We spoke to Jennifer Lu and Miao Poya, LGBT activists and candidates for the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the 2016 legislative elections, about their thoughts on marriage equality, startups and innovation, and Trump, in January.

KM: First we’d like to ask about LGBT marriage equality in Taiwan. As of now, the issue has entered the stage of cross party negotiations in the legislature. How likely would the result be a special law for same-sex couples, as opposed to amending the Civil Code? What are your thoughts?

Jennifer Lu: We’ll try very hard to make a special law unlikely, as a strategy. Of course, there have been some DPP members calling for a separate legislation, I think probably due to social pressure. So we’ll have to see what happens in the next several months. In the upcoming legislative sessions, some legislators are still proposing a separate legislation. Whether or not these bills would be proposed, or be approved by committee, all is uncertain. But for the past few months, we’ve made an effort to create a social momentum that supports amending the Civil Code directly.

Personally, I think a separate legislation is not impossible, but I do think that the chances are low. We can see that the issue has progressed from whether or not we support same-sex marriage to if we want a separate legislation or a Civil Code amendment. Now, it is down to whether or not there should be a dedicated section in the Civil Code, or amendments made to the original act. You can see that the society is constantly changing.

The possibility of a separate legislation at this point is indeed very unlikely, and here’s what I think about the options now. First, the separate legislation that Protect for Family Alliance promotes is certainly not happening. What’s more likely is that legislators who do not oppose same-sex marriage itself, but due to certain reasons, for example like the fact that Taiwan’s Civil Code specifies the presumption of legitimate children, they will regard the clause inapplicable to the LGBT community. That’s why legislators are thinking about whether to propose a LGBT-specific marriage act. Among the various proposals that I’ve heard of, one is the Same-Sex Marriage Law, which has been adopted by a number of countries like New Zealand and the UK. Both countries legislated a Same-Sex Marriage Law instead of amending their existing civil codes.

KM: But the legal status of marriage is the same?

Jennifer Lu: Yes, it’s equivalent. In fact, the new proposal contains only a couple of lines that state the obligation and rights of a same-sex partner is the same as in the Civil Code. It’s more of a formality. But should Taiwan adopt this model? New Zealand and the UK’s societies have strong religious backgrounds, and religion has always been part of their politics; Taiwan’s not like that.

Taiwan’s biggest challenge is that it’s a democracy which is still developing and progressing.

For example, when people receive a piece of information, they don’t verify the source or even question the logic. You hear something from your friends and you believe it. The ability to think critically and democratic literacy are all still under development. This is the rather difficult challenge that we face right now, I think.

KM: Basically the underlying issue is the maturing of our democratic literacy–today it’s hindering marriage equality, and maybe tomorrow it’ll be something else?

Miao Poya: Sure, like with pension reform. People pass around fake information on LINE, like “teachers will not be able to retire until they are 65 years old.”

Jennifer Lu: But people believe these things that make no sense at all! For example, people are spreading “facts” like, if same-sex marriage is legal, schools will be prohibited from teaching kids about one-man-one-woman marriage. But people buy it! Like my parents’ friends will even ask me if things are true. These are well-educated people that we’re talking about!  

KM: Well, at least they ask, right? That’s an action of verification.

Jennifer Lu: But they ask parents “why is your daughter promoting stuff like this?” And then my parents have to explain it to them. Now, these people actually have quite well-established social and economic statuses. Even though they know how to Google things with their smartphones, they still get misled by false information.

About two months ago it dawned on me that this issue is actually not specifically about the LGBT movement, but it’s a fight for Taiwan’s democratic development, as the country learns to deepen democratic literacy and develop the capacity to critically think about public issues.

KM: I’ve lived in New Jersey before; NJ’s senator Cory Booker was asked whether a referendum should be held on the same-sex marriage issue. He replied, this kind of critical matter is definitely not something we should determine by a referendum. Because, the issue at stake affects the rights of minorities. In Taiwan, people may have an understanding of democracy to simply mean “majority wins.” Let’s just take a vote, right? Perhaps this issue is now teaching us all about how to deal with minority rights and that the majority does not always rule.

Jennifer Lu: Yes, it is a very important civic lesson for us. Some say that this issue has to do with family, so we should call for a referendum. Well, a lot of things have to do with family, right? Can kids bear their mothers’ surname? Should we call for a referendum? It challenges the long-standing values in our patriarchal society.

Can women inherit and share in men’s property, should we also have a referendum for that too? The issue is in fact about our values. It is about how a nation chooses the direction it wishes to move towards. So, the issue today is not just about LGBT rights. Rather, Taiwan is reevaluating its democracy through the handling of these issues.

KM: Many question the timing of this issue. They ask, why are we fighting over this issue instead of the economy? I’ve done some research on the Social Democratic Party, which lists innovative and cooperative economy in its campaign platform. Now that a year has passed since the 2016 elections, how have you promoted this platform?

Miao Poya: Of course the ruling party has its own policy directions. For example, President Tsai Ing-wen has been emphasizing innovation in economy both during her presidential campaign and during the legislative elections. DPP legislator Karen Yu is also actively pushing for a Social Enterprise Act.

Yet, I believe so-called “innovation” is not just limited to entrepreneurship or technology advancement. We need to rethink our model of economic development and wealth allocation. Taiwan has been focused on manufacturing, and within the globalized value chain, we play the role of the OEM economy.

During the 1980s, baby boomers entered the labor force, during which Taiwan’s economy experienced a wonderful amount of growth. Now, the OEM industry is regarded as one of the least profitable part of the global value chain. Take a look at our economy now, we are still largely based on a trickle-down model. Now that profits are no longer as good, the bottom of a trickle-down system is of course going to struggle. And gradually, the middle class is going to struggle as well.

So, the cooperative economy we now speak of is not just about establishing interpersonal cooperation out of goodwill. It’s more like a Homemakers’ Union Consumers Co-op. It’s different from the model where a number of shareholders invest and intend to obtain maximum economic benefit.

Take agriculture in Taiwan for instance. People argue over whether we should be developing mass production, or small batches of independent farmers. I think there is no definite answer to the question; a nation can never abandon its independent farmers and only develop mass production entirely, nor vice versa.

Our New Economy Manifesto mentions the promotion of innovation; not just innovative ideas, but also innovation in production and revenue distribution as well. Of course it’s going to be difficult. It’s not like we can just establish a “Asian Silicon Valley” science park, and ask everyone to move in and develop new software. It shouldn’t be about the government subsidizing on one particular industry after another.

Of course, the idea of an Asian Silicon Valley has its value and reasoning, and indeed we have plenty of talent in that field. But if in the end, if it turns out that big corporations and enterprises are making all the calls, and that most of the profit goes into the pockets of their shareholders rather than to the employees who work long hours with low pay, this kind of exploitation is definitely not the innovation we want.

Yet, I have to admit that this is a particularly challenging issue to be addressed in our current politics, because it would require people to fundamentally challenge the basic assumptions of capitalism. That’s pretty hard!

Jennifer Lu: After the election last year, I opened this cafe (“A Thoughtful Place”). Some of our shareholders thought we need to expand through franchising, so we can make more money. You can see that this is the traditional Taiwanese way: you gotta be big, you gotta expand, make as much profit as possible.

However, that’s not what I’m after. I don’t want to open an independent cafe and then run it with a traditional business mindset. For instance, everything we use in our store is produced from small independent farms. We hope to expand their sales channel. The purpose is not to minimize cost. I hope to share the profit with these vendors who sell rice, milk, Taiwanese organic teas, and more. I think it is feasible in Taiwan, but I do realize that it is challenging to do, because it confronts the traditional idea of what’s considered good business sense. I want to prove that it can be done.

KM: Has anyone ever asked why not franchise your business or say open five or ten more similar stores so that you can spread your ideology?

Jennifer Lu: I wouldn’t call it franchising then. I’ll say that’s a co-op. We register our business under the name of Thoughtful Co-op Limited. We’re a co-op and we are limited. If it’s a corporation, whomever has the biggest share would have the most say. Limited means that regardless of the amount of shareholdings each person holds, everyone has equal say. What’s important is that we’re here to cooperate instead of compete with each other.

KM: Can I follow up about shareholders; take this store for instance, was it hard to find shareholders who share similar values, who are financially capable and who I’m guessing, are older and may think more traditionally?  

Jennifer Lu: Well, actually our shareholders are mostly young people. The oldest is 55.

KM: Then have you found shareholders from the previous generation who also share the same values with you?

