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A glimpse of hope – Frank Hsieh’s campaign group

25/12/2009

The 3 in 1 council and mayoral election in Taiwan has been discussed at length by Michael (post 1, post 2, figures) and Tim. I would like to share some of my observations of the campaign, looking for factors that might make some difference and steer Taiwan towards a more positive direction in the future.

Over the 18 months prior to the election, the performance of Ma Ying-jeou and his administration has been abysmal. However, the majority of media has been pro-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in the first place and the Ma administration has used every possible means to interfere with the media. The major opposition party (Democratic Progressive Party), on the other hand, has not shown enough strength to seriously challenge Ma Ying-jeou’s administration and the KMT. The increase in support for the DPP shown in the election is more likely to be a result of people’s strong dissatisfaction at Ma Ying-jeou and the KMT government than great trust in and support for the DPP. There’s a lot more the DPP need to do. A lot of people have been wondering why the DPP just can’t pull itself together. This is a rather complex issue. Today, I’ll start with some factors/forces that may bring some positive change in the future.

The Campaign Group

During the campaign for the 3 in 1 election, the DPP’s campaign strategy seemed rather conservative to the point of looking a bit worrying to me. However, Frank Hsieh, former Premier, brought something new into the campaign, which was quite refreshing. He set up a group called ‘Chang-kung campaign group’ (長工助選團) and the group consisted of some current and former DPP legislators, former ministers, a pro-green professional singer, Taiwanese puppet show artists, Taiwanese opera performers and amateur dancers.

In the launch of this group, their leader, Frank Hsieh, said that because the green camp did not have any party asset like the KMT, their group would be proactive in campaigning for all the DPP candidates at any corner they could find rather than responding to invitations and only speaking/performing on a stage already set up by the candidate. Hsieh also attempted to address young people’s reluctance to participate in politics by including puppet shows, Taiwanese opera, singing and dancing, with social and political issues incorporated, in addition to speeches in their campaign activities.

Hsieh emphasised the importance of humour and positive thinking when facing the current difficulties. He has said several times on his radio programme that even though the actions (or the lack of) of the Ma administration often lead to anger and disappointment and challenging an incompetent and undemocratic government is a serious task, it’s important to do it with humour, calmness and a lot of positive thinking. He said that Taiwanese and those who care about Taiwan should not torture themselves with anger for Ma Ying-jeou and his administration’s wrong doings.

Fun & Serious Plurking

Apart from this group, Hsieh also recruited a lot of young volunteers to join them in the campaign through Plurk. He has been consistently posting and responding to messages ever since he first started in April 2009. On average, Hsieh posts 2 or 3 messages a day. The morning one is always cheerful and uplifting. The second one is often about his critique on government policies or actions, the event he is attending or something that just happens (e.g. the earthquake). He usually ends the day with a calming message, giving his best wishes to everyone. I have been observing the Plurk messages of those well known politicians in the green camp and found Hsieh’s to be the most refreshing and interesting to follow because

  1. Hsieh covers the widest ranges of topics, including politics, history, poetry, literature, philosophy, Buddhism, religion…
  2. He’s always spot on on policies and directions.
  3. He learns young people’s language and online communication really fast, which enables him to communicate more effectively with those groups and get their support. Being able to use young people’s language and knowing what they think are more effective than simply participating in their kind of activities.
  4. He’s got a great sense of humour.
  5. He appears to be very approachable and personable. He not only ‘chats’ with the other Plurkers on his own page but responds to other Plurkers’ messages. A lot of Plurkers and his supporters have got a surprise ‘visit’ from him and found it great fun.
  6. Most important of all, his messages and replies are the most spontaneous, confident and effortless. Some of the other politicians can appear to be a bit too careful or calculated or trying too hard. Those more relaxed ones still lack Hsieh’s breadth and depth.

The above characteristics have made Hsieh the most popular politician on Plurk or online in general. His supporters and Plurk friends cover a very wide age range, which has been evident in the attendees of his Plurk parties. Even though Hsieh’s running mate in the 2008 presidential election, also a former premier, Su Tzeng-chang started Plurking a month before him, Hsieh has long surpassed Su in terms of the number of friends and fans as well as the Karma value (a figure on Plurk that reflects that frequency of use and the level of others’ response to one’s own messages).

