The city of Tainan in the southern part of Taiwan is usually not on the foreign tourists’ radars. For those who are in the know, Tainan is the food capital of Taiwan—where various famous 台灣小吃 (street food snacks) originated. It is also known as a place with a more relaxing pace to life.
However, it is also the most historically significant city in Taiwan. It was the original site of the Dutch settlement Fort Zeelandia, finished in 1643; it was the seat of Taiwan’s head administration for longer than any other city; it was where Taiwan’s first printed newsletter (in Romanized Taiwanese), in 1885, came off the press.
As part of our 2014 Taiwan mid-term local elections coverage, we caught up with the mayor of Tainan Lai Ching-te (賴清德) right before his flight while visiting the San Francisco Bay Area. He was originally a doctor, specializing in spinal cord injuries. In 1998 he was elected member of parliament for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and served until 2010, when he successfully ran for mayor of the newly created Greater Tainan metropolitan region. He is generally seen as a potential future leader of the party, but some have also criticized him as pro-business and too soft on China—until a few months ago in June, he said that Taiwan independence is a societal consensus, at a public event in Shanghai.
Here is our very short interview in Mandarin, and see below for our transcript and translation.
Ketagalan Media (KM): As the first mayor after Tainan City and County was combined and upgraded to a direct city (the same status as Taipei and Kaohsiung, which enjoys special benefits), how is your vision for Tainan different from the other metropolitan areas in Taiwan? Do you support the policy of special direct cities? What about rural areas like Yunlin, Taitung, that are not eligible for the special status?
Mayor Lai Ching-te (Lai): When Tainan was upgraded, our vision was to build a cultural capital for Taiwan, because for most of history, Tainan is Taiwan. So Tainan’s path to development will be different from Taipei, New Taipei, Taichung, Kaohsiung, and even Taoyuan special metropolitan areas. We are learning from places like Kyoto in Japan, New York in the US, or Paris in France, but we still want to have our own unique path in Taiwan. We want people to see Tainan as the cultural and historical capital of Taiwan.
In addition, Tainan is also investing in technology. We also have three national cultural scenic areas. So my vision is: Tainan as a cultural capital, plus being an intelligent city, technological powerhouse, and tourism destination. Naturally, this will be different from the other cities.
KM: In June when you were visiting Shanghai, you mentioned at a conference that “Taiwan independence is a social consensus in Taiwan,” which sparked widespread discussions. Can you tell us specifically how you define “Taiwan independence?” Does this consensus accept the 1992 Consensus (between China and Taiwan that agrees there is only one China but differ on the interpretation)? Does it support changing the name and flag of the country? Does it support immediate independence or eventual independence? What’s the attitude towards China?
Lai: I mentioned this in Shanghai as well. When [DPP’s] President Chen Shui-bian ran for president in 2000 and 2004, he was elected on a platform based on DPP’s Taiwan Independence Party Charter of 1991, and the Resolution on Taiwan’s Future of 1999. Basically, there are two elements: Taiwan is an independent sovereign nation, and its future should be decided by its 23 million residents. Right now, if you look at surveys, between independence and unification (without the choice of maintaining the status quo), support for independence should be above 70%. I think we can conclude from that, that people in general don’t quite support the 1992 Consensus. As for our official name, the flag, or the national anthem, whether we should change them or how we should change them, that should be decided by the people.
KM: To follow up, you mentioned that the general sense is that no matter what, the 23 million people of Taiwan should decide. Some people say, well the 23 million people vote in elections, and they can pick their president and their parliament, which then is supposed to represent the wishes of the 23 million people. For example, since President Ma Ying-jeou is elected by the people, shouldn’t he be able to make those decisions on the 23 million people’s behalf?
Lai: I think when the Taiwanese people agree that the 23 million of them should all make a decision, that’s specific to each question. I believe it has to be done through referendums, and not give the president a blank check to make whatever decisions he wants on behalf of the people. I don’t agree with that.
KM: So you would support referendums on each specific question?
Lai: Yes, that would be a more accurate gauge of the people’s will.
KM: Generally the impression of the DPP is that local magistrates and officials are more pragmatic (or some might say, more China-leaning) than the policy wonks in the party headquarters. As you are being seen as a potential future leader of the DPP, how do you balance the two? How would you base that off your experience as a mayor?
Lai: The DPP has just went through a party-wide discussion on China policy and we have put out a report on our conclusions. That was under the leadership of Chairman Su Jen-chang, and the current Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen is also adhering to the same policies, which is to engage China pragmatically, proactively, and with confidence. There is no such “division” within the party between the headquarters and local officials.
KM: Under the DPP’s pragmatism, how will the DPP deal with the ongoing issues of trade with China, such as the Cross-Straits Services Trade Agreement? If the DPP takes back power in the 2016 national elections, what will its direction be?
Lai: We will have to look at the actual content of the policy, and talk about them pragmatically. For example, the KMT is proposing special free trade zones, but I think the terms of the policy right now are not that good. However, the KMT then comes around to attack us and say we are irrationally against everything China. I believe we must talk about the actual terms of the policy instead.
Ketagalan Media (以下 KM): 作為台南市升格後第一任市長，大台南的遠景跟其他直轄市有什麼特別的地方嗎？在桃園縣也既升格的狀況下，市長是否支持此直轄市的制度？鄉村縣市如雲林，台東，又該如何處理呢？
賴：我在上海講的這段話，我特別有提到。2000 年跟 2004 年，陳水扁當選總統，就是用 1991 年台灣台獨黨綱跟 1999 年的台灣前途決議文。因此就是說，基本上有兩個元素，台灣是一個主權獨立的國家，未來前途是由 2,300 萬人決定。以目前而言，大概社會上認為，你如果去做民調的話，台獨跟統一沒有維持現狀的話，那當然支持台灣獨立就超過 70%，甚至更多。在這種狀況之下大概對九二共識應該可以推斷並不是這樣的支持。至於未來包括國歌、國旗、國號，是不是要更改或用什麼方式來更改，那這就由 2,300 萬人來決定。
KM: 再追問一下，現在大家的共識就是台灣前途由 2,300 萬人民決定，有些人的意見是說，照著台灣現有的選舉制度，選出來的總統、選出來的國會，就是可以代表 2,300 萬人所做的決定。那他們所選的領導人，比如說目前的馬英九總統，是不是說馬英九總統也可以代表 2,300 萬人做決定？
賴：我想社會上的共識，指 2,300 萬人共同決定，應該是指那個議題，方式應該是用公民投票，而不是說我今天當選了總統就可以空白授權，做什麼事情都是得到老百姓的同意，我想不能這樣決定。
KM: 您認為民進黨他現在的一致性是走向務實的方向，比如說在服貿議題上，接下來跟中國貿易的議題上，您覺得民進黨如果在 2016 年執政的話，會是怎麼樣的一個走向？
(Feature photo of Mayor Lai Ching-te and co-host Chieh-Ting Yeh, by Gail Su)
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