2010 / 1月
Lin Hsin-ching /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell
No matter whether in the authoritarian days of the past or the capitalism-uber-alles contemporary society, young people with the inclination to devote themselves to social movements are essentially walking a road less traveled-indeed, a nearly deserted path shunned by the mainstream. Such young people are setting themselves up to face pitfalls and difficulties in the future, so they must have extraordinary determination, willpower, and calm under pressure. Without these, it will be impossible to move forward without giving in to fear of the dangers.
We are delighted in this issue to have the comments of two persons who have dedicated themselves to social activism: Wang Ju-hsuan, current minister of the Council of Labor Affairs and a long-time proponent of women's rights, and Luo Wenjia, former minister of the Council for Hakka Affairs and a leader of the Wild Lilies student movement. They share with us their years of experience in social activism and the democratic movement, their views on the advantages and drawbacks of working for change from outside or from inside the political structure, and their hopes and expectations for the younger generation. We hope their suggestions will provide guidance to young people now getting deeply involved in social change, and will strengthen their determination to face even more challenges.
I was born in 1966. Although those of us in the "fifth generation" born in postwar Taiwan were burdened with a party-state education from the very start, by the time I was in junior high and began to understand how the world really was, the opposition movement (the "Dangwai" or "non-party" politicians) had started to blossom. By the time I got to university, when my passions and energy were at their peak, that was right when Taiwan's social movements were taking off, when many new voices were being heard, back in the 1980s; it was a very exciting time. We were affected by the relaxation in the overall environment, and by the growing circulation of all kinds of information, and we were encouraged by the successes of our predecessors in social activism. For so many young persons like myself, filled with idealism and thirsting for knowledge, naturally these developments were very inspiring.
As a result, when I was young my peers and I were very active in social issues. Some focused on workers interests, some on women's rights, some on environmental protection, and of course there were those like me who set our sights on reforming the political system. It's just that in those days, when the authoritarian system was still in place and the political system closed, no matter what kind of social change you wanted you always would run up against the brick wall of martial law and the dictatorial political structure. Because there was this common enemy, the Kuomintang party-state, it was very common to see alliances between social movements and political movements. Young people concerned about society did not eschew involvement in politics, which is a lot different from the way things are now, when young people are disgusted by the relentless dogfighting between the "green" and "blue" camps, and don't want to be tainted by political affiliations.Getting worn down inside the system
After finishing my military service in 1991, I started off as an assistant to Chen Shui-bian, who was then a member of the Legislative Yuan, and participated in issues one after another, such as repealing Article 100 of the Penal Code and reforming the military to bring it under the rule of law and make it respect human rights. Most people know what happened thereafter-Chen was elected mayor of Taipei and then, in 2000, president, and I had a chance to work within the system. I served in several official positions, including director of the Department of Information of the Taipei City Government, and later, in the central government, vice-minister of the Council for Cultural Affairs and then minister of the Council for Hakka Affairs.
Once I had the taste of having a post inside the government, however, I discovered something I hadn't understood before about officials with power and resources: Although you can realize some of your ambitions to reform society in the most direct and fastest way, the vast bureaucratic system can really wear you down. What do I mean by that? Here's a metaphor I often use: Imagine the political system is a high-rise building. Only someone standing outside can really see the whole thing clearly, but if you are the custodian of a certain bathroom in the building, your perspective is reduced to just keeping it as clean as possible and nothing else.
Therefore, although in the eyes of outsiders you seem to have a high rank within the system, you discover that you spend most of your time on the extreme minutiae of documents and the civil service system, just to keep the routine functions of the agency going. It is very possible that without even realizing it you lose your original direction, and in the end you can no longer see anything of the overall problems of the functioning of the system.
During my recent more low-profile years, I have been continually reflecting on what impact I had on society during my time in public office. My conclusion is that I had some effects that were positive, some negative. For example, when I was director of the Taipei City Department of Information, I thought the city was a bit too lifeless, so I promoted the revival and reuse of many historic structures for cultural activities. This later caught on in other localities in Taiwan, which may be considered a positive impact.
But in those years I also organized a lot of events to celebrate various holidays, and the effect has been less salutary. I was just hoping to make the city more interesting, but then other localities began setting aside big budgets for "Romantic Christmas Eve," New Year's Eve shows, and things like that, which never got to be more than formulaic fireworks displays and appearances by pop stars, completely lacking in creativity, and in some ways they are just image-building exercises for local politicians. This is one area in which things didn't turn out that well.Enemy #1: The capitalist system
Beyond all of this, I also came to understand very profoundly that system-level reform has its limits. For example, when I was a legislator I worked very hard along with non-governmental organizations to promote laws compelling political parties, the government, and the military to withdraw from media ownership. Ultimately the law was revised and forced parties, the government, and the military to divest themselves of media shareholdings by December 26, 2005. But looking at how things turned out, even though we really shook up the system, has the media really become more fair and autonomous? Not only is the answer to that question no, but things have gotten worse than ever!This is not only because of the shadow hand of politicians who know how to package things and do "inserted marketing" masquerading as news, but also because the media has been undermined by the impact of commercialization, and there has been a clear deterioration of quality under conditions of ever more vicious market competition. The really core problems are complex and deeply rooted, and cannot be changed just be amending this or that law.
Despite everything, I am very happy that I have had the experience of reform from both outside and inside the system. This has allowed me to clearly see through the myths that are invisible from different positions. And as I have been away from politics over the past couple of years, I have discovered that what really dominates Taiwanese society is the vast, complex capitalist system. It is the real key, affecting the way the country operates overall. So I have tried launching a new magazine, with a new emphasis-whereas the first non-party movement discussed mainly political democracy, the focus of what I call "second non-party" work should be on "economic democracy," on the problem of how social resources can be more fairly distributed.
For a long time now, many people have been occupied with why I have withdrawn from the center of political power at various times, and they have speculated that this has been for tactical reasons to gain more political power later. But that has never been the case. I can only say that I know very clearly what I want-an exciting, rich life that consumes all of my energies. So I have never been afraid of losing power or status, and when I face several different choices, it has always been my style to take the road least traveled. The current magazine is an example of this. A lot of people have warned me that I am "just burning money," and of course I know that this is a fact. But promoting a new line of thinking, a new discourse, is the task that I feel most deserves doing at the present time.
My most sincere and important advice to young social activists today is this: The only way you will have the strength to continue in the long run, to keep fighting even in the darkest corners, is to first be clear about and stick persistently to your values and beliefs, and never stop believing that some day the sun will come out. That's how I see things looking back over the road that I have traveled.