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By Paul R. Katz

As Taiwan’s presidential and legislative elections approach (just a little more than two months from now, on January 14, 2012), the former is shaping up to be a real puzzler. In theory, President Ma Ying-jeou should be having a cake walk: relations with China are better than ever and the economy is running at a reasonable clip, especially when compared with so many other nations throughout the world. Yet at this point in time most polls show him either holding only a slim lead or else mired in a statistical dead heat with DPP presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. Why?

Ma’s term started better than most. A man of charisma and integrity, he won the 2008 election by a landslide after popular disgust with the corrupt antics of the Chen Shuibian administration, garnering 7,658,724 votes (58% of the total) to overwhelm the Frank Hsieh ticket (5,445,239; 41%). Moreover, he swept into office with something Obama can only dream of: a nearly three-quarters supermajority for his party (the KMT) in the Legislative Yuan (81 of 113 seats or 71.68%, as opposed to a paltry 27 seats for the DPP). This majority remains substantial, despite the fact that the DPP and independents have whittled away at it over the years. There are also the advantages of incumbency, the KMT’s substantial assets, and strong support from a substantial percentage of the Taiwanese elite. The Ma administration has even been able to persuade the Central Election Commission to hold this particular election two months earlier than usual, just prior to the Lunar New Year, to allow Taiwanese businessmen in China the chance to return home to vote (Many are reckoned to be KMT supporters, and Taiwan has yet to institute a viable absentee ballot system). Yet the election remains closer than many had originally anticipated.

It is true that Ma proved unable to fulfill all of his campaign promises, but this is usually the case with elected leaders. Still, as in the U.S., most Taiwanese voters seem most concerned about the economy. Since Ma assumed office in 2008, closer links to China have given a major impetus to Taiwan’s economic growth. Nonetheless, critics point to the failure the Ma administration to reach the goals of his “633” policy, namely an economic growth rate of 6 percent, unemployment rate of lower than 3 percent and per capita gross domestic product of over US$30,000. Many college graduates now start at jobs with salaries averaging just over NT$20,000 per month, while far too many working class families struggle to make ends meet on monthly salaries of NT$30,000 (no indigenous form of Occupy Wall Street has arisen, yet). There is also growing concern about companies making their workers take unpaid leave (無薪假).

Apart from income gaps, there are regional ones as well. One especially troubling report released by the Ministry of the Interior noted that the average life expectancy of the Taiwanese people reached 79.18 years in 2010, the highest ever recorded. However, people in the capital city of Taipei have much longer lifespans than those in the poorer parts of Taiwan, especially along the island’s east coast. People living in Taitung and Hualien had the shortest life expectancies in the country in 2010 at 74.24 years and 74.96 years respectively, while the average life expectancy of Taipei residents stood at 82.42 years. This 7-8 year gap reflects the vastly uneven distribution of medical and public health resources throughout Taiwan.

Rising prices have sparked increasing anxiety and frustration. Many commodity prices are skyrocketing, except for those of Taiwan’s agricultural products (like bananas), that people had once assumed would be exported to China. The plight of Taiwan’s elderly farmers has attracted particular attention, particularly after the DPP produced a highly effective TV commercial about this issue that concluded with the news that the KMT had recently blocked an attempt to raise these farmers’ pensions (老農津貼). The KMT is well aware of the potential impact of this issue on the election campaign, but its legislators have yet to reach a consensus as to how much to raise pensions. Matters were made worse by a fraudulent commercial (since pulled) that appeared to show farmer Huang Kunbin 黃崑濱 (affectionately known as “Uncle Kunbin” or Khun-pin peh 崑濱伯 in Southern Min), a star of the touching documentary about Taiwan’s farmers entitled “Let it Be” (無米樂), adopting the KMT’s positions. To many farmers and residents of the peripheral areas mentioned above, the Ma administration seems aloof and indifferent, particularly following the devastation caused by Typhoon Morakot (For previous writings on recovery from the typhoon, see here).

It does not help Ma’s cause that the KMT is suffering its share of internal divisions (this is also the case with the DPP, but its elites seem willing to paper over their differences in order to regain power). Ma’s attempts to reform the party have offended many of its elders, some of whom appear to be only reluctantly supporting him. Concerns have also been raised about the so-called “金馬體制”, a reference not to Quemoy and Matsu but Ma’s close ties to his leading adviser King Pu-tsung 金溥聰, who some have branded a modern-day Heshen 和珅 (1750-1799) due to his seeming ability to know Ma’s policies before some ministers (ironically, King is an ethnic Manchu, reputed to be a cousin of the last Qing emperor Puyi 溥儀).

Still, despite all of these problems, Ma has consistently been able to maintain his lead over Tsai, despite a looming challenge from James Soong (see below). Therefore, many commentators were quite puzzled by Ma’s decision to suddenly suggest that Taiwan might consider signing a peace treaty with China in the coming decade. Then, in the face of furious criticism, Ma shifted course by stressing that any peace treaty would have to be approved by referendum before being signed, a stance that appears to contradict staunch KMT opposition to holding any plebiscites on “political issues”. Ma’s announcements may have been an attempt to shift the debate to his strength (Cross-Strait ties) and distract attention away from domestic issues, but the recent decline in Ma’s numbers suggests that this tactic may have backfired.

Ma is now facing additional pressure because Soong has followed through on his plans to pursue a third-party PFP campaign (again), attracting over 350,000 signatures in support of his candidacy. However, it remains unclear whether Soong will end up siphoning more votes from Ma or Tsai.

As for Tsai, nobody can be sure whether she has the “right stuff” to solve Taiwan’s problems, but her campaign is now kicking into high gear and attracting huge crowds at its rallies, including the 30,000+ who attended the opening of her campaign headquarters in New Taipei City. One seemingly minor but actually significant event was a decision by the Control Yuan to investigate the Tsai ticket for allegedly accepting illegal campaign contributions when three small children (triplets, actually) donated their piggybanks to her campaign (see the following video). Tsai’s staff had to return the money, causing the triplets’ grandfather to make an even larger donation in their place, but the resulting outrage and disbelief have prompted her campaign to announce a drive to collect 100,000 piggybanks full of donations (see here and here). Whether this will amount to anything remains to be seen, but many have been struck by the symbolism of the small donations that are largely responsible for fueling the Tsai campaign, which contrast markedly with the size of the well-oiled KMT machine and the support some local corporations as well as Taiwanese businessmen in China are credited with providing to Ma. If these patterns continue, the entire election may come to be cast as a battle of The People vs. The Machine.

At this point in time, either Ma or Tsai can win, although Ma would seem to retain an overall edge. For Ma, the keys to victory will be doing what he can to ensure that the economy stays strong, persuading the people to recognize and appreciate his many achievements, and hoping that nothing untoward happens to disrupt Cross-Strait ties. In Tsai’s case, she will need to stay focused on message of social justice, which helped the DPP gain power back in 2000, while avoiding the thorny issue of Taiwanese identity. Both candidates will have to keep a close eye on how Soong’s presidential bid develops.

By Paul R. Katz

“History is never for itself; it is always for someone” — Keith Jenkins, Rethinking History, p. 16

Controversies about the past are nothing new to modern Taiwan, but this one is something completely different, centering not on how to remember the Japanese colonial era, the 228 Incident, or the White Terror, but the forthcoming 100th anniversary of the Republic of China’s founding on January 1, 1912 (建國百年).

