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Jhanghua County Commissioner Cho Po-yuan

Getting a Grip on Public Perceptions

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Cho Po-yuan enjoys one of the highest voter support rates of any KMT mayor or county executive. As one of the new generation of KMT leaders, how is Cho getting his constituents to sense his passion for public administration?

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Getting a Grip on Public Perceptions

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 505 )

With a well-coiffed head of slicked-back hair and steel-framed glasses, Jhanghua County Commissioner Cho Po-yuan presents a refined-looking figure, eyes locking in as he offers a firm, powerful handshake.

Those on the receiving end of that handshake will not soon forget the enthusiasm telegraphed from the palm of his hand.

After becoming a county councilor at 28, he has since served as deputy county commissioner and legislator, spending the better part of his life involved in politics and gaining a high degree of support among county residents. A raconteur adept at spinning a moving yarn, Cho has come to be seen as a rising  star among the new generation of KMT political leaders.

Under his leadership, for example, Jhanghua County was the first jurisdiction in the nation to offer free school lunches to all elementary and junior high school students in 2009, a policy that was inspired by the tears of a struggling family.

While visiting constituents some time ago, Cho met an elderly farmer who was raising his granddaughter and asked the farmer if there was anything he could do to help.

"I've got rice, vegetables, chickens. Life's pretty good, except I can't afford to pay her school lunch fees," the farmer replied.

It turned out that because the farmer owned his land, he did not qualify for low-income family assistance.

"That day I was suddenly hit with the realization that laws are dead things, government regulations are dead things, but people are living beings," Cho says.

Going out on a limb, given the precarious state of the county's public finances, Cho set aside an annual budget of NT$1.2 billion to provide all of the county's elementary and junior high school students with free school lunches, thus avoiding stigmatizing children from poor families.

In getting to the heart of the struggles of the underprivileged, action wins out over idle theorizing. In the wake of a typhoon following his election, flood waters in Fangyuan Township's Yongsing Village rose waist high on a grown man. Cho spent an entire afternoon plodding through the flood waters, going house to house to ask residents: "Any problems here? Do you wish to be evacuated?"

But when the flood waters receded, the problem still needed to be solved. Cho had pumping stations constructed in Fangyuan, Dacheng and other county townships, along with a system of diversion canals crisscrossing flood-prone areas of the county so that even in the event of a typhoon, a major disaster could be averted. Consequently, a common Taiwanese rhyme has sprung up in the county's coastal regions: "There's wind but no typhoon, there's rain but no monsoon."

But what Cho is proudest of is his success at integrating local infrastructure construction with central government policy. Cho worked hard to secure the county's Erlin Township as the fourth campus of the Central Taiwan Science Park. Construction of the park will not only bring jobs and development, but other practical benefits such as the construction of the peripheral transportation network that will be needed to complement it.

Now, with a major national economic infrastructure project on the table, the central government will be picking up the tab for transportation infrastructure construction that the county would ordinarily have needed to finance, including roads linking the park to the outside and access roads to high-speed rail. The NT$80 billion transportation infrastructure budget would be sufficient to fund the free school lunch program for 80 years.

"Transportation is like the circulatory system. If the circulatory system is in good order, the patient is healthy," Cho says. It goes without saying that coming under KMT control has made it easier for the county government to secure a share of central government resources. "You could say new transportation construction over the past several years has been at an all-time high for the county," Cho says.

With central government resources and local initiative, Jhanghua has established a convenient transportation network allowing travel between any two points in the county within half an hour, giving people the sensation that a new urban entity is rapidly taking shape.

Cho's leadership and organizational capabilities can also be seen in the form of large-scale events. Aral Lubricants assistant manager Cheng Chin-kuai, who grew up, got married and had a family in Jhanghua, took her kids to Lugang in February of this year to see the Lantern Festival.

"The whole of Lugang seemed to be bustling with activity, but they did a good job keeping traffic orderly and everything generally tidy," she recalls fondly, despite more than six months having passed. The 14-day Lantern Festival drew 10 million visits, 30 percent more than the anticipated seven million and the highest in 22 years, yet there were few complaints.

Jhanghua residents say there are few negative things to say about Cho and that he is able to bring home the bacon for the county, yet numerous challenges remain to be faced.

Although Cho enjoys wide popular support among county residents, according to the results of a CommonWealth Magazine happiness survey of Taiwan's cities and counties, which conducted a statistical analysis of 58 objective indices, Jhanghua only ranked ninth in overall competitiveness – quite out of line with people's expectations. Aside from a lofty number-three ranking in culture and education, Jhanghua ranked lower in other categories, with environmental conditions and social welfare not even in the top ten.

And some commentators have expressed reservations about Cho's administration, suggesting that his policy initiatives are "all show and no go, making a big public splash then fizzling out with few long-term results to show for it." Some argue that there have been too many tourism-based promotions with little effort expended to promote other industries.

It is these observers that are hopeful that Cho, with his self-professed knack for "getting a grip on public opinion and perceptions," will focus more intently on basic infrastructure.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Keywords:

好友人數