It is only two months until local elections in Taiwan, and this year many new candidates are hoping to challenge the two major parties after the Sunflower Movement unleashed a torrent of young political energy.
One group called Flanc Radical, or the Radical Wing, was founded two years ago with a left-wing and Taiwan independence agenda. They are fielding a total of five candidates in Kaohsiung and Hsinchu, all young first-time aspiring politicians.
So are they as “radical” as their name suggests? Just last week their 18 year old campaign manager Ming-wei Yan threw the book “Formosa Betrayed” at President Ma Ying-jeou, but what do we know about their policy stance, growth strategy, and vision? We ask candidate for the 10th district of Kaohsiung Dr. Hsin-yu Chen about his personal decision to run for office, policies for Kaohsiung, and the future of the organization.
Ketagalan Media (KM): Hsin-yu, thank you for your time today. First of all, how did you go from a doctor to running for Kaohsiung city council? What is your motivation, and how did that motivation begin and turn into your decision to enter politics?
Dr. Hsin-yu Chen (Chen): I was already interested in politics, philosophy, history and such social sciences, so through that process I slowly developed my own political views, and discussed with my friends Taiwan’s situation and issues, like sovereignty.
KM: So it started all the way in college, talking with friends. But while a lot of people chat about politics with friends, not everyone ends up running for office right? So how did that happen?
Chen: During the seventh year of college [in medical training] I had to intern at hospitals. It was the year before residency. As an intern, we had little to no labor rights. We have to do the same work doctors do, but we have no benefits. Overall, Taiwan’s medical system is under a lot of pressure, and all medical care personnel are horribly overworked. Therefore, the entire working staff within the medical community is suffering. I realized, after thinking about it, the problem lies with the system. Taiwan has not had a tradition of thinking comprehensively about the system, and so each piece is not in sync with the others. Residents do the job of three people, there are not enough assistants, and so all the leftover work is picked up by residents. It’s the weak exploiting the weak. It’s no use blaming anybody, because everyone is exploited by someone else. The only way to solve this is changing the system through political process to make the medical field better.
In reality, this description fits for Taiwan in general. Many aspects of this society suffers from this systematic kilter, and I came to see the bigger picture. After I graduated, I happened to listen to a presentation by Shinichi, the founder of the Flanc Radical, and he pointed out three overarching problems in Taiwan: politics, sovereignty, society. After hearing his speech, I wanted to help his organization. The group’s strategy is to send people into politics through elections. I thought I was just going to be a staff, but during the March 18th events (start of the Sunflower Movement) I was the Kaohsiung area convener for our group, and Shinichi convinced me to run for office myself. I decided it was an opportunity, and a challenge for me, so I decided to do it.
KM: So you’re saying that Taiwan’s labor structure is one where people share the pain, but only a few benefit, and that’s what you want to change. Changing tracks a bit, in your district in Kaohsiung, we saw the tragic accident of gas line explosions just two months ago. If you are elected, what concrete policy do you want to push for to make that better? How would you deal with entrenched interests in the petrochemical industry?
Chen: Kaohsiung’s petrochemical industry was established around the 1970s, during then president Chiang Ching-kuo’s “Ten Major Projects,” aimed at putting Taiwan in line with the global economy. Since it was during the martial law era, the people of Kaohsiung had no choice whether they wanted it in their backyards. After the gas pipe explosions, the people of Kaohsiung realized just how risky petrochemical industries are—especially since the industrial pipelines are intertwined within residential and commercial areas. Now that we are a democratic society, I want to see a referendum in Kaohsiung to decide if we want to get rid of the industry.
Kaohsiung is surrounded by petrochemical plants and pipelines. We have the duty to give Kaohsiung an option to decide what to do with them. Of course, after the industry leaves, how do we take care of the petrochemical labor force, is another problem. After they lose their livelihoods, they need help and oversight from policy; we have seen the plight of highway tollbooth personnel after tollbooths were abolished, and we need to avoid that. If the referendum decides that the petrochemical industry needs to go, then we need to oversee their departure; if the result is them staying, we need to revisit their safety regulations, and more heavily oversee their operations.
KM: To follow up, how would you personally vote in the referendum? Will you support petrochemical industry leaving?
Chen: Any referendum will have two sides. These plants are located in Kaohsiung, but their tax revenue is collected by the central government and then redistributed to the local governments. China Petroleum (Taiwan’s state-owned petroleum company) paid up to NT$43 billion in taxes, but only NT$0.6 billion came back to Kaohsiung. While we are dealing with the downsides of pollution and public safety, where did the NT$42.4 billion tax revenue go?
Kaohsiung is actually very weak in these tax situations. China Petroleum’s headquarters are based in Taipei, and their corporate tax revenues are allocated mostly to Taipei. There is a disparity in resources between the north and south. As a Kaohsiung city councilmember, we need to tell the government this is wrong. If the petrochemical industry only brings in so little for our city, I will vote to send them away. But if I lose, we will still need to build more stringent oversight mechanisms.
KM: So this referendum is going on, the pro-petro side asks you about how to sustain Kaohsiung’s economy if we get rid of the petrochemical industry, what would you say?