At the center of the current sturm und drang is Taiwan’s Academia Historica (國史館), the putative successor to the imperial Historiography Institute (same Chinese name) established from the Song to Qing dynasties. In order to help celebrate the centennial, the Academia’s staff put together an Internet poll for the 100 most influential figures in ROC history, with the list of candidates including not only renowned ROC presidents like Sun Yat-sen (孫中山; 1886-1925) and Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石; 1887-1975), but also CCP leaders who had helped overthrow the ROC government in China, including Mao Zedong (毛澤東; 1893-1976), Zhou Enlai (周恩來; 1898-1976), and Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平; 1904-1997); even the last emperor Puyi 溥儀 (1906-1967) made the list.

Apparently the Academia staff was quite enthusiastic about this undertaking; in addition to organizing these 100 individuals according to their achievements in politics, military affairs, economics, foreign policy, religion, academia, the arts, etc., there was even talk of establishing a category for the best-looking.

Regrettably, the road to political controversy is paved with good intentions. To the great consternation of both pan-blue and pan-green political elites, by early December the poll’s results had taken an unexpected turn, with Deng topping the list as the most influential figure in the military category and Chairman Mao ranking third in the category of political leaders, ahead of his longtime rival Chiang (One should note that this poll does not seem to have attracted much attention: Sun received the most votes (2800+), while Deng’s #1 ranking was based on a mere 90-vote total).

Regardless of how popular the poll might have been, it clearly touched a raw nerve. The situation started to spin out of control on December 9, when KMT Legislator Justin Chou 周守訓 questioned Deputy Minister of National Defense Chao Shih-chang 趙世璋 about the propriety of listing people like Deng, with Chao responding that it was “absolutely inappropriate” (絕對不合適). Other outraged KMT elites referred to the poll as “child’s play” (兒戲), while others noted that it touched on sensitive issues of Cross-Straits relations and national identity. Many of these sentiments were summed up by Chou, who recalled the men and women who had laid down their lives for the nation, exclaiming “How can the ROC bear this!” (中華民國情何以堪!).

For its part, the Academia Historica appears to have been caught off guard, initially issuing a statement explaining that the Internet poll had been planned as a lesson in historical objectivity by including ROC and PRC leaders who had helped shaped ROC history (at a 60::40 ratio). Shortly thereafter, a decision was made to delete controversial figures like Deng and Mao from the list, but it was too late. By the evening of December 9, the entire poll had been removed from the public sphere, apparently on orders from President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 himself (Academia Historica is under the jurisdiction of the Presidential Office). Sources close to the issue indicated that Ma was “extremely concerned” (非常重視) about this matter, ordering that it be “dealt with seriously” (嚴肅處理). Some Academia staffers were subjected to demotions, demerits, and other administrative punishments, but that proved insufficient to quell the rage. Following a stormy interpellation session featuring intense questioning by both KMT and DPP lawmakers, the Legislative Yuan voted to refer Academia Historica President Lin Man-houng 林滿紅 (a leading economic historian) to the Control Yuan for impeachment proceedings. Lin chose instead to submit her resignation, which (not surprisingly) the Presidential Office has accepted.

Apart from being a fascinating case study of Taiwanese academic and identity politics, the above controversy also raises a number of key questions about how to commemorate the past 100 years of modern Chinese history. To begin with, whose history is meant to be written? Should historical studies honoring the 100th anniversary of the ROC’s founding focus solely on its heroes or also key figures traditionally labeled by the ROC state as bandits (fei 匪)? Another tricky issue for President Ma and other KMT pro-unification elites is how to go about celebrating this anniversary without offending pro-unification voters and PRC leaders by reminding them of the fact that the ROC (Taiwan) is an independent country. The Internet poll also proved offensive to DPP and other pan-green elites by treating Taiwanese who lived under Japanese colonial rule as ROC figures, while overlooking pro-independence figures like Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄 and Peng Ming-min 彭明敏. Even the term “founding the nation” (jianguo 建國) is not without its share of controversy. The ROC may be getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary, but in the PRC the term refers to an event that took place 61 years ago.

