Hsiao Bi-khim at Columbia University: report

Ms. Bi-khim Hsiao 蕭美琴, spokeswoman and advisor for the Tsai Ing-wen Presidential Campaign, recently spoke at Columbia University. The event took place on 16 November 2011 and was organized by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Ms. Hsiao was invited to speak as a prominent alumna, who graduated with an M.A. in political science in 1995. Political Science Department Professor Andrew Nathan served as the moderator. The venue was filled to capacity with students, scholars, and members of the public. There was a question and answer session following her speech. A number of the questions came from Chinese students who were fascinated to learn more about  Taiwan, their democratic neighbor.

Ms. Hsiao began by discussing her background, simultaneously weaving her own life story and interest in politics into her perspectives on the process of democratic transition and consolidation in Taiwan. Recalling the night when she emceed Chen Shui-bian’s presidential victory rally in 2000, she saw tears in the eyes of older generations of Taiwanese. They had waited their entire lives to change their government through the power of the ballot box. Ms. Hsiao poignantly remarked that following the historic victory, Democratic Progressive Party leaders had to deal with a bureaucracy that formerly saw them as enemies of the state, and had throw a number of them in jail. An opposition party that was born and raised on the streets had to learn how to put its ideals into practice by working within the political system and from the Presidential Palace.

When Tsai Ing-wen took over as chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party in May 2008, the party was five million dollars in debt. Many had quipped that the DPP was in the ICU, and Ms. Hsiao said that the process of recovery was difficult and divisive. However, Chairwoman Tsai took a number of steps that enabled the party to once again become a relevant force in Taiwan politics. Her leadership marked a generational change: Tsai was one of the first DPP leaders who was neither politically active during the martial law period nor a victim of political persecution. One of her goals was to encourage the younger generation to help play a leading role in the renewal and regeneration of the party.

Under Tsai Ing-wen’s stewardship the DPP has refocused its attention on socio-economic policy issues, not only cross-Strait issues. It has also sought to win back the public confidence it lost in 2008; Ms. Hsiao noted that in her own mild and moderate way, Tsai Ing-wen has managed to achieve a feat that many had thought impossible. During the November 2010 municipal elections, the DPP won more votes nationwide  than the KMT, despite winning only two out of five mayoral seats. Ms. Hsiao believes that if the DPP wins this election, the party will win on a center-left socio-economic agenda.

Since becoming Chairwoman, Tsai has focused on seeking small individual donations (小募款) and refusing large donations. Ms. Hsiao described how some corporations would attempt to funnel 90 percent of their campaign donations to Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) candidates, and donate the remaining 10 percent to the DPP. Even such a  relatively small amount of money would benefit the coffers of the DPP, which has always had to compete with a party believed to be one of the world’s wealthiest. However, given the political accusations flung at former President Chen when he accepted corporate donations, Chairwoman Tsai wanted to rebuild the party’s public image as devoted to clean, transparent politics.

In this spirit, the Democratic Progressive Party is currently in the midst of its “Three Little Pigs” fundraising campaign. Ms. Hsiao explained how young triplets attempted to donate money from their piggy banks to Tsai’s campaign, with their grandfather at their side. The KMT protested to the Control Yuan (a government watchdog and one of five equal branches of government in Taiwan), which subsequently ruled that the children’s donations violated the Act Concerning Political Donations because they had yet to reach voting age. Many indignant Taiwanese voters responded by presenting piggy banks full of coins and bills to the DPP. The party began ordering its own plastic piggy banks from the only factory in Taiwan that produces them (the others have moved to China), and tens of thousands of them have been snatched up by party supporters wishing to make donations.

Ms. Hsiao argues that Taiwan is currently standing at the crossroads of a number of policy issues. How will Taiwan deal with security issues, national sovereignty issues, and economic integration with China? She noted that as the debate over nuclear energy continues, the DPP has proposed to invest resources into new energy sectors. Taiwan current operates three nuclear power plans and is building one more. All four plants rest on earthquake fault lines. There is also a renewed interest in agricultural issues in Taiwan. Although production costs are high, the industry creates many jobs. Taiwanese are increasingly aware that as Taiwan moves toward greater economic integration with China, the subsequent economic growth has not benefited all sectors of society equally. Although the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement has already been signed with China, Ms. Hsiao remarked that if any adjustments need to be made in the future, under a DPP administration they would occur only with the democratic consent of the public via the legislative process. The DPP has previously argued that the ECFA negotiations were not transparent and that the Legislative Yuan was not properly informed during the negotiation process.

The Democratic Progressive Party believes in an activist-oriented approach toward its role in Asia. Ms. Hsiao noted the importance of connecting to the region through democracy. Democracy is not just a moral value, but also a strategic asset for Taiwan, a form of soft power that is critical to its survival. Taiwan needs to not only preserve its democratic achievements, but also consolidate and deepen its gains. Taiwan must continue to find creative solutions to find adequate international breathing room, such as working through NGOs and INGOs. Although Taiwan is already a de facto independent country, Ms. Hsiao asserts that Taiwan seeks recognition. At the same time, she emphasized that Taiwan and China have common interests and can work together without seeking to antagonize each other.

Julia M. Famularo is a Research Affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and a fourth-year doctoral student in Modern East Asian Political History at Georgetown University.