Jennifer Lu: Not yet. But I think at least the people in our generation are mostly quite supportive of us. The concept of co-op is very important and it is something this generation and the next generation need to learn, because we’re so used to competition. It’s a whole new concept for our economy; the idea of sharing would require more action in order to convince people of its feasibility. If it’s merely a concept without action, people will disregard it.

Miao Poya: Well, the Social Democratic Party often get criticized for being too idealistic…but if there is no ideology, what’s left in a small party? I guess if we became the ruling party one day, then maybe I will be ok if you accuse me of compromising my ideals, since I’m already in power, you know?  

KM: I wonder if Jennifer’s example about your cafe is too small in scale. What happens if we are talking about, say, the financial industry, or some other major industries that are more influential in making changes?

Jennifer Lu: The Social Democratic Party’s ideology is not to discredit capitalism entirely. Rather, we’re going after a sort of balance.

Miao Poya: The difference between social democracy and socialism is that social democracy does not oppose the existence of a market. The existence of an open market means the existence of some large-scale businesses. The purpose of our proposing co-op models is not to make it the major thrust for economic development in Taiwan, because that’s really hard. Even if you look at some of the countries in Northern Europe, it’s rare that innovative businesses can be the major contributor to the nation’s economic growth. They still rely on a couple of major multinational corporations.

But the issue now in Taiwan is that business regulations from tax laws to corporate laws are quite unfriendly towards alternative business models. Ironically, the overall environment in Taiwan very much favors the concentration of capital, and it very much favors industries that are energy-draining and highly polluting. If I were an investor, I’d be thinking where to invest my money. If I invest in real estate, I can double my investment in ten years. If I invest in the stock market or big corporations, I can at least maintain some profit. When it comes to small-scale or even micro investments, the regulations don’t guarantee any security or prospect, so I’d of course choose the traditional investments. So what we’re asking for is a system that encourages and allow the people who want to do things differently to do what they wish to do.

KM: Maybe there can be a separate legislation for special business models?

Miao Poya: Not necessarily; it can also be a dedicated article added to the existing Company Act, or amendments to the tax code. For example, this cafe Jennifer runs now faces a 17 percent business tax, same as Foxconn Technology Group. Under such circumstances, it’s a joke to say we encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, right? The kind of changes we speak of today must be applied to tax regulations. Finally, a lot of “business incentives” in the past means big science parks! Large factories with discounts on water and electricity! They all mostly benefit big corporations, but small, independent stores are never entitled to these kind of good deals.

KM: What are some other limitations innovative businesses face other than the tax regulations we talked about?

Jennifer Lu: Sure, like the Urban Renewal Act, which regulates whether a certain kind of business is allowed to operate in a certain area. Those regulations are outdated. For example, opening a restaurant in an alley is prohibited in Taiwan, yet there are so many restaurants doing business in alleys so narrow that cars can’t pass through. They are all illegal because regulations have remained unchanged over the decades. They are constantly under the risk of being reported.

KM: Doesn’t a lot of travel guides say Taiwan boasts the coolest shops and cafes in the back alleys!? We should probably add “Taiwan also boasts tons of illegal stores in alleys.”

Jennifer Lu: If the majority of stores are all “illegal,” that means there is something wrong with the regulation. After we started working on these issues, we discovered there are a lot of ridiculousness like this.

KM: Next, we would like to ask about the future plans of the Social Democratic Party. Among all the parties without seats in the Legislative Yuan, the Social Democratic Party is perhaps the most active and visible?  

Miao Poya: The focus of course is the mayor and city council elections in 2018. Simply put, in 2018 we have to have someone from our party elected. Because in the long run, if a party is constantly without a member elected, the party will not be able to expand its political influence.

Jennifer Lu: In that case we will just be another NGO. We are all originally working in NGOs. The reason we got involved with politics is because political influence is much more crucial for change. For a political party to grow, being elected is the most important goal or else we might as well go back to what we were doing.

KM: Then how are you preparing for the 2018 elections? Are your potential votes coming from the DPP’s base or the New Power Party supporters?

Jennifer Lu: Not necessarily either. Our voting statistics from the last election indicated that we won quite a lot of votes from light-blue voters (moderate KMT supporters from the right).

