Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Richard Bush on Taiwan's Domestic Gridlock

Richard Bush, one of the US government's most important and respected Taiwan specialists, a former director of AIT, gave a speech last month entitled: Democratic Gridlock on Taiwan: Domestic Sources and External Implications. Bush said, discussing reasons why the US should care about Taiwan's democracy, noted:

I would add a third, historical, reason why the United States should care. That is that the United made some decisions concerning the status of Taiwan and fate of the people of Taiwan without consulting them. True, there was no way to consult them but that was all the more reason to take special care in making those choices. The most obvious of these decisions were made in 1943, 1971-72, and 1978. Having done so, we should hope for a healthy Taiwan democracy whose choices reflect well the wishes of the people.

It's so rare to see a US forthrightly acknowledge that the US screwed the people of Taiwan, and now it owes them. Thanks a ton, Dr. Bush.

Bush also noted:

It is certainly true that the divided government of the last six years has contributed to the plight in which Taiwan finds itself. And perhaps unified government would bring a radical improvement. But I am more inclined to believe that much of the political dysfunction is structural in origin. That is, leaders, parties, politicians, and publics are operating, often in spite of themselves, in a democratic order that is only partway constructed and not yet consolidated. The behavior that we see may make sense for the individual actors in the system but it is dysfunctional for the public at large. And I would argue that this behavior is going to continue until the democratic order is completely consolidated. Dr. Shelley Rigger, who teaches at Davidson College in North Carolina and is the leading specialist on Taiwan's domestic politics, tends to agree with me. She writes that: "the structural problems in the island's political system predate Chen Shui-bian's presidency. . . . So long as they are not resolved, anyone who accedes to the presidency will be plagued by these same institutional challenges."

Yup. I've been saying this for two years: the island's political structure inevitably causes the troubles we see. Taiwan's problems, as the recent spate of scandals has shown, are inevitable given its assumptions about the way government should be ordered. There are additional sociocultural problems -- for example, in Chinese society lines of authority are rarely spelled out as clearly as they are in US society. In essence, political reform in Taiwan requires shifting from a high context to a low context society, and many institutions giving up the informal and weighty power they exert. Highly unlikely.

Want to throw up? Guess who got invited to the session at Brookings earlier in 2006 on Taiwan's democratic system. Our favorite pro-Blue news commentator, Emile Sheng. Here's Bush's description:

Emile Sheng of Soochow University described how the results of the 2004 election were distorted by President Chen’s call for a defensive referendum on election day and by the assassination attempt on him and Vice President Lu the day before and offered suggestions for mechanisms to avoid those sorts of effects in the future.

Of course, from Sheng's anti-Chen standpoint, the election results were "distorted" since the people voted in the hated Mad Chen. But that's what happens when local pro-Blue commentators stoke local contempt for the President, and their followers then dutifully take a shot at the President. What really happened on March 19, 2004 was that the Blues' own policy came back to bite them in the ass, a fairly regular occurrence in Taiwan politics. Were it not for the incompetence and arrogance of the Blues, the DPP would be a minor party representing a few areas in southern Taiwan. But I digress...

Bush's observations on the whole are both valid and pertinent, but like many US comments on Taiwan's politics, they neglect the crucial role the US plays in shaping the gridlock on Taiwan. Bush mentions the arms purchase, but does not inform the reader that the primary fault probably lies with the Pentagon and the US Navy, each of which for their own reasons has been completely unreasonable. I wish US analysts would stop pretending that only Taiwan is to blame for that problem.

Another US problem is that whenever Constitutional change goes on the US bites its fingernails. Bush, who has long studied Taiwan, realizes, of course, that the US position on Constitutional change here is a problem for democratic development:

Some may ask, what would be the view of the United States, particularly if political reform requires constitutional change? There is the view in some quarters that the U.S. government opposes all constitutional change in Taiwan. That is a serious misreading. In fact, as the government of a democracy itself, the administration would welcome constitutional revision on Taiwan, done according to the provisions of the current constitution and for the purpose of improving the governance and performance of the island’s political system. If Taiwan embarks on the reform project of democratic consolidation so that the Taiwan people will have a better political system through which make their fundamental choices, the United States will support the effort. I only hope that China would too.

