The Rise of the ‘Ko Consensus’

By channeling notions of civic responsibility that appeal to voters on both sides of the political spectrum, the independent candidate for Taipei City mayor may be changing the face of politics in Taiwan

In the wake of the Nov. 7 Taipei mayoral debate — Taiwan’s highest-rated debate in over a decade — it is high time for the “greens” as well as “blues” to recognize that the race, which concludes on Nov. 29, is an intellectual realignment rather than just a proxy war.

If we had to tie Ko Wen-je (柯文哲), who is running as an independent candidate, to a past political movement, I would argue that it is not the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), or even the pan-green alliance, but rather the Dangwai, the martial law-era alliance of politicians and activists who deliberately chose to work outside and against “The Party” (i.e., Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT) and whose top priority was bona fide democracy rather than political independence. While Ko has refused to repudiate his own personal beliefs about Taiwanese independence, he has insisted again and again that they are irrelevant to this contest and that his heart is set on direct democracy.

Ko is not running against pan-blue identity — as evidenced by his courting of James Soong (宋楚瑜) and the People First Party (PFP) — but against the KMT party-state machine’s steadfast resistance to increased public participation in governance, from Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Just last week, a friend of this author was given the following essay assignment by her college professor, who is following the race: “What is the difference between Ma’s conception of democracy and Ko’s?”

Ko’s young support base has embraced his no-color ideal: When SET TV’s website set up a poll during the debate that gave KMT candidate Sean Lien’s (連勝文) cartoon a blue background and Ko’s a green one, enough netizens protested about Ko being made green that the poll was taken down.

Numerous potential young Ko voters had previously voted for or supported Ma and come from straight-ticket-KMT families. (Remember that Ma, like Ko, promised youth clean government and a reprieve from intense partisan division.) Among Ko supporters who live in Taipei but are registered in New Taipei City, many still prefer the amiable Eric Chu (朱立倫) of the KMT to Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃) of the DPP.

In other words, the KMT and DPP must not assume that the Ko coalition will all turn out for the greens in 2016 or even in this year’s city council races, or that everyone who thinks Taiwan is its own country votes green as a matter of course. Politicians must learn what excites these voters about Ko and hit these same notes in the future, keeping in mind the whole country, not just Taipei, has been influenced by this race. While Ko’s hard base of support is still only a minority of voters, it is young and, hopefully, has dozens of elections ahead of it.

As far as day-to-day operations go, the proudly low-budget, volunteer-driven, youth-led campaign has given a sense of solidarity to many previously disillusioned youth and won goodwill through its closeness to the grassroots.

The ideological foundation of the campaign was most triumphantly expressed during the Nov. 7 debate. For those who did not have a chance to see it or who do not understand Chinese, I have subtitled four crucial sections that may already have changed the views of thousands of residents of Taipei and others at the national level. (If the captions do not load, click on the second box from the left in the bottom right corner.)


Answer to question by youth entrepreneurship counselor on whether Ko is green and will join the DPP.

Not content to lament again the uselessness of intractable blue-green antagonism. He nods to the 228 Massacre but doesn’t dwell on it or anything else about green identity that could alienate blue voters. Instead he talks about his own visit to KMT holy ground and criticizes KMT heavyweights on the blue camp’s own ideological terms, calling them cross-strait compradors who have strayed far from the ideals of the martyrs of the Republic of China (ROC) revolution, asking, “What have you ever given up for this country?”

The term for comprador that he uses is maiban (買辦). This was also the moniker for Chinese traders who helped Western traders do business in the post-Opium War Qing Empire, the era that the ROC itself (like the People’s Republic of China) characterized as the beginning of China’s “century of humiliation and exploitation” at the hands of foreign powers. In other words, Ko uses the KMT’s own official ideology and historical perspective against it.

Ko affirms KMT founding ideals and calls for its contemporary members to become true to them once again. And he challenges those who loudly proclaim loyalty to the ROC rather than Taiwan while at home to do the same when they are in China, even when standing before Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平).


Exchange with Lien on Honesty, Chen Shui-bian, and Huannan Market.

This is the most viral section of the debate, which raked up hundreds of thousands of views within just a few days. The reason is Ko’s rebuke: “When I said I was deep green, it was to prove to society that your gunshot wound [which my medical team treated] was real. I said that to make Taiwan’s society more harmonious. But tonight you are saying I’m deep green in order to tear this society apart for your own personal, political gain.”

Sunflower Movement leader Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷) commented on his Facebook that when he heard Ko say this, chills ran down his spine. The idea of a patient backstabbing his own doctor would be unsettling in any society, let alone a traditionally Confucian one, and the sight of a public figure emphasizing his own identity in order to protect an ideological opponent, as Ko did back then, is all-too-novel.

For at least some voters, this exchange, and the image of color-based attacks tearing society apart, could be enough to neutralize such tactics not only during this campaign season, but for years to come. It would be smart for blue candidates in the south to adopt this position as well, the way Chen Yi-chen (陳以真) has deemphasized her KMT affiliation in her strong campaigning for Chiayi mayor.

Ko is not afraid to touch the third rail of former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁), but he does so in the way most appealing to blue voters, framing his imprisonment as a human rights issue and noting that Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) has been even more supportive of a medical parole for Chen. The only noise the media has raised about Ko’s defense of Chen in this debate is that the language he used was “too rough.”

Ko’s answer to the question on the Huannan Market underscores that this is another policy decision to be reached collectively after discussion, not ordered by him personally.