Miao Poya: But I think it varies from district to district. We have votes from both traditional DPP and KMT supporters. So those who would vote for us are apparently voters who do not see eye to eye with either of the mainstream parties. During the last election, I had about 20,000 votes in my district. I see that as my foundation. To me, ongoing development requires expanding from the existing foundation. As for whether we want to be ambitious enough to snatch supporters from other parties, I think it’s unnecessary. The most dependable way is to expand from our core supporters.

Jennifer Lu: To be honest, I’m so preoccupied right now that I haven’t thought about it. The top priority for me now is marriage equality. It’s like the load of two full-time jobs for me right now. I have to deal with organizing, media campaign, lobbying, discussion on legislation, and fundraising. What we’ve been doing for the past couple of months feels like a presidential campaign. So, to be honest I can’t think about 2018 now. But of course if I am running I’d anticipate the Social Democratic Party to win seats. I want a party like this to gradually gain more space in Taiwan.

KM: Poya, what preparation work has you been doing in your district (the Wenshan area in southern Taipei)?

Miao Poya: I think it’s important to keep the connections to people we’ve established in our last election. Because in the past, the so-called third parties often faces the same problem eventually: the candidate decides to quit politics for good after losing his or her first election. Everyone starts from scratch. For me, it’s about whether I’ll be able to maintain the genuine support and trust our supporters have developed. In the future, regardless of whoever is running, it’s important to make sure this support is maintained.

KM: Can you talk about the situation in Wenshan now? How are the 20,000 supporters? Is the number growing? What are these supporters like?

Miao Poya: It’s very hard to tell right now. For city council, each district elects multiple council members. It’s different from the legislator election, which elects only one individual candidate per district.

Here’s one thing I’ll say, more and more people have gotten to know me, and this is the hardest part really, to get your name out. Another thing that’s important is that the people who know the Social Democratic Party through me can continue to learn about the latest progression of the party from me. Honestly speaking, our expectation is low. The only thing you can do if you’ve got no seat in the legislature is to maintain the operation of the party.

My case is different from Jennifer because she now runs this cafe as a base of operations. Another thing is that we speak through the media to let the public know that this party is still operating. I think this is good. In the 2018 elections, it’s unlikely that we will nominate a candidate to run for mayor, but the city council election puts candidates’ name recognition to the test.

KM: How’s the fundraising going after the last election?

Miao Poya: Candidates are only able to raise funds months before the election. After the election is completed, we cannot raise funds.

KM: But the party itself can raise funds, right?

Miao Poya: That’s correct. But it’s extremely difficult. Taiwanese people are not used to donating to political parties. People donate to charities, like Tzuchi (a large Buddhist charity), but not political contributions. Also, the SDP is not that good at, or you can say not that fond of, asking for contributions from big corporations. We’re mostly dependent on small contributions, which barely sustain the operation of our Secretariat.

KM: The next question is more related to the international community. People from all over the world are now talking about the rise of far-right politics or fascism. As the bearer of the “Social Democracy” banner in Taiwan, what do you think about it and how does it affect Taiwan?

Miao Poya: There’s a saying that goes, “a gravely ill person will take whatever medication.” So I can understand why people turn to expect something out of the right wing or even the far-right. In the past couple of decades, political elites have become less convincing. People feel that their lives aren’t getting easier. Why is that? If we are to look into the social issues, it’s complicated. Not everyone has the time or willingness to think about these, so simple answers emerge.

For example, my life seems harder, so maybe it’s because the growing number of immigrants that are taking away our jobs. Or maybe it’s all a mess because the society enjoys too much freedom. These kind of assumptions are often seen when we’re unable to find concrete things to blame.

Take the anti-drug movement in the Philippines for instance. It is regarded as an action to showcase determined governance. In the short term, it seems very effective. However, people don’t look into the core of the issue. From the 2016 election in Taiwan we also notice something interesting. The world is heading right, but our voters resoundedly rejected the right-wing KMT. Of course the KMT’s pro-China stance is a big factor in Taiwan’s case.

Regardless, I do think that the conservative or right-wing mindset is quite deeply rooted in Taiwanese society. The KMT used to represent the right, but its China policy has turned the young people in Taiwan against the party. Now, if it turns into a Taiwanese KMT instead of the “Chinese Nationalist Party,” and discards its unification ambition, but keeps its anti-LGBT stance, punishes drug users with heavy penalties, begins to impose strict regulations on immigrants from Southeast Asia and cuts down the cost of social welfare, I believe it can still gain a lot of support.

