On Monday the 8th of December in our English social work class at Tzu Chi University, we discussed the absence of a leftist party in Taiwan politics, and we especially discussed an article by 吳媛媛. Taiwan has two coalitions, a "pan-blue" coalition led by the KMT and a "pan-green" coalition led by the DPP, but both of these parties seem to primarily serve the interests of Taiwan businesses and the military and civil servants. The DPP presents itself as more "progressive" than the KMT, and to a limited extent this claim is well-deserved, certainly in terms of social legislation, but neither party has so far shown an interest in making any radical changes to change Taiwan into a society with higher taxes and more government involvement in wealth redistribution.
So, for example, a couple weeks ago in Chiayi City, my wife and I met an 84-year-old woman sitting on the side of the street selling a few fruits and vegetable. My wife recognized her, and the elderly woman soon recognized my wife, whom she had known as a girl. This elderly woman was an acquaintance of my mother-in-law, and had worked in the local park as a groundskeeper at some point in her life, but was now, at her advanced age, sitting by the side of a busy road trying to earn some money selling produce. Then this past weekend I volunteered with some friends from a hiking club with a social agency serving the elderly in Taipei, and we helped clean an apartment in which an 82-year-old man with no family to support him was living. He had retired at about age 61, and used his retirement money to purchase a car, and had lived out of that car, without a fixed home, for 20 years, until last year when the agency found a small room for him to have a home. I could go on and list other examples of elderly persons, in their eighties, working hard to make ends meet. The old-age pension in Taiwan is quite small, and not everyone qualifies for it.
So, why isn't there any major political party that represents the interests of the poor and working classes in Taiwan? Who represents the interests of the many people working in the little shops all along the streets? Why are both of the major parties in agreement on most policy issues? As
吳媛媛 writes, “除了中國議題以外，我感覺不到任何決定性的區別” [Aside from issues concerning China, I can't discern any difference to distinguish the parties].
Taiwan’s “economic miracle” from 1950 to 2000 (but especially from 1970-2000) was based on exports, first agricultural, then industrial, then high tech. Trade and free trade has formerly been the tool for economic growth, so it would make sense for neoliberal pro-trade ideologies to dominate in Taiwanese politics. And trade has done a fair job of raising the standard of living in Taiwan. The Taiwanese enjoy about half the per-capita income as Americans, about the same as a poorer European country such as Portugal or Greece. However, since 2000, the vast majority in Taiwan have experienced no increase in their income (just like the lower 80% of the American income distribution, see article by Heidi Shierholz and Lawrence Mishel or the Frontline article about Two American Families), so perhaps people in Taiwan will question neoliberal assumptions about the value of free trade. The Frozen Garlic blog suggests this may already be happening.
America, like Taiwan, doesn’t really have a left party, as the Democratic Party in the USA is centrist coalition party, although social democrats and socialists in America often support and vote for Democrats since voting for leftist third party candidates splits the vote and makes reactionary Republican victories more likely. Taiwan, likewise, has authentic socialist and social democratic voices, including a genuine Green Party (which won a couple local elections in the recent voting), but these are fringe organizations, and their hostility toward the so-called “communist” regime in Beijing deprives them of support from potential “leftist” sources.
There are many cultural parallels between the USA and Taiwan. It’s worth considering these.
Neither society has a strong leftist political party (although the USA has a strong leftist tradition, and I recommend John Nichol’s flawed by interesting book, “The S Word” for a highly accessible description of Socialism in American history). Explanations of why a strong labor party never gained power in the USA often observe some of the following:
In America, everyone wants to be rich, hopes they may become rich, and identifies with the wealthy elites (whom everyone expects someday to join), so a pro-worker party that would constrain capitalists has never been able to emerge as a dominate national political force;
America has a special history that, until about thirty or forty years ago, made a true leftist party “unnecessary” since the centrist and right-wing parties needed to do relatively little redistribution to keep the electorate happy, as economic growth, special circumstances of being a nation that had experienced ten generations of cheap or free land on a frontier, and other unusual geographical situations distinguished America from Europe.
American politics have been more dominated by concerns about immigration, religion, American identity, race relations, and foreign policy, and these matters have captured the attention of the electorate, distracting them from issues of economic justice and unfairness in capitalism or income inequality.
American anti-socialist hysteria from the 1920s on through the Cold War made the growth of a true leftist party difficult. The fact that some American leftists were sympathetic to the totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and elsewhere further alienated potential American leftists.
Parallels to Taiwan could include the following:
Taiwan, like the United States, is a society of strivers, where most people hope to be successful in business or in climbing to higher levels social and economic status. As in the United States, Taiwan people may especially admire businessmen, capitalists, and other economic elites, and identify with those persons, either hoping someone in their family will eventually join in such a high level of economic success, or else perhaps in some sort of feeling of deference and obligation to paternalistic bosses who have created wealth for their workers and Taiwan society.