Ko then turns to the issue of campaign ethics as he builds toward a devastating conclusion. He asks: “If over the course of the election, this man [Lien] uses dishonest methods to fight this campaign, how likely is it that after he’s elected he’ll use dishonest methods to govern as well?” One gets the sense that Ko is running against the media’s acceptance of dirty campaigning as much as he is running against Lien himself, and that he has more than just 2014 in mind.


On whether Ko played a role as an “organ broker” in China.

The image of Ko waving the letter from author Ethan Gutmann’s lawyer will not soon be forgotten. Again he hammers home the message of what kind of campaigning should be acceptable in this country, saying, “This society does not permit actions that violate our conscience. This should not continue. This election is a historic choice of Taiwan’s values.” In future, candidates will have to proceed carefully with respect to negative campaigning lest they remind voters of this moment or bring similar treatment on themselves.


Ko’s concluding remarks.

Viral as the ripostes have been, this is the main event, which brought even some viewers from blue families to tears.

“‘One City, One Family.’ Family members fight with each other, but don’t dissociate from each other. Family members forgive and accept one another.” Ko’s description of family love and the social order is moving, and quietly an inversion of blue hardliners’ ideology.

While Confucianism also likens the state to a family, for KMT grandees like Sean Lien’s father Lien Chan (連戰) and Hau Pei-tsun (郝柏村) this family is founded on obedience to authority. Protest against the leadership causes “chaos” and ipso facto sets society backward. (Caveat: KMT resistance and refusal to recognize rulers with differing ideologies, like Chen Shui-bian, the Japanese, the Communist Party, and the late Qing, was acceptable because those were “usurpers without true authority.”)

Those resolved to disobey the patriarch are banished: Wardens Lo Sun-hsiung and Sun Je in Neihu were expelled from the KMT simply for inviting Ko to give an apolitical speech on medical issues in their area. Ko’s family background and personal beliefs are reasons he’s a “bastard” and disqualify him from consideration as mayor, as Lien Chan just stated so colorfully.

In contrast, for Ko the family is based on universal acceptance, so there is room for disagreement. His “new era” of Taiwanese politics begins with the Citizen 1985 protests against abuse by the military. He advertises that he corrects his own behavior when his young campaign staffers tell him how he has erred. His campaign manager is a former New Party (that is, pan-blue) member. His role model, Dr. Chiang Wei-shui (蔣渭水), was imprisoned more than ten times for dissidence.

While Ma has used his electoral mandate as a shield against all opposition by civil society to his policies, and Eric Chu in 2010 advertised that the superpower of the residents of New Taipei City was their ability to vote for him, Ko considers civil society as the source of good governance and maintains that the responsibility of citizens is much greater than just voting. Contrary to the belief passed down by Sun Yat-sen that the public isn’t ready for more democracy, Ko proposes opening the government to levels of participation that would be unprecedented in some centuries-old democratic cities, even giving the impression that citizens will have their work cut out for them if he takes office.

History tells us not to expect any politician to live up to his or her ideals, but at the very least Ko has expressed a new set of ideals for the people to strive for. Regardless of whether Ko has converted enough residents of Taipei to practice what he preaches, the youth under his banner are ready to do a lot more for this society than just vote for him. The most disruptive year of this decade of Taiwanese politics has a keynote campaign to match it.


Anonymous is a translator living in Taiwan.

5 Responses to “The Rise of the ‘Ko Consensus’”

November 18, 2014 at 10:32 am, Wayne said:

Thank you for posting the debate translations.
One City, One Family, One World, One Family!


November 18, 2014 at 10:05 pm, Yvonne said:

Great article


November 19, 2014 at 6:06 am, aaronwytze said:

Top notch translation and writing. Thank you for your hard work in translating each video. Well done.


November 20, 2014 at 7:17 am, Vasco said:

Thanks for the article ! Nice piece. As I did not follow the debate I found it helpful. I have a question : Did Ko said something about local housing price/bubble ? Or did he say something specifically on that issue earlier on ? Sorry if this question sounds dull-I did follow some of the campaign but not all I have to confess- but I would love to hear about that.


November 21, 2014 at 2:58 am, Anonymous said:

Great question. I’ve combed through the transcript for housing references. None of the questioners asked about how to resolve the housing problem.

However, in Ko’s introductory speech he mentions soaring housing prices and young people’s inability to buy housing as symptoms of Taiwan turning into a caste society. “Even if you do buy housing, the heavy mortgage turns you into a slave to it,” he says.

After Question 1, while talking about developing biotech parks in Nangang and Shilin and the Neihu science park, he mentions that building more apartments would also stimulate the domestic economy by adding jobs. (He wants to build 50,000 public apartments for rental, not sale:

Questioner 6 asks Ko about his plans for open-data, public mechanisms allowing citizens to deliberate urban planning, urban renewal, preservation of historic buildings and ancient trees, so there is not just the current public hearing system. Ko promises all that, and posting of non-confidential municipal bureau meeting minutes online, and opportunities for referenda on different policies and allowing citizens to propose budget items. This isn’t directly related to housing prices, but as we’ve seen in Taipei, the way urban renewal is carried out (see the Wang family protests) has a huge effect on what kind of housing is made available. What we’ve been getting under Hau is luxury apartments.

In the following blog post, Ben Goren mentions the housing policies listed in Ko’s short policy platform booklet and gives his own responses to them:

PS: Chinese-language transcripts of Ko’s debate remarks all available on Ko’s campaign website. On Google, search for “site: 1107辯論”


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