chun-Hong (陳俊宏). How argues that although seven constitutional amendments took place in the past decades, they did not fix the real problems in the Constitution, as they were only mild amendments, an additional appendix to the article. How suggests that we have reached a point in the nation’s history where the public should become more involved in social movements and politics, and seek to better understand the Constitution.
In the third section, How provides a case study of the Sunflower Student Movement. He explains why he resigned in 2014 as adviser to President Ma in protest against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA). On June 20, 2013, the night before negotiators from Taiwan and China signed the controversial agreement, How published articles criticizing the government in which he argued that Taipei was planning to sign an agreement in a “rude” and “incompetent” manner, and lamented its lack of respect for the industries that stood to be affected by the pact.
This includes the publishing sector, which is close to his heart. How observes that Taiwan’s publishing industry only flourishes because the vast majority of publishers are small-scale and “nano-based,” a “micro-industry.” He laments the administration’s refusal to give any chance to the industry for open discussion before the agreement was signed. Local publishers are proud of the free, open, rich and diverse publishing landscape, he says, adding that signing the agreement was bound to profoundly change that environment and possibly have a negative impact on book selections in future. Fortunately, the student-led Sunflower Movement marked a major turning point in Taiwan’s democracy evolution. Taiwan now has a new, reinvigorated civic movement, one that has substantial grassroots support to influence the decisions made by a disorganized government, he says.
How has a knack for converting complex concepts into easy-to-understand prose. His criticism is sharp and observant. And yet, the author proposes few pragmatic arguments. Readers may feel that How’s arguments remain more a promise than a reality. Obviously, the government doesn’t have a solution to every problem. The question is how we view the problems, including the problem of terribly ineffective execution, and seek potential solutions. The book should therefore have devoted more sections shedding light on possible actions. Notwithstanding its shortcomings — its redundancies and repetitiveness — Taiwan Unbound sheds light on a critically important subject at just the right time and remains an indispensable resource for anyone interested in shaping Taiwan’s future.
Rex How (郝明義)
384 pp, Net and Books, September 2015
Yahsin Huang is a technology journalist based in Taipei who writes mostly for Make magazine (Taiwan), Event Platform, and TechLife.