The problem is that I doubt anyone actually believes this. Taiwan specialists within the US government may reassure, but anyone who saw how bent out of shape the US got over the NUC abolition would question Bush's statement here. On the other hand, the US has been quiet throughout most of the Constitutional change process on the island for the last 15 years. Convincing people that it accepts Constitutional change here should be one of the top priorities of AIT head Steve Young.

Bush also proposes solutions:

So we may have to look elsewhere for stimulus in strengthening Taiwan's other political institutions, which is necessary for its own sake and to restore the public's confidence in the political system. I just offered my view that progress and reform has been more likely to occur on Taiwan when the Light Green and Light Blue political tendencies work together. Now it's easy for me to suggest a working coalition of these two forces. It is very hard to bring one about, particularly when we recall Dr. Chu Yun-han's conclusion about the erosion of the Taiwan political elite's faith in the openness and fairness of the political game – a critical condition for survival of a democratic system. Some in the DPP and the KMT were willing to work together in the 1990s on the project of constitutional reform because, at least, each side saw that it had something to gain. In today's zero-sum atmosphere, such cooperation is certainly harder to imagine. But there are ways to make it more likely.

Of course, back in the 1990s when Deep Green Lee Teng-hui was leading the KMT. Now the head of the KMT is a Deep Blue ideologue, and the KMT is coordinating policy with China. I've argued elsewhere that Light Blues and Light Greens do not really exist. The fundamental problem with Bush's analysis is that its assumptions are based on understandings of politics gleaned by studying western democracies. For example, he criticizes Taiwan's electoral system thusly:

One cause for polarization has been the electoral system for the Legislative Yuan, which hitherto has been as single, non-transferable vote system in multi-member districts. That has fostered a number of pathologies, one of which is the ability of candidates with narrow -- read non-centrist -- agendas to get elected. In

But the problem of Taiwan is exactly the opposite. The "non-centrist" candidates who get into the legislature are total centrists -- in fact, many of them are essentially career criminals with roots deep in local organized crime and business networks, the ultimate System Politicians. When you look across Taiwan's legislature, aside from Li Ao, how many real nuts are there? The System's problem is not that it elects non-centrists. It is that it doesn't elect non-centrists who might enact fundamental System reform. Everyone elected to the legislature in Taiwan pretty much agrees on the parameters of the System and how it should behave. Bush's Light Blues and Light Greens won't be able to make change, not because they are without a political base, but because hardly anyone in Taiwan questions the fundamental assumptions of politics on the island, both structural and socio-cultural. Even a grandstanding whackjob like Li Ao is basically just another System politician, though more interesting than most. The System at its finest was on display in the Guest House Scandal this week (ESWN):

DPP legislator Tsai Chi-fang was once photographed by Next Weekly as going to a KTV to look for "spice girls." He said that "What is the fun of drinking without girls? We are not saints." He complained that Gao Jyn-peng did not invite him along when there was fun to be had. At the press converence this morning, he put the blame on Next Weekly and Apple Daily for coming to Taiwan -- previously, politicans can go openly to bars and restaurants. Today, private guesthouses proliferate because politicans and businessmen can go in privacy while the business have shriveled for bars and restaurants.

Tsai Chi-fang said that most guesthouses are set up like KTV suites. It is too boring to talk businesses and drink by yourselves. It is a lot more fun when you have girls there. This is plain and ordinary. He emphasized that presidential aide Kuo Wen-pin must have been giving the woman a ride home. If they were really having sex somewhere, the paparazzis would not have passed that opportunity.

DPP legislator Lee Chun-yee said that Taipei mayor Ma Ying-jeou has visited the Fubon guesthouse several times. He later even sold the Taipei bank. People did not seem to mind.