The effect of Hsieh’s group

Hsieh and his campaign group were very popular and caught a lot of attention. One example of Hsieh’s influence could be demonstrated in Hsin-chu County. Even though the group toured around the country and supported all the candidates. Their support for the Hsin-chu county chief candidate, Peng Shao-jin, combined with the split of the KMT in that county, may have played a major role in the huge increase in the support for Peng. Those who don’t like Hsieh’s popularity claim that Hsin-chu was a definite ‘easy’ area because of the split within the KMT. This argument was not convincing because Peng’s polling figure was not good before Hsieh gave his support. As Peng does not belong to any particular faction within the DPP (i.e. no one would give him a lot of support) and he was very strict about accepting campaign funds, he simply did not have enough resources to make himself more visible. Hsieh recognised Peng’s quality, was sympathetic to his position and also felt that the KMT split could be Peng’s advantage. He and his group poured in a lot of time and support for Peng. Hsieh’s popularity also helped Peng increase Peng’s visibility, pulling his polling number from just over 10% to nearly 20% and then 30%.

Attempts to stop Hsieh

The KMT may have felt the pressure from Hsieh and found it necessary to smear his image. On 24 November, the police used force to stop Hsieh’s group while they were visiting a place with the DPP Hsin-chu county candidate, Peng Shao-jin. The reason the police gave were that 1) Ma Ying-jeou was nearby; 2) the DPP did not report their campaign activity under the Parade and Assembly Law. This incident was reported by Taipei Times. Even though the police has been reported to have meddled in several places, the incident in Hsin-chu, involving Hsieh was the most serious. Hsieh was pushed and shoved by the police and a group of young men in the KMT candidate’s campaign vests. This was all caught on camera. In the photos, one can clearly see where the police officer’s hands were when he was pushing Hsieh.

The KMT quickly blamed Hsieh for being ‘provocative’ when in fact, those young men in the KMT vests were the National Security Bureau (NSB) special agents. This was more than just abusing power. When those special agents disguised themselves as the KMT supporters were ordered by their chief to block the DPP candidate and Hsieh’s group, the DPP group and their supporters were most likely to believe that the KMT candidate’s supporters were being unreasonable and probably push back. Therefore, the NSB was suspected to be secretly provoking the DPP group. The NSB chief who gave the order was asked by the presidential office to apologise (Note: The NSB answers directly to the president) and claimed that they did not realise it would result in a ‘misunderstanding’. The KMT went on to argue that when the DPP was in power, the former president and premier were also heavily protected by NSB and the police. While it’s true that the former president was also protected, the NSB under the DPP administration NEVER ordered the special agents to wear any candidate’s campaign vests as a disguise to cause trouble nor did they ban others from walking the surrounding streets when the former president was in the area.

This was actually not the first ‘encounter’ during the campaign. When Hsieh was campaigning for the Yi-lan county chief candidate, Lin Tsong-shyan on 31st October, Ma was also visiting the same night market. Ma Ying-jeou not only hid himself stayed in a small cafe for ages when Hsieh and his group walked past that cafe but had extra NSB agents heavily surround Hsieh and the campaign group, stopping them and keeping them away. As can be seen on the news clip, Ma appeared to be rigid and guarded when Hsieh was relaxed and confident, greeting the local residents and speaking to the press.

Some accused Hsieh of following Ma everywhere to get attention for himself but the evidence seems to suggest that Ma was doing it to cause scuffles and then blame them on Hsieh because the president’s diary is not always public knowledge (not beforehand anyway) whereas Hsieh’s group always posted their daily itinerary in advance on Taiwan Shadow Government website. Even if Hsieh had followed Ma’s steps, it was actually quite effective in highlighting Ma’s incompetence and how he broke all the campaign promises since he got in power. After all, the memory of Hsieh’s questioning over Ma’s promises and Hsieh’s prediction of Ma’s direction was still quite fresh. Some also accused Hsieh of only backing candidates in the ‘easy’ areas so that he could boast about his influence. This was not true either because he did support all the candidates and all the activities were posted on Taiwan Shadow Government website.

Regardless of what he decides to do in the future, I believe that Hsieh’s much deeper and wiser and has a lot to offer than what the press currently portrays. It would be quite shallow to think that losing the 2008 presidential election means that he’s no good at all or lost the plot. One of the reasons why he’s still popular now or got even more popular since 2008 is that all his predictions of Ma’s directions and the consequences of Ma’s policies have all been proven accurate. I’ll talk more about this in the future.

One may wonder how this line of writing may help while human rights violation and corruption are going on. As I said at the beginning of this post, I would like to look at things that may show some promise and some hope. However, I used the phrase ‘a glimpse of’ because not only the blue camp wants Hsieh out of the picture badly, certain groups in the green camp also feel jealous about or threatened by his influence and intelligence and have always been keeping him at a distance, if not actively trying to trip him up, sabotage his effort or smear him. I just hope that those in the green camp who can’t see and think beyond power and competition will come to their senses and not kill off forces and ideas that can benefit Taiwan in the long run.

Merry Christmas

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