We can’t blame it on the voters. A gravely ill person seeking a doctor is aware of the sickness and thus seeks medication. What matters is who stands out and persuades voters that he or she is a better doctor. “Every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution.” Take a look at Trump. Everyone in Washington hates him, but people still chose him because they thought the folks in Washington weren’t that great either. Yes, maybe in due time they’ll realize that Trump is far worse, but at least for now, they’ve made a decision to try this option. So for us, the biggest challenge is to become a trustworthy choice. How do we persuade voters to believe in what we believe to be the right solution? This is the biggest challenge.

Jennifer Lu: I think the quality of citizens in a democratic system is crucial. I believe people around the world are actually all the same. Say you voted for Obama because he was “Hope,” and you believed that he was going to fix things. But he didn’t. And you don’t trust Hilary, so you voted for Trump. I mean, everyone wants someone capable to make all the decisions and fix the problems, but why don’t we work together to fix our own problems? The world in which we coexist belongs to ourselves.

In fact, this is something I’ve always been very interested in compared to politics. I’m interested in looking into how citizens in a nation or society coexist peacefully and find a direction to move forward. That’s why I’m interested in organizational work and civic education, which I think is fundamental. Taiwan used to be under authoritarian rule, so people are not used to finding solutions ourselves. Until very recently, I still see “Reminiscing Mr. Chiang Ching-kuo,” the former dictator of Taiwan. Well, I don’t think Mr. Ching-kuo can even do much if he were alive now. I think everyone should be aware of the fact that our lives and politics should not be solely reliant on a single savior. If people are always swinging from a disappointing choice to another one, the swing will never stop.

KM: Lastly, what would you like to say to the progressives in the US? They are skeptical about Taiwan’s sudden fondness for Trump, and unsure about Taiwan.

Jennifer Lu: I’d say, don’t give up. I think the reaction towards President Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call with Trump is reasonable. It’s a normal part of a democratic system. For example, right now we’re advocating marriage equality and we are constantly receiving false accusations and rumors, but I still have hope that we’re moving forward gradually–even if sometime it seems like we’re going backwards a little bit.

To be honest, I don’t think Trump alone can easily change things in the US. The society itself still functions with its countermeasures that will make sure he can’t do whatever he wants. So I think we ought to have more confidence.

Miao Poya: I think the liberals in America need to reevaluate Taiwan. America is a superpower but it needs to learn about so much more about the world. America doesn’t know enough about Asia, and what they know about Taiwan and China is just scratching the surface. Taiwan is no longer a dictatorship under Chiang’s rule, and the Communist Party in China is no longer really communist. It is now more inclined towards fascism. Taiwan has witnessed three political transitions of power, and even the legislature has changed hands democratically.

The reason why we find it so hard to accept former president Ma Ying-jeou was that he attended the Ma-Xi meeting before he stepped down. His action sent out a false message to the US that says Taiwan accepts the One China Principle (that Taiwan is part of China). But the reality is, the majority of Taiwanese people is against that.

Here’s what Taiwanese people should be considering: we’ve elected two presidents that chose to maintain the status quo. Perhaps some American scholars would interpret Tsai as supporting “One China” as well, but this China refers to the Republic of China, the name of our current governing regime. Yet, it does not reflect the voice of Taiwanese people.

I understand people’s reaction to Taiwan’s interaction with Trump, if they are assuming Taiwan has not progressed and is far-right. But, on the other hand, Taiwanese people, especially our NGOs, should also explain the reality to the international community. I think Lin Fei-fan issuing a statement asking people to stop overreacting to Trump’s decision to answer Tsai’s call was a great example. So, we’ve got this responsibility to explain things to the world. Meanwhile, the US needs to reevaluate and update its perspective on the geopolitics in East Asia.

KM: Thank you so much for both of your time today.


The Ketagalan Project

History and culture are the frames that prescribe how we understand the world around us. Our co-hosts present in-depth interviews on how art, culture, history and politics intertwine throughout time and space to connect us. Find out about the cosmopolitan modern Taipei downtown in the 1920s, regional trade, the future of aboriginal culture and more.