Chen: We have been looking into the local small and medium enterprises. For example, there is a friend who makes high quality wooden chairs and tables. These kinds of workshops have been neglected by Kaohsiung, but they are actually quite competitive. This workshop has won awards in Europe, and their products sell for a high price. Things like these can grow to support new product chains, and even effect vocational education. Currently, Taiwan’s industrial policy is controlled by the central government, and Kaohsiung cannot decide what it wants; and for too long the south has been sacrificed for the north, plus government’s subsidies to specific industries, it’s hard for Kaohsiung to switch tracks. Kaohsiung has been promoting tourism, but tourism alone cannot sustain a city. High quality crafts like woodworks, footwear, could be an opportunity for Kaohsiung.
KM: Perhaps it’s actually because they were neglected, that they developed competitiveness to survive.
Chen: That does make sense too. But the situation now there are a lot of traditional craftsman who are sad to see their craftsmanship going away, and these competitive industries are very important to Kaohsiung.
KM: I want to ask about your organization the Flanc Radical now. How do you play the role of a minority party? How do you work with major parties?
Chen: We have seen data, and in the 50 years of Taiwan’s recent history, only Tainan’s local council has seen the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) take majority, and everywhere else the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has always held majority. So we don’t think the DPP will win majority in Kaohsiung this year. We want to be a key minority. In the past, independent legislators always side with the KMT when the vote count is close. We want to change that; we want to withhold our support for either side and exert our influence to extract concessions from the major parties. For example the petrochemical referendum, originally the question may to whether to reroute the pipes, we want to press for removing the whole industry, and use that to pressure the two parties.
KM: After this year, how does the Flanc Radical participate in the 2016 legislative and presidential elections?
Chen: After the local elections in November, we want to become a bottom-up political group. In the past there were “third parties,” like the Third Society Party in 2008, which was formed by academics and experts. They didn’t have any support on the ground, and so they eventually fizzled out as a group of academics talking within themselves about things normal voters won’t accept. So we want to be independent for now, and earn the public’s support.
In 2016 we will still need to register as a political party to be on the proportional representation ballot. After the November elections, we will start a nationwide speaking tour. We won’t field our own presidential candidate in 2016, but if things go well we will then field mayor candidates for 2018 local elections, and then think about 2020 presidential elections.
KM: So it’s to accumulate the power among the public, and then use that to build a party. Furthermore, one of the Flanc Radical’s three pillars is social democracy. What would that look like if applied to Taiwan? Do we need to raise our taxes, like Scandinavian welfare states? Or are there other strategies?
Chen: Our pillar is talking about distributive justice. Right now in Taiwan, power between capitalists and labor is very off-balanced, and Taiwanese labor has been heavily exploited. But recently, a lot more of these conflicting lower-class voices are being heard, and so we believe the path to social liberalization is possible. Other than tax policy, unions are another very important factor.
In Taiwan’s urbanization, each person is an atom and cannot speak for him or herself. They cannot speak for people who were unfairly fired, and everyone only cares about him or herself. If unions can operate normally, they can speak for laborers, they can fight for collective rights. In the past, Taiwan’s unions were only built from the bottom-up, and they cannot stay united; meanwhile the union laws and political forces have been fighting against the unions, because the politicians are well connected with corporate interests. We want to help the unions from the top-down, so they can be empowered to fight the employers.
Tax is of course another method. Taiwan has had very low inheritance taxes, which help create these wealthy dynastic families, and hurt social mobility. So both tax policy, and union policy, are very important. For unions, a lot of laws are very unfriendly for unions to form, and makes demonstrating very difficult, which hurts unions.
KM: Lastly, for this organization made up of mostly young people, hoping to take Taiwan towards the left, how will you do that? Especially since Taiwan has not yet have mainstream left-wing thought. What do you think is different now?
Chen: In the past, the economic miracle helped capitalists make the case of “if you work hard you can be a boss too.” “愛拼才會贏” (a popular Taiwanese song), or you will win as long as you work hard, was forced on the people by the rulers. In the lyrics, it says that 70% depends on hard work, meaning that it’s the workers’ fault for being poor, for not working hard enough. Taiwan’s real wages have reverted to 1990 levels, but we work longer hours than most countries in the world. How can you say the Taiwanese still don’t work hard enough? We already work so hard it’s scary. You look at Western countries, it’s unthinkable to work this hard.
There is an inherent conflict in the society. Young people cannot find the jobs that realize their potential, but work at jobs where they are exploited every day. The conflict is intensifying. We need to let people know that some rights and benefits are not earned by hard work, it’s because they are purposely withheld from us. We need to fight for them. We need to educate, discuss, and share these thoughts.
KM: Thanks to Hsin-yu for your time today, would love to speak more and thank you for your thoughts.
Chen: Thank you.
Ketagalan Media (以下 KM)：信諭很感謝你今天答應給我們時間專訪。第一個問題想先問，如何從一名醫生的身份轉為參選高雄市議員，是基於怎麼樣的信念，這個信念是怎麼開始的，怎麼演變到今天的決定？
(Feature photo of Dr. Hsin-yu Chen, from his Facebook fan page, with permission.)
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