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New DPP Chair Tsai Ing-wen

DPP Will Be the Voice of the Underprivileged


In an exclusive interview on the eve of her election victory, Tsai Ing-wen speaks of her party’s strengths and the transformation it needs to achieve a resurgence.



DPP Will Be the Voice of the Underprivileged

By Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 397 )

Tsai Ing-wen was elected on May 18 as the Democratic Progressive Party's first chairperson since the party fell out of power after eight years of uninterrupted rule.

In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine on the night of her election, Tsai said Taiwan's biggest test in the near future will be to deal with the inequitable distribution of income resulting from globalization. She also discussed the severe challenges the governing Kuomintang (KMT) faces in the next six months, and the DPP's new direction. Following are highlights from the interview:

Q: Many people believe that your election as DPP chairwoman implies that the party has internally produced a generational handover of power or will herald a new era. What are your thoughts? 

A: I believe the DPP is now evolving from a revolutionary party into a party that is active in modern democratic politics and will focus its efforts on battles over policy. I think the DPP has had three developmental stages. The first was when it was a dissident opposition group [before political parties other than the KMT were allowed], when the pursuit of democracy was the priority. In the second stage, the goal was to build consciousness of Taiwan's sovereignty, and this "sovereignty consciousness" will remain an issue, but the DPP is already moving toward the third stage – one more similar to where modern political parties speak up for issues related to specific classes of people. The DPP stands with underprivileged and civic groups.

In the future, the DPP will position itself as the party that speaks out on behalf of the disadvantaged class.

In this new stage, the main elements of DPP policy and the party's order of priorities will emphasize building a complete social welfare system and generating steady and moderate economic growth, with particular attention placed on the issue of fairness. Have you heard the KMT talk about environmental issues? Not too often.

Q: But the KMT is now talking about more equitable wealth distribution and its desire to narrow the gap between rich and poor. The Department of Health has decided not to increase health insurance premiums, and the new government is prepared to put in place a negative income tax system...

A: The "equitable distribution of wealth" the KMT is talking about may be the concept as it was known in Sun Yat-sen's day. They could be starting to show concern over the disparity between rich and poor, at least conceptually, but may not clearly understand the modern face of these problems, believing they are simple redistribution issues within a closed economic entity.

Today's income gap is an issue closely intertwined with social inequities intrinsic to globalization. The problem with globalization is that those who earn money with their capital or brainpower are mobile, but there exists a group of people in the globalized world who are not – manual laborers and those living on fixed incomes. Modern countries need to take care of these people more than any others. Under globalization, economic distribution is an extremely difficult problem to solve.

Q: What areas do you think are the first candidates for reform?

A: For this country to straighten itself out, a number of issues need to be dealt with simultaneously, including the structure of local governments and reform of the tax system. In terms of taxation, we have always relied primarily on direct taxes, such as income taxes, as our primary source of revenues. But we should consider adopting indirect taxes as the main source of public funds, which would include business, entertainment and other excise taxes or those levied on exported goods. That's the way it is in other advanced countries. But politicians need guts to increase indirect taxes, because they will face the same resistance as found in Japan, where the Cabinet is forced to step down every time it tries to increase the value-added tax.

Q: The DPP's values in the past were to promote democracy and Taiwan-centrism. With these two goals accomplished, why does this society still need the DPP?

A: The DPP's ideology and overall structure is still more democratic and advanced than the KMT's, even if when the party governed Taiwan it had trouble realizing its ideals. But, for example, the referendum system stressed by the DPP signifies that our democratic politics have already reached a certain level, and now we must deepen democracy further by promoting direct democracy. In terms of actual policies, many of the DPP's policies related to disadvantaged groups, the environment and social welfare are more forward-looking than those of the KMT. We built a social safety net, balanced Taiwan's north-south divide and the economy as a whole. On the gap between rich and poor, even though the income differential expanded, the DPP kept it within a limited range.

Q: During the DPP chairmanship debate, you said the KMT would face two major disasters. One was an economic bubble, the other a sovereignty crisis. Do you believe these are imminent?

A: In the 1990s, the KMT created a big economic bubble that burst in 2001. The bubble in the '90s was brought about by the excessive expansion of credit, while the problems we see today are rising commodity prices and public spending stimulating economic growth. If the government falls back into its economic governance modes of the '90s, it will be dangerous. The next six months will provide a major test for the Ma Ying-jeou administration. They want to attract many elements from China to help broaden domestic demand, but bringing in Chinese influence could leave Taiwan's sovereign status unclear.

Q: In terms of cross-strait policy, the Ma government has adopted the "1992 Consensus" and proposed the "Three No's" [no unification, no independence, no use of force]. As the main opposition leader, what kind of principles will you use to monitor the KMT government?

A: The "1992 Consensus" is positioned between "one China, different interpretations" and the "one-China principle." It’s a concession. If the government’s position is "one China, different interpretations" then it should go ahead and say it. Why use the term "1992 Consensus?" Taiwan’s sovereignty will gradually slip away under the policies of the Ma administration. The DPP upheld the country’s sovereignty with great difficulty, and we should be moving forward, but now the new government is blurring the one-China issue, giving the other side the chance to say that we accept the "one-China principle." Over the past eight years, the Chen Shui-bian administration made progress, or at the very least did not take a step backwards. If it hadn’t been for DPP governance, how would there have been the mini-three links and nonstop charter flights [between Taiwan and China on holidays?

Q: What are your plans to strengthen the professional capabilities of the DPP?

A: We will incorporate some government officials into the party system and establish a think tank within the party to integrate outside resources and help devise policies. Aside from the think tank, we will also build an internal system linking the party’s policy committee to our legislative caucus to provide ammunition that will help them debate and defend party policies. We must take the lead on key issues and strengthen our ability to develop substantive policies.

Q: The party is short of funds and plans to streamline its operations. How will you build up a pool of talent?

A: We will take stock of the talent we already have and select the best people. At this point, the party has one thing going for it. Many people are waiting for us to select them, and this is the time when talent is the most widely available. But not all of the candidates necessarily want to be formally included on the payroll, and maybe we can launch a volunteer system. These are my initial thoughts.

Q: Although you have consistently said that factions are not a problem within the party, the old factional scars seem to have lingered to the present. How will you play a successful mediating role?

A: The most important trait political figures can possess is to not have a very good memory and not remember bad things others have done to them. First, mediators should not have their own agendas and cannot have their own selfish motives. Second, everything needs to be talked through.

Q: What do you most want to accomplish in the next two years?

A: To help the DPP rise again.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Chinese Version: 蔡英文:讓民進黨站起來