A Day in the Life of a ‘Li Zhang’

Although we don’t see or hear them very often, the local pillars play an essential role within their communities and in election time

“Come in, come in! Sit down and have some tea!” the cheerful voice calls out as I open the door to Mr. Huang’s first-floor office just outside Taipei. On any given day, various members of the community gather at the table for pu’er tea, snacks, fruit, and sometimes alcohol. On the day of our appointment, Mr. Huang, or “Ah-Chuan,” as everyone calls him, was sampling white wine with his friends.

Ah-Chuan is head of a ward, or “Li” (里). According Article 59 of the Local Government Act (地方制度法), “Villages/Wards shall each have a chief of village/ward, who, upon the instruction and under the supervision of the mayor of township/city, or chief administrator, shall handle village/ward affairs and carry out commissioned tasks”. In other words, the job description of the head of a ward, or “Li Zhang,” is generic, which leaves plenty of room for the elected to maneuver on the community services he provides. A Li Zhang is elected every four years with no term limit. Case in point: Ah-Chuan has been the Li Zhang of his ward since 1981.

“I think of myself as part of the service industry, and I very much enjoy helping members of my community. I was born here, and my family is from here. I don’t get paid to do what I do. What I receive for my elected post is an operational fee of NT$45,000 per month, which I have to utilize wisely to pay office bills and other miscellaneous things.

“Oh! See that activity center next to this office? I helped get that for the people here,” A-Chuan explains proudly.

Li Zhangs like Ah-Chuan were a factor in Taiwan’s political fabric long before democratization. They play an integral role in the electoral success of politicians and their parties, and did so even when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was the only party running in elections. Under the previous multi-candidate system for legislative elections, the candidates were ranked according to the number of votes each received, and those with the largest numbers of votes were elected. In other words, KMT candidates relied on people like Ah-Chuan to promote them with the ward’s voters and to encourage them to vote for them. According to Ah-Chuan, his ward carries approximately 5,000 votes (about 1,900 families).

The Li Zhangs operate at what could be called the “super grassroots” level. Through his frequent interactions with the locals, Ah-Chuan is not only familiar with the members of the ward and their lifestyles, he has also established a sense of camaraderie with them. Throughout my visit with Ah-Chuan, I saw a constant flow of elderly residents who came to his office to use the blood pressure machine he had acquired for them. He always greeted them and asked about their health.

Ah-Chuan’s office is a trove of political memorabilia, photographs with central government officials, awards for service and philanthropy, and commemorative plaques of excellence. There are also urns filled with expensive tea — Huang collects tea for a hobby — and statues of deities like Guan Gong and Matsu. There are also several CCTV monitors mounted on the wall, which allow Huang to keep track of the comings and goings in the neighborhood, or, perhaps more importantly, to see when a guest is coming.

As I entered Ah-Chuan’s office, I discovered that my cup of aged tea was already waiting for me at the table.

Photo by Ketty W. Chen/Thinking Taiwan Photo by Ketty W. Chen

Our lunch consisted of a large bowl of the Huang family’s famous stewed pork and eggs, stir-fried cabbage and water spinach, stewed radish, fish, green onion and eggs, and two kinds of soup. The lunch guests were all members of the community and included the owner of a sound equipment company who often provides sound systems for political campaigns, a former head of the fire department in the district, a former KMT legislator, and an employee of the district government.

As the guests wolfed down the delicious local cuisine, the conversation focused almost exclusively on current political events, with a strong dose of political gossip.

“Eat more, eat more!” Ah-Chuan encouraged us as he dropped a stewed egg in my bowl. “These are just country dishes, but this is very Taiwanese! You won’t have them in America.”

Two police officers also showed up and informed Ah-Chuan that they were investigating a noise complaint from a ward resident and thought it best to visit the Li Zhang first, as he might be able to shed light on the matter. The officers said the complainant claimed he’d heard loud noises in the middle of the night, possibly from a mentally challenged person.

“There is no such person living in that lane,” Ah-Chuan said confidently as he waved his hand dismissively. “And I haven’t heard anything. You are more than welcome to investigate, but I know for a fact that no mentally ill person, or even a loud person, for that matter, lives in that lane.”

As he’d predicted, the investigation turned up nothing.

Numerous individuals came in and out of the Li Zhang’s office in the afternoon. One was tempted to ask how Ah-Chuan manages to keep track of everyone and everything. Asked about his daily routine, Ah-Chuan said, “I’m so busy. I am like a 7-Eleven, you know, like a convenience store. I offer all kinds of service to those who ask. I do everything around here, acting as mediator between two quarreling neighbors. If someone’s street light is broken, someone needs help filing his taxes, someone has questions about receiving public assistance or pension for the elderly, traffic accidents.”

Anyone who doubts that a single man can accomplish all these things need only look at his business card, on which appear no less than five titles, all dealing with community matters. Ah-Chuan also serves as chairperson of the District Dispute Committee (區公所調解委員會). The previous days, he’d had to help resolve a total of 33 disputes, and he did not hesitate to tell me how exhausting some of those meetings could get. But it matters: The decisions of those committees are binding and are recognized by the district court.

Ah-Chuan was also very keen to point out that he has no political party affiliations. He did admit, however, that the KMT city party headquarters had asked him to join the party on several occasions. Ah-Chuan nonetheless served as “consultant” in his district for the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九)-Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) ticket during the 2012 presidential election, though he quickly downplays his influence over voter decisions.

“Ay! Do you really think that I have that much influence over people?” he exclaimed when I asked him about lobbying votes for a particular candidate and party. “If I tell you to vote for someone, would you really listen to me? Of course, not! We’re in a democracy, and people vote however they want! Who’s going to listen to me?”

“Do you really think that young people are going to listen to me?” he said, throwing his hands up in the air in resignation. Maybe he was being a little tongue-in-cheek.

Photo by Ketty W. Chen/Thinking Taiwan Photo by Ketty W. Chen

Some people refer to Li Zhangs as “Tiao-a-ka” (柱仔腳)in Taiwanese or “Zhuang Jiao” (樁腳) in Mandarin, which literally means a“pillar.” Politicians and political parties need these “pillars” to prop them up and keep them on the good side of the electorate both during and off election season. Ah-Chuan personally detests being called a “Tiao-a-ka,” as the term carries the connotation of vote buying and corruption, two things that continue to plague Taiwanese politics.

As much as Ah-Chuan hates to admit it, his views undeniably have a certain amount of influence over the residents he knows so much about.

When I press him to say something more about his political influence, he says that he provides “explanations” and “interpretations” of government policies to ward residents on a regular basis. While he doesn’t recommend any particular political candidates to the residents (even if they ask), he does tell them his opinion on which political candidate has a record of providing for and helping the community, he tells me. Raising his fist for dramatic effect, he then adds that Taiwan needs “a real man” to lead the country.

As I step out of his office into the scorching heat outside, Ah-Chuan calls out in a friendly voice, “Come back to have lunch anytime, OK?”

Foot soldiers like Ah-Chuan are almost invisible in Taiwan’s political scene, as they blend perfectly with the communities they live in. They are seldom in the news, yet despite Ah-Chuan’s claims to the contrary, the outcome of local elections is often determined by whether Li Zhangs like him favor a particular candidate over another. Unsurprisingly, almost every single candidate that Ah-Chuan has favored over the more than three decades he has served as Li Zhang has been elected.

Ketty W. Chen is Director of Research Programs at the Association of Public Issues Studies (TAPIS) in Taipei.

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.