Sean Lien’s Bland Lunch with Foreigners

A recent video between the mayoral candidate and a handful of foreigners was an awkward political stunt that failed to whet our appetites

Sean Lien (連勝文), the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) mayoral candidate for Taipei, recently released a 5-minute video, “Taipei in the Eyes of Foreign Residents,”『外僑眼中的台北』 of a lunch seminar he held with foreigners to discuss the city. Lien’s English is pretty good, and there’s nothing out of the ordinary here, yet the YouTube ratings are catastrophic (156 to 3,008 at last count). It’s not just because Lien is unpopular, particularly online (opponent Ko Wen-je [柯文哲] has four times more Facebook “likes”), and never comes off as mayoral timber; it’s also because the campaign unwittingly reinforces a number of negative tropes in a very short span of time.

Trope 1: Foreigners = wealthy white males here on vacation who dont understand local issues.

The first thing the viewer notices is how many well-dressed young white men are present, with only a few women in the front corners (seen but not heard) and one black man in the back corner. Such a group would stand out for its homogeneity — even in the West. Moreover, with the exception of two older men sitting directly across from Lien, the participants are all in their 20s. Thus this looks more like a summer study abroad group than a collection of actual foreign residents. I wonder if these young people are aware that these young people have created a political football by appearing in this; their postures and facial expressions throughout (especially the fellow on Lien’s left) indicate they aren’t aware that this is going to go viral and receive 100,000 views in 2 days. Poor them.

To call this a representative sample of foreigners in Taipei is ridiculous. Most foreigners here are basic-income workers or homemakers hailing from other East Asian countries. Hearing their views would be genuinely interesting and useful. To make a living they often need to know the city better than the average resident, and their voices are very rarely heard. But these people do not seem to “count” as foreigners (despite not being citizens) to certain Taiwanese, so that video was not made. Interestingly, the top comment on this video (superkoala tean, 249 likes) speaks out about this very problem.

We can’t look inside the minds of the foreigners who did meet Lien to see how much they know Taipei, but the two exchanges shown to us, which we can thus assume are the best ones, are quite disappointing in their shallowness.

The first is literally about surface-level issues: the questioner thinks the city is dirty (though not as dirty as Beijing) and that the buildings all look the same. I too made similarly trite remarks during my first month in the city, but I no longer do so because I better understand the root causes (more on that later) and don’t see these as the city’s biggest problems — not by a long shot. Hence I’m left to wonder how long exactly he’s been here.

The second question is about the national government’s proposed free economic pilot zones. This is an interesting subject, but Taipei City isn’t going to have any of these anyway, and the questioner seems to be ignorant of why the zones are controversial (he thinks protectionism is the problem; he and Lien should read this argument rather than high school econ textbooks).

Online commenters have seized on the shallowness of the issues discussed, lamenting that they have much more substantive questions to ask Lien than these people who just flew in. So do I. It’s frustrating that these foreigners have been chosen to speak on my behalf.

Trope 2: Lien is a princeling with a lavish lifestyle.

Lien’s biggest image problem is that he is very rich (inherited from his father Lien Chan [連戰], a leading KMT politician). And he walked right into more of that heat with this video. This is a really nice restaurant, and the lunches cost more than NT$500 each, dwarfing the NT$50-70 that the average working man pays for his mid-day sustenance. A number of the commenters uncharitably refer to Lien as Shen Dzu 神豬 or “God Pig,” a hog grossly fattened (sometimes up to 900kg) for ritual slaughter in certain Hakka ceremonies.

What’s more, right off the bat Lien talks about his time in New York, which is bound to remind everyone that he lived in the Trump Tower and allegedly went to parties at the Playboy Mansion while living lavishly there as a Columbia University student.

Trope 3: Lien is a neophyte who doesnt understand the city.

On the free economic pilot zones (geographic areas where business, tax, immigration, and environmental regulations would be significantly loosened), Lien suggests one could be established on “the island in the northwest of Taipei.” As Ko’s campaign has since pointed out, that place, Shezi Island (社子島), is a sandbar with strict building limitations because it is very vulnerable to flooding, so major economic development there would be unsafe, and a development plan for the area has already been put in place. This gaffe recalls Lien’s suggestion that Xinsheng Elevated Highway could be buried underground, without mentioning that it would be very expensive and compete for space down there with the Horikawa water channel as well as rail and subway lines.

Trope 4: A politicians job is to ‘educate’ the citizenry rather than reflect on its concerns.