Both ROC and PRC historians clearly recognize the significance of the past 100 years and have launched massive writing projects, but based on very different perspectives and agendas. One such effort, organized by the Department of History at Nanjing University (南京大學) but also including some Taiwanese scholars, focuses on the 100 years dating from the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命百年). The leader of this project is the senior modern Chinese historian Zhang Xianwen 張憲文, who edited a four-volume magnum opus on ROC history (中華民國史) published in 2006. For obvious reasons, the book’s time frame only extends to 1949, and the definition of ROC history underlying the forthcoming project should not be much different. A second and somewhat similar project is also being put together by the Institute of Modern History at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing (北京中國社會科學院近代史研究所).

Taiwanese historians are hardly sitting on the sidelines waiting for their Chinese counterparts to complete their “spin” on the past century. Many leading scholars here have initiated a mammoth ROC history writing project (the「中華民國發展史」撰寫計畫), which is being funded by Taiwan’s National Science Council (行政院國家科學委員會) and should result in another set of volumes covering a very different time frame and definition of modern Chinese history. In the interests of full disclosure, I should also point out that my own institute (the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica; 中央研究院近代史研究所) is planning a conference to discuss key topics in ROC history and set new agendas for the field.

All this indicates that modern Chinese history continues to be a contested arena. As Keith Jenkins points out, “History is a shifting, problematic discourse…subject to a series of uses and abuses that are logically infinite but which in actuality generally correspond to a range of power bases that exist at any given moment”. It looks to be a year of raucous historiographical debate. Stay tuned.

By Paul Katz

August 8, 2010 marked the first anniversary of the Siaolin Village 小林村 tragedy, when torrential rains caused by Typhoon Morakot triggered a massive mudslide that swept this idyllic community off the face of the earth, taking 474 lives. Conditions one year later were eerily similar, with rain drenching the disaster site and another threat (Tropical Storm Dianmu 電母) lurking off the east coast (happily it did not make landfall). Southern Taiwan has suffered heavy rains during the past month, but there has been little destruction and loss of life (so far), unlike the terrible flooding that has ravaged so much of China recently, such as the Gansu 甘肅 landslides.

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The past year has been a time of profound pain and loss. Such feelings found expression in the Buddhist memorial ceremony held to commemorate the disaster, with tearful villagers making offerings such as betel nuts and rice wine to their loved ones to the accompaniment of scripture recitation rites. This being an election year, the rituals also attracted all three candidates running to serve as mayor of the new Kaohsiung Municipality (encompassing today’s Kaohsiung City and Kaohsiung County). Nonetheless, the focus rightly remained on the needs of those victims who survived.

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For amidst the grief has also arisen hope for new life. The first permanent housing project for some of Siaolin’s survivors, known as “Great Love Village” (大愛園區), was built by the Buddhist Compassion Relief Merit Society (佛教慈濟功德會) in Shanlin 杉林 Township (Kaohsiung County), yet only a few villagers have chosen to live there. More villagers have expressed interest in the second permanent housing project being constructed by the government, which is slated to be finished soon. These homes will be situated in the village of Wulipu 五里埔, located less than one kilometer from where Siaolin Village used to stand and also the site for the successful restaging of the annual Siraya Plains Aborigine 西拉雅平埔原住民族 ritual known as the “Siaolin Night Festival” (小林夜祭).

Most of the villagers, representing between 106 and 130 of Siaolin’s remaining 247 households, have continued to advocate for their dream of undertaking the rebuilding process themselves using land purchased by the ROC Red Cross in Shanlin. Their wishes went unheeded for many long months, with the government insisting that they settle in one of the two above-mentioned housing projects. Things finally came to a head in the days leading up to the anniversary, when villagers and their supporters started circulating a petition that appealed to the government to follow through on its earlier pledges to rebuild the village of Siaolin in a way that helped preserve its Plains Aborigine culture. They also staged a candlelight ceremony on the evening of August 8, with President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 and other dignitaries joining villagers in lighting candles placed in the shape of the Chinese character “home” (家).