Everyone, Light Blue, Dark Green, Light Green, Dark Blue, agrees on the parameters of this System: incestuous government-business relations, no real labor unions, no real environmental change, center-right economic policies, and the continued feeding and housing of the construction-industrial state monster. Change cannot come because voices that challenge all this do not exist within the political sphere. Nor is the US, currently hosting a disastrous foreign policy and an increasingly unequal center-right economic structure, in a position to effectively challenge Taiwan to move forward on these issues.

IMHO the most practicable (note, not best) political solution is probably the one mentioned by Bush at the beginning of the paper:

This raises a question. It's pretty clear that self-strengthening in the economic, military, and other non-political dimensions cannot occur in the current political climate. We therefore must consider two ways that it will occur. The first is a return to unified government. That is, either the pan-Blues or the pan-Greens gain control of both the legislative and executive branches in the elections that will be held around twelve to fifteen months from now. That is the view of the pan-Blues, as you might expect. Already in control of the Legislative Yuan, they say, "Drive our opponents from the executive branch, return us to power, and all will be well." The pan-Greens would hope to retain control of the executive and win the legislature as well. Unified government assumes, of course, that whichever coalition takes charge will adopt the right agenda. The other scenario is that the current Taiwan political system has more

With the shrinking of the legislature in 2007 there is little hope of a third party to change the local political situation for many years to come. At the moment, the best hope for a resolution is a DPP sweep of both the legislature and the Presidency and then work to make the party accommodate the immense need for institutional and structural change. The paradox of that, of course, is that if the DPP has total power it will feel little incentive to make major System change, while if power is shared the pro-China Blues will ensure that the legislature does nothing for Taiwan.

UPDATE: An anonymous commentator at Taiwan Matters! adds an interesting wrinkle to the swing voter issue.

I don't think you're right about the lack of swing voters. My personal experience is that the DPP has lost quite a bit of moderate support. The question is, has the KMT gained it? Given that they still are dirty as fuck and Ma Ying-jeou has proven himself weak and a poor administrator with neither centrist views nor solid control of his base...

Anyways, actually prior to this year, Ma appealed to a lot of the light green, and actually, I think light green are really the key. If absolutely EVERYONE came out to vote and voted their political leaning without the impact of a recent scandal or looking at the candidate, I think the DPP would win hands down. However, I also believe that a lot of this light green is apathetic--they don't think the DPP is so great that they would vote most of the time, but they aren't about to vote for the KMT.


taipeimarc said...

I think the DPP had a chance to take control on the whole she-bang in the Dec04 LY elections, but the foolish K-MRT and vulture inside trading scandals slammed the window of opportunity shut on them.

Regarding Taiwan's democratic future, I wonder sometimes if there is any future. What I mean is I wonder if during Paulson's and Bernanke's trip to China a few days ago, did they pull a Kissinger and sell out Taiwan once again? In exchange for China not tanking the dollar, the US will look the other way with upcoming CCP heavy handedness on Taiwan's political direction. The USA already has an excuse not to get involved, the 60x nixed armed budget (thanks in large part to Kissinger associate Soong)

Throw in the probability of Israeli/Cheney first strike on Iran which will pull the USA into a bigger hole, it will leave the USA helpless militarily to defend Taiwan. I know it sounds like a stretch, but it could be in the cards. We all know that Taiwan is the holy grail for China.

There's much more I can add, but I have to keep this short. Here is a good analysis of the China trip:
also iraq:

Anonymous said...

Ma is the master of saying the most ridiculous garbage with a straight face, and the media lets him go every time.

Today's tidbit:

Reporter: Chairman Ma, do you think that there's going to be more than one candidate running for the KMT's presidential nomination in 2008?
Ma: That's very possible, the KMT has _never_ been a party of a single voice.

Hello??? Anybody home??? Can we say Stalinist style authoritarian party state, ROC gov-KMT-ROC military?