More than 90% of the video is Lien talking. “Of course it is; it’s a campaign video,” you think. But young people in Taipei are getting increasingly tired of this because so many political “debates” go this way. In the establishment’s mind, no policy is ever wrong; it’s just poorly explained. So the image of a politician asking for people’s views and then mostly expressing his own plays right into the stereotype of paternalism. I wish they had edited this differently, or made the event more conversational.

Trope 5: The most important reasons for problems cant be said.

Even if Lien were going to simply explain away pollution and the appearances of our buildings to foreigners he could have made it much more interesting by speaking about real issues that all Taiwanese know something about. But as the candidate of the historical ruling party he cannot go too deeply into any problem without implicating his own. My knowledge of Taipei is still inadequate, but my brain was still yelling the following after Lien finished speaking:

Most of the housing stock went up in a hurry during the post-land-redistribution industrial and population boom (after a number of beautiful Japanese buildings were leveled by the KMT for ideological reasons), and at that time negative environmental effects were largely ignored, which explains the heat trapping in Taipei among other issues.

Urban renewal has been slow, and the city’s facade static, because small property owners know from precedent that their rights won’t be protected and that they will lose money on the deal. As for large property owners, they’re just holding land now because riding the bubble up and selling later is easier money than actually developing. Another reason people are suspicious of development here is that the environmental aftereffects of new building are often not considered, from the giant tower planned near Taipei 101 that could spell the end for the New Year’s Fireworks to new legal and illegal building additions that block neighbors’ sunlight. The city could do much to remedy these problems, but it would have to take on entrenched interests.

As for the new buildings that actually get built, while Lien is not wrong to point out cautiousness about earthquakes (though what about Tokyo?) it’s interesting he feels city planning committees are more worthy of the blame for boring buildings than the developers themselves, for whom the path of least resistance is to do the minimum necessary to collect on the contract. William Whyte discusses this in his classic book City — there’s a fantastic section on the big, blocky “concrete wall”-like towers that sprung up all over the U.S. in the mid-20th century, including places with no earthquake risk — and his general rule is that planning committees have to be more demanding of developers to get pleasing structures and public spaces. It’s not a huge coincidence most of the attractive buildings in Taipei involved public sector planning. The problem with pointing this out is that property developers are the KMT’s best friends.

Besides that, I would have loved to see Lien drop this culture check on the charge of all buildings looking boring: in Chinese society the inside of a home is much more important than the outside, because the inside is for your friends and family but the outside is for strangers. So what seems like a problem for Europeans is less so for Taiwanese.

As for pollution, Lien could have dropped another culture check: it’s always hot, humid, and rainy here, making it hard to keep anything clean. Moreover, streets are much more mixed-use here, with street food stands and vendors everywhere.Taipei feels most dirty to people who have never spent much time on the streets anywhere, such as suburban Americans.

Motor vehicles are the biggest culprit of pollution, but the motorcycles and cars far more than the buses or taxis. Electric buses and taxis would help, but an electric scooter subsidy program would be even more radical. Besides that, there are three other obvious ways to curb private automobile use: further improve public transportation (in progress but would be much farther along without past graft), cut gasoline subsidies (average income must rise to make this more feasible), and decrease parking space (reducing convenience for drivers) to make room for more YouBikes.

Finally, that Lien gives no illumination on the opposition to the free economic pilot zone is par for the course; everyone supporting the program is in his camp. And yet, ironically, these zones would probably hurt Taipei by pulling businesses away from it and into these areas. I hope Lien has at least thought about that, even if he can’t say it to the voters.

Anger voters for five different reasons, and you’ll have a really unpopular video, no matter how good your English is.


Anonymous is a translator from the U.S. who has lived in Taipei for four years.

7 Responses to “Sean Lien’s Bland Lunch with Foreigners”

September 03, 2014 at 2:43 am, Daniel Roh said:

The background music really gives it a lot of substance. Really, it does.


March 24, 2015 at 8:40 pm, Guillaume E. Gillard said:

Matt, true enough.(Don’t read the next lines if you hate sarcasm)

But a “foreigner” is White or Black american. Maybe West Africans(Burkinabe, Gambians) or Haitian count too, if they are handsome enough, the others ain’t foreigners they are black and shouldn’t be there in the first place. The Asian foreigners? Japanese are the overwhelmingly pleasant masters(sometimes more so than Whities), Chinese are to be treated as estranged and sly cousins if they are rich or as plague if they are poor. South-East A..what? They are Asians? Now, stop me there, they must have been going to some extension of India, they flew the wrong plane, ain’t no slave work in this country.
–end sarcasm.

This is indeed a problem.


Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.