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This time their dreams have come true, be it due to the legitimacy of their claims, the power of their rhetoric, and/or the fact that another round of elections is coming up. Following the ceremony, village leaders joyfully announced the good news: President Ma has promised to support a special rebuilding project that adheres to the villagers’ wishes. If land acquisition and construction processes go according to schedule, the new Siaolin Village should be completed in just eight months, and its Plains Aborigine culture will be preserved.

The road to recovery has been a long one, and there is still some distance to be travelled, but at least things now seem to be moving in the right direction. The fact that so much has been accomplished is a tribute to the spirit of Taiwan’s people, as well as the quality of this nation’s democracy, which, while far from perfect, does allow citizens to pressure their leaders to do what it takes to meet their needs.

Note: Many thanks to Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬 for providing the photos.

This is the final in a series of articles Paul Katz has written on the rebuilding of Siaolin. Read previous entries here.


By Paul R. Katz

Each of us can make a difference. It may not be easy, but it can be done; all you need is love, patience, and dedication.

One person who has made a difference is Hsiao Hsien-Ming 蕭賢明, who works for the Council for Cultural Affairs of the Executive Yuan (行政院文化建設委員會). Like so many of us, he watched in horror as the news came in about the village of Siaolin 小林 being wiped off the face of the earth. Moreover, as a father of three small children (Chemg is 12, Zoe is 9, and Zhi is 6), he felt the deepest sorrow for the numerous young lives that had been lost. Much has been done to help Siaolin stand up, and previous posts on this blog have described how the government and various NGO’s have contributed to various reconstruction projects (see earlier reports here, here, here, and here). Compassionate and caring individuals have done their share as well; Hsiao is one example.

It began shortly before Children’s Day (兒童節; celebrated on April 4 in Taiwan), when Hsiao’s thoughts turned to an image of the Siaolin Elementary School principlal standing in prayer on behalf of those school children who had perished. Profoundly moved, Hsiao decided to visit Siaolin and help its youngest survivors give voice to their thoughts in words, images, and especially music.

Hsiao arrived in Siaolin on the morning of April 4. accompanied by a colleague from the Council for Cultural Affairs, two students from Tainan National University of the Arts, village leaders, school teachers, parents, and representatives of the Association for the Reconstruction of Siaolin’s Plains Aborigine Culture (小林平埔原住民族文化重建協會), including Professor Chien Wen-min 簡文敏 and Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬. They all headed to the neighboring village of Wulipu 五里埔, where many of Siaolin’s surviving families now reside. There they met some of Siaolin’s school children and their parents, and explained to them how they hoped to make this a special day for the kids who were there, as well as those who no longer had a chance to take part.

Once everything was all set, Hsiao took out his clarinet and started to play for the kids, with some singing along and others accompanying on their own musical instruments. Together, they played a number of Taiwanese and Western classics, including “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” (小星星), “Jasmine” (茉莉花), “Spring Breeze” (望春風), and “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心). The children also spent time making paper hearts and drawing pretty pictures on them as gifts for their deceased classmates. Sounds of joy filled the room.

Difference photo 1

Yet there was also sorrow, as could be seen in some of the messages the children wrote to their departed friends:

“How could you leave us without saying goodbye?”

“I hope you can go to school in Heaven, and that you are doing well up there.”

“I miss you, I miss you so much. Do you miss me? I hope you are happy in Heaven, and that we will see each other again. Do you remember your nickname?”

“Here’s hoping they build us a new school soon. Wishing you joy up in Heaven.”

When the children had finished making their gifts, Hsiao and the other adults loaded the paper hearts as well as flowers they had prepared into a truck, and drove to the disaster site. There they laid the flowers on the ground in the shape of a giant heart, and placed the little hearts inside.

