Hsiao Bi-khim Takes on Local Scion
Having lost a by-election to him five years ago by over 6,000 votes, DPP Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴) is now again taking on Wang Ting-sheng (王廷升), son of a former Hualien Magistrate, for a single seat in the legislature.
Hsiao Bi-khim Takes on Local ScionBy Ming-hsien Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 588 )
On a late October evening, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) chairperson and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen holds court over a campaign dinner meeting in the basement-level banquet hall of Hualien’s Marshal Hotel, recounting in detail how involved her party’s people have been on the local level over the past six years, leading up to taking the top popularly elected administrative positions in 13 of Taiwan’s cities and counties.
Suddenly and without warning, emotion grows in her voice as she states, “If Hsiao Bi-khim is not elected as a legislator representing Hualien, the DPP’s comeback story will be incomplete.” At first these words shocked the more than 500 people in the audience – among them former university presidents and local newspaper publishers – into silence, which was then quickly swallowed by exuberant applause. One guest says that the applause continued unabated for several minutes.
More than just polite decorum, they applauded because the message resonated with them. For many people in Hualien, defeating a second-generation candidate, or a so-called “legacy political candidate” in a one-on-one election “is practically impossible,” relates the attendee.
Hsiao’s opponent in the election, incumbent Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Wang Ting-sheng, known locally as “Wang Jr.,” feels the same way. “Just because the KMT’s prospects in the election are poor, does that mean I won’t do well? Not necessarily!” he says. Scion of former Hualien county magistrate Wang Ching-feng, Wang Ting-sheng stresses, “My family has been engaging the grassroots here for a long time.”
Locals’ conservatism, plus Wang Ting-sheng’s bold proclamations, are typical of local-level democracy in Taiwan.
Many outsiders’ impressions of Hualien, which stretches 130 kilometers from north to south on Taiwan’s east coast – the distance from Miaoli to Kaohsiung – and occupying one-eighth of Taiwan’s total area, are limited to that of a tourism destination boasting beautiful mountains and coastal areas from Taroko National Park all the way to Yushan National Park.
Politically, Hualien was the first county or municipality in Taiwan to practice democracy. In 1950, while Taiwan remained under the chilling shadow of the 2/28 Incident, Hualien was already conducting experiments, holding the first popular elections for county magistrate two years ahead of cities and counties on Taiwan’s western corridor.
However, the outpacing of commensurate civic administration by democratic processes led to the formation of 13 “fiefdoms” corresponding to the 13 towns and villages in the county along its long corridor. Relationships between county magistrates, assembly speakers, and town and village chieftains extend beyond the divisions of administrative levels, and enter into the realm of cronyism and patronage.
“A lot of people think of Hualien as ‘deep blue’” (note: “Blue” is associated with the KMT, whilst green is the color of the DPP, so “deep blue” connotes strong affinity to the KMT), says a high-level Hualien County administrator. “But people here are really mostly fair-weather voters, taking a pragmatic approach and going along with whoever is in power.”
Given such conditions, Hsiao’s strong candidacy has taken a lot of people by surprise. How has she managed to do it? The answer lies in respecting popular opinion, long-term effort, and concerted efforts to promote public development.
More than five years ago, at a time when morale was low within the DPP, Hsiao was drafted to represent the party in a by-election. Her opponent was Wang Ting-sheng, and she lost by the slim margin of just over 6,000 votes.
Having established her expertise in foreign affairs, she went against the common perception of DPP candidates that drop in for elections and just take off again when they leave, making people feel they’ve been “scammed for votes” by campaign promises. Not only did Hsiao never leave, she even set up a Hualien service office and set about working in the community. In the capacity of DPP legislator at large, she has kept close watch on issues important to locals, such as railway and road transportation, agriculture, and education.
“I tell Ministry of Transportation and Communications officials, if you don’t take good care of things, the next time you come to the Legislative Yuan you’ll be seeing me,” she says.
Back in Hualien, she takes off her pants suit, dons rain boots, and takes on the role of a country girl student, busying herself making visits back and forth and becoming versed in the locals’ language.
Once, when Hsiao was visiting farmers, a long snake slithered into her vehicle. A farmer took a look, paused, and flatly stated to her, “It’s about three catties. (1.8 kg) ” “I think in terms of length, whilst he saw it by weight. That gives you an idea of how big the gap is,” chuckles the cosmopolitan Hsiao.
Studying military procurement from the United States by day and comparing soybean prices by night, Hsiao admits that she can be conflicted. This is especially difficult for her when foreign guests visit with the DPP and she is occupied in Hualien, unable to accompany them. Nevertheless, working at the local level keeps people quite busy, and especially given her identity as an outsider, she must work harder to establish her status in Hualien.
In this respect, her image as a woman with strong ethics and no particularly strong personal ambitions has helped break down the traditional divide between the Blue and Green camps.
In addition, on the testosterone-laden political battlefield, her small stature, and reserved, even shy persona, is a refreshing change from the norm.
Her unusual background also comes into play, having been born in Japan into a pastor’s family to a Taiwanese father and American mother and growing up at a seminary in Tainan before pursuing university and graduate degrees from the United States. Whether in education or family and formative background, Hsiao stands apart from grassroots society and its emphasis on class background and connections, making her a breath of fresh air to voters.
For instance, while canvassing Hualien’s central and southern areas, she became aware that due to poverty in more remote villages, some students did not even have desks at home for doing their homework. So she enlisted students at National Donghua University, raising funds for a vehicle to go back and forth to assist children in remote communities. In addition, when the New Dawn orphanage sought to establish a foundation, she volunteered her space as a liaison office, and set up meetings to coordinate with central government agencies. “You can see how much she cares for people in these little places,” says Ko Jen-ai (柯仁愛), executive assistant to the director of the Mennonite volunteer organization.
“Hsiao extended her help, but never asked us for our support” in return, says Hou Mei-ying (侯美英), a specialist with the Ren Ching Community Service Association, which oversees reading buddy organization for underprivileged children in the Fenglin Village area. This attitude of Hsiao’s made Hou feel “respected,” she relates.
Old vs. New
As the campaigns heat up and the election draws near, Wang Ting-sheng is mobilizing agricultural associations, women’s groups and KMT loyalists. This has made the election more than a match of images, but pits strength against strength.
“A lot of people think this is a battle of contrasts, and an election of a new style against old culture,” observes one Hualien County official from the south-central area, adding “This election is a test to see if the people of Hualien are capable of taking steps in a new direction.”
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman