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Premier Liu Chao-shiuan

Caught in the Crossfire

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Drawing flak from both the opposition and the ruling party, Taiwan's new premier just can't seem to get a break. How should he lead the new government on the thorny road ahead?

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Caught in the Crossfire

By Alice Yang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 399 )

It is afternoon and government workers are quickly walking across the red carpets along the corridors inside the quiet Executive Yuan building. As ROC premier Liu Chao-shiuan meets with a never-ending string of cabinet officials and visitors, his face does not show a trace of the humiliating attacks and vociferous protests that lawmakers hurled at him in the Legislative Yuan a day before.

In office less than a month, 65-year-old Liu has already posted many firsts. Leading the Cabinet for the first time, Liu is already fighting with his back against the wall. In contrast to his posts as transportation minister and vice premier in previous Kuomintang (KMT) governments, Liu this time needs to take full responsibility for government decisions. It's also the first time for him to be called "shameless."

"Since I am serving as premier, I'm not afraid to be rebuked," Liu says firmly in an exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine. "But I think that the manner in which the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) questioned me in the legislature is actually an insult to the 23 million people of Taiwan," Liu adds.

His hands full with urgent matters, Liu needs to deftly gauge public opinion, keep communication with the legislature smooth, and increase implicit understanding with President Ma Ying-jeou. Under Taiwan's current semi-presidential constitutional system, the division of power between the president and premier is blurred. Liu must tread a fine line not to exceed his powers, but he also needs to courageously push forward. As a seasoned political observer puts it, "You need a lot of implicit understanding, if two people want to jump on three legs."

Vengeful Enemies and Selfish Allies

Starting from the government's sluggish response to flooding in southern Taiwan to the controversy over cabinet members with green cards, and proposed funds to stimulate domestic demand, lawmakers kept up a constant barrage of vociferous attacks, demonstrating that the "vengeful enemies and selfish allies" typical of Taiwan's current political environment will not give Liu a breather. In his CommonWealth Magazine interview, Liu repeatedly reiterated that he will not cling to his post, but also that he won't quit lightly.

Although the KMT is back in power after an eight-year hiatus, Liu now faces a very different KMT, and must deal with a host of unanticipated problems – defining the division of authority between himself and the president, the new relationship between the government and the media, as well as the Internet revolution. The KMT, for instance, has lost a large portion of its party assets as well as access to government resources during the past eight years, so that its power has waned considerably. As a result, the party now relies on the popularity of its lawmakers to win elections. Since they were elected in single-seat constituencies that are much smaller than the former multi-seat districts, lawmakers face strong pressure from their constituents. Pandering to the electorate, they grandstand in the legislature, not even showing mercy to so-called political allies.

Killing Five Birds with One Stone

To score points with the public, many lawmakers have used vocal statements on three key issues – the advance announcement of utility rate and oil price hikes, the green card controversy, and the funds meant to expand domestic demand. Their every move, in particular their strong criticism of the Cabinet and efforts to get media exposure, have had multiple objectives. Instead of killing just two birds with one stone, they went for five:

(1) Assert themselves as leaders of the legislature, (2) jockey for a cabinet post, (3) bolster the power of legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, (4) show voters that they are able to confront government officials, (5) secure public works projects or other interests for their electoral districts.

Most importantly, the elections for county magistrates and city mayors looming at the end of next year are rattling politicians' nerves. A considerable number of lawmakers are interested in running for one of the posts at stake. As a result, they are not ready to pass up the opportunity to pull stunts in the legislature.

Moreover, after eight years in the opposition, the KMT has virtually no mechanisms to reconcile differences between the Executive Yuan and the Legislative Yuan. The KMT body that is supposed to smoothen communication between government officials and the party seldom convenes, and hardly any cabinet member is sitting on the KMT Central Standing Committee. Liu also lacks close personal connections with important lawmakers.

Ma is not willing to mediate the rift between the Cabinet and the legislature, perhaps because he is busy promoting his own "personal brand," or perhaps because he is strictly observing the constitutional division of power. Ma has also failed to establish ties with important lawmakers, so that face-conscious legislators feel slighted.

"He thinks that he has won the presidency thanks to his own brand image and that he therefore does not need to pander to the legislators," notes a veteran journalist.

Lack of Strong Aides

Thus, Liu must jump into the boiling cauldron of criticism all by himself. Another handicap is that he lacks a strong team of aides. Vice Premier Paul Chiu, Minister without Portfolio Tsai Hsung-hsiung and Executive Yuan Secretary General Steve Hsieh are all hard workers, but they lack grassroots ties and are not very adept at handling interpersonal relations. Neither do they seem cognizant of the dramatically shifting values and widely varying opinions present in a pluralistic society. Therefore, Liu needs to deal with every incident, small or big, at the frontline himself. Not surprisingly, he also has to take all the flak when things are not handled well.

Liu and his cabinet colleagues also find it difficult to stay on top of the media's immediacy-driven reporting. For example, when Liu was misquoted as saying that "green card holders have an international outlook," the government failed to issue a timely correction. As a result there was a public outcry, since Liu seemed to defend cabinet members with green cards.

However, Liu's actual statement made on June 9 had a quite different tenor: "As we move to internationalize, we need many people with an international outlook. Among these people there might be some who, due to their previous international experience, worked abroad for a while. Then again, a portion of this group of people might hold a green card."

Not only did the Cabinet not respond right away, but the Government Information Office also took three days before issuing a correction. But by then the media did not take notice, because they had already turned to playing up other issues. Therefore, Liu will likely have to take the rap for his misquoted statement for a long time.

Chang Sho-wen, secretary general of the KMT legislative caucus, notes that lawmakers need to go through the newspapers every morning themselves to gauge public sentiment, because the Executive Yuan's press materials usually do not arrive before 11 a.m. Chang finds that such a time gap makes it difficult for the legislators to endorse government policies.

In contrast, during the previous DPP government then Premier Su Tseng-chang insisted that his staff finish reading the day's newspapers by 6 a.m., so that he could decide on his response early in the day. Then government spokesman Cheng Wen-tsang used to be on stand-by at Su's side and would personally take phone calls from inquiring reporters, which allowed him to quickly clarify statements.

In comparison with Su's deft handling of the media, Liu needs more people that could help him put out fires before they flare up into major media disasters. Liu also needs cabinet members that are able to convincingly and fearlessly argue on behalf of government policy, such as when facing heavy fire from all sides over the planned domestic stimulus package. Chen Tain-jy, head of the Cabinet's Council for Economic Planning and Development, for his part, was not able to cope with the situation when questioned by lawmakers. Not only was he not able to explain the policy details, he even failed to present the policy principles in a consistent way.

As a result Liu and his cabinet have been criticized by members of the ruling party and the opposition alike for being an aloof elite that does not understand public sentiment. Popular Taichung mayor Jason Hu, himself a member of the KMT, has his own piece advice for embattled Liu: "Gauge public sentiment, grasp the principles, give clear explanations and achieve your targets."

Public sentiment is omnipresent, and easy to ascertain, Hu asserts. His advice is to establish clear principles, set objectives, and explain them to the people. And above all, do not fear being attacked. "Let them rant at you for 30 days or 60 days. Once you can show results, they will come around and support you."

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz


Chinese Version: 獨孤大俠,身陷火網

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