Difference photo 2

Hsiao then played the clarinet again, performing the same songs on behalf of the children who had perished, all the while thinking that if his own children had been the victims he would have wished for someone to do something similar on their behalf. For it is parents’ love for their children that can help them bear such an immeasurable loss, and continue down the path of life.

Difference photo 3

When the last notes had faded away, Hsiao and his companions prepared to leave, placing small stones on the paper hearts so that they would not easily blow away. As they drove off, Hsiao spotted a young couple and their small child walking past the monument to love on their way to some unknown destination. They stopped, gazed at the flowers and hearts, and then moved on, perhaps now with a more pleasant memory of a site that holds so much sorrow. May they never walk alone.

Difference photo 4

Yes, one person can make a difference. And now we know what it takes . . .

Note: All photographs taken by Hung Shu-fen 洪淑芬.


Many Taiwanese are becoming increasingly concerned for the health of First Lady Chow Mei-ching 周美青 (Christine Chow Ma), who suffered a spinal injury after being bowled over by a group of overenthusiastic children while visiting a primary school in Pingtung 屏東 County on March 3. She was released from the hospital on March 16, but despite repeated Presidential Office reassurances that the First Lady is in good health doctors have ordered two months of additional bed rest, meaning that she had to miss the opening game of Taiwan’s professional baseball league on March 20 (the First Lady is an avid Brother Elephants 兄弟象 fan; they won 1-0). One of her daughters has returned from the U.S. to assist in her care.

The First Lady, a dedicated philanthropist, is in some ways more popular than her husband, whose prestige has suffered from a series of official missteps on policies like the death penalty as well as repeated KMT losses in local elections. Her admirers are particularly worried about media reports claiming that the she currently weighs only 46 kilograms, less than many middle school girls. These fears came to a head following the broadcast of a talk show about the First Lady on ETTV network (東森關鍵時刻), which prompted some viewers to wonder whether she might be suffering from anorexia. Such concerns remain in the realm of unconfirmed speculation, but one sincerely hopes that regardless of the nature of her illness the First Lady will get well very soon.

Perhaps the current discussion can also help focus public attention on the problem of eating disorders, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in Taiwan and the rest of East Asia as well. In a moving January 2, 2005 Taipei Times article entitled “Bingeing, Purging, Starving in the Dark”, one of Taiwan’s few specialists in this field, Dr. Chen Kuan-yu 陳冠宇, referred to anorexia as a “hidden problem” due to the fact that cultural stigmas related to emotional disorders prevent many people from coming forward or even discussing their problems with family and friends. This article also quoted an Asian medical journal as stating that the percentage of females suffering from anorexia and bulimia in Japan, South Korea and Singapore might be nearly 1 percent, although Dr. Chen’s own estimate is 0.2 percent for women in Taiwan. This corresponds with extrapolated statistics posted on some websites:

Katz table

Regardless of actual numbers, an increasing number of reports indicate that eating disorders like anorexia are on the rise throughout Asia, including in Japan, Hong Kong, and China. As early as December 9, 1999, a New York Times article from that paper’s “Beijing Journal” entitled “China’s Chic Waistline: Convex to Concave” described the seriousness of this problem, while an October 23, 2006 article entitled “Eating Disorders Attacking Girls in China” reported that, “Eating disorders are like ghosts haunting many young women in big cities in China. Many patients even have kept their disease secret from their families for years.”

All this suggests that anorexia and other illnesses are starting to have a major impact on Taiwan and other Asian nations. Unfortunately, however, Taiwan has yet to establish its own branch of the National Eating Disorder Association, while public or private clinics and specialists in treating these disorders are woefully few. Eating disorders like anorexia are monstrous afflictions that sink their claws into men and women of all ages, gradually shredding away their humanity. It is time for committed philanthropists and concerned citizens throughout Asia to devote their energies to alleviating the suffering so many people now endure. Promoting public awareness and acceptance would be a good way to start.

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