Taiwan was, like the United States, a society without a distant gap between elites and common people. During the Qing Dynasty, a few wealthy land-owning families may have dominated the society, but for most immigrants from Fujian or elsewhere on the mainland, the society was a relatively egalitarian frontier society. As with the United States, a certain degree of opportunity existed for people to make a living on land taken from oppressed indigenous persons. Then, when Taiwan became Japanese, all Taiwanese were equally put lower on a hierarchy with the Japanese on top. When Chinese refugees replaced the Japanese as a ruling class of Taiwan, they were hardly a typical ruling class, as many were peasant solders in KMT, with educational and class backgrounds similar to those of the Taiwanese. Additionally, the KMT (with pressure from military and political sponsors in the USA) redistributed land in Taiwan, greatly equalizing opportunities in the agricultural society. These are all unique geographic and historical circumstances that made the emergence of class consciousness and a leftist party difficult in Taiwan.
Just as in the United States, where concerns about immigration, race, or military strength distracted people from concerns about issues of wealth redistribution and economic justice, the people of Taiwan also are constantly distracted from meaningful policy issues by the ongoing political controversies concerning superficial matters such as national identity. 吳媛媛 mentions this. And, while American children probably have better civics education than their Taiwan counterparts, and American schools and universities seemingly put a greater emphasis on public sphere engagement than in test-obsessed Taiwan, both American and Taiwanese education systems do far less than European schools to teach young people about political ideologies, philosophies, or the history of political ideas or class struggles.
The United States had anti-socialist hysteria in the 1920s and 1950s, and engaged in a cold war against the Soviet Union, but this sort of anti-communism pales in comparison to what Taiwan experienced with the White Terror (the KMT killed off or imprisoned many of the Japanese-educated Taiwanese intelligentsia, as well as anyone suspected of leftist sympathies) and the very real existential threat from so-called “Communist” military forces across the Straits of Formosa. In both the USA and Taiwan, talk of wealth redistribution could be associated with the rhetoric of a potential military enemy that had weapons targeting citizens.
The KMT was initially a broad coalition of military and political leaders, and for a while it included Communist Party members and sympathizers. The 1927 massacres of leftists and communists initiated by the right-wing of the KMT purged the National Party of leftist elements. The non-communist leftist faction led by persons such as 馮玉祥, 汪精衛, and 閻錫山 was further discredited when 汪精衛 collaborated with the invading Japanese. Thus, there are specific unique reasons related to interpersonal relationships among KMT leadership, the decisions of Chiang Kai-shek, and the behavior of individuals identified with the leftist wing of the KMT, that made the development of a leftist party in KMT-controlled areas difficult.
吳媛媛 is, I agree, quite right to observe that Taiwanese people are poorly-served by their media. During the demonstrations around the Legislative Assembly in March and April of this year, I regularly visited the site, and engaged in hours of conversations with demonstrators and visitors to the festive street scene. Over and over again, people repeated this complaint, that they did not understand the policies, and they did not trust the media to give fair explanations of the policies, nor did they trust the government to honestly explain their policies. The sort of people attracted to the demonstration were naturally more skeptical, perhaps even cynical, about government leaders, but still, the protestors all seemed to desire a society where at least some media outlets would offer honest, fair, and critical analysis of policies and proposals, trying to educate the electorate about likely benefits and costs, both the certain and uncertain consequences of legislation or treaties. Everyone I spoke with lacked trust in the KMT or the DPP to give people honest analysis of legislation or treaties. In particular, I heard from many of the people a vague sort of class consciousness, as people kept saying they favored trade and development, but they wanted the sort of policies that would offer benefits to most Taiwanese and allow the Taiwanese to preserve their society or culture, and they thought that both parties, but especially the KMT, would be more likely to create legislation and policies that would direct all benefits to those who were already wealthy and powerful, or those who were well-connected to the politicians.
By the way, 吳媛媛 describes the difference between modern welfare states where the government sector makes up a third to half of the economy and Taiwan, where taxes are very low and government services are minimal. For the percent of the economy under public supervision (Government spending as percent of GDP) there are several sources of data, including the IMF, the OECD, the Economic Freedom Index, the European Union, the United Nations Online Network in Public Administration and Finance, and so forth. The numbers don’t always agree, and sometimes they fluctuate more than one could imagine possible, so I wonder if one reason the data conflict is that these analyses use different methods for estimating local or provincial/state spending in excess of national government spending. It’s extremely difficult to calculate provincial/state and local spending without double-counting since most national governments allocate money to states and local/tribal governments, and provinces/states also “spend” money by giving it to localities to “spend” again. There are problems with all these data sources. Anyway, here are two examples, and they are slightly different than the numbers cited by 吳媛媛.
The International Monetary Fund (October of 2012) at The Guardian.
the UK 45%
USA and Japan 40%
South Korea 21%
The 2014 Index of Economic Freedom (created by the Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation, two actors highly biased against government spending) is easily available, and suggests these percentages of the economy under public supervision:
the UK 49%
USA and Japan, both around 42%
South Korea 30%
吳媛媛 was reporting a government sector in Taiwan of about 12.4% of GDP, based on the 2012 Heritage Foundation index of Economic Freedom, but the number of 23% comes from the 2014 report, and there is no way government spending nearly doubled in the past two years!
For critiques of measuring Government percentages of GDP, I recommend
Dean Baker’s opinion at CEPR (Dean Baker is one of my favorite economists),
which critically discusses Lew Daly’s July 2014 essay in the New York Times, which also critiqued how GDP and government spending are considered.