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Interview with Hong Hsiu-chu

Campaigning to Reawaken Hope


Campaigning to Reawaken Hope


Her emergence as the Kuomintang's prospective presidential candidate may have been the product of unusual circumstances, but "Little Hot Pepper" Hung Hsiu-chu is ready to wage a vigorous campaign against heavy favorite Tsai Ing-wen.



Campaigning to Reawaken Hope

By Sara Wu, Ming-hsien Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 575 )

On the eve of the Dragon Boat Festival, Deputy Legislative Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu was taking a break in her garden with an African tortoise she adopted three years ago. Hung, who does everything at high speed, was disarmed by the plodding terrapin, bending down to lightly caress her shelled friend and enjoy a rare moment of relaxation.

2015 has been a whirlwind for the veteran politician, who has rarely gotten more than five hours of sleep a night after being propelled into the spotlight by a series of events best described as "surprises."

Hung surprised many by entering the KMT's presidential primary and then shocked observers when she registered sufficient support in opinion polls to meet the high threshold set by the KMT, a bar set deliberately high to keep candidates with limited appeal – like Hung – from getting the party's presidential nomination.

The result means that Taiwan's 2016 presidential election will be between two women. As the decided underdog against Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, Hung is expected to run an aggressive campaign, suited to her fiery style that has earned her the nickname "Little Hot Pepper."

According to KMT insiders, Hung seemingly backed into the nomination after KMT heavyweights opted not to enter the party primary. They say Vice President Wu Den-yih wanted to run, but was held back by consistently low poll numbers. Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng also was interested in running, but his close advisors were divided over the idea. While some wanted Wang to vie for the presidency, others hoped he would try to remain as the head of Taiwan's legislative body, a position he has held since 1999. As someone who tries to please everybody, Wang vacillated and never made a final decision. 

The other factor was that many party heavyweights were unwilling to enter the KMT's presidential primary and stand at the same starting line with a relative no-name like Hung, instead hoping that the party would "draft" them to run once lower profile candidates such as Hung fell by the wayside.

But ultimately, against all odds, Hung cleared the necessary hurdles and emerged as the KMT's likely candidate. She is now expected to be formally nominated by the party as its presidential candidate at the KMT party congress on July 19.

In this interview with CommonWealth Magazine, the 67-year-old Hung discusses the looming campaign, her hopes for the election and her personal plans.

CommonWealth Magazine: When you entered the KMT presidential primary, your slogan was "Bringing Change." Has the KMT changed?

Hung Hsiu-chu: That's a good question. I hope that through my campaign, the KMT can get back its right to discourse, restore its vitality and momentum, and establish a real democratic model within the party. These are all the beginnings of change.

A 100-year-old party has a deep-seated culture and changing it cannot happen overnight. But through this opportunity, we want to awaken everybody, restore some vitality and give people a sense of hope. Then we want to get more young people to feel that this party is pretty good.

CW: It will now be a presidential battle between two women. What are your expectations for the race?

Hung: I hope there won't be all sorts of smear campaigns and speculation. Everybody should restrain those below them from doing that kind of thing. We are both women; things should be more dignified.

How Hung Differs from Tsai Ing-wen

CW: How do you think you differ from Tsai Ing-wen?

Hung: The biggest difference is that up to now she has not answered anything. I often joke that while she may be very well educated, she always makes sure people don't know the answers to questions. As for me, there are times when I say too much. We don't have a rigorous process where we first compose drafts or try to pre-empt things, and it can be exhausting.  

Hung Hsiu-chu had originally planned to retire from political life, but she has instead been thrust into the political limelight.   

Actually, that's really against my nature. Normally, I'm very laid-back and not at all as fierce and intense as I'm portrayed in the media. It's just that I have different roles in different venues. In private, I'm very ordinary and casual and I enjoy a good laugh. Now I suddenly have to restrain myself and worry that a joke I let slip may end up making headlines. My goodness. It really wears you down.

CW: So why then did you decide to run and put forth so much effort?

Hung: Actually, I made a decision during this year's Lunar New Year holiday to retire soon. At the time, I felt that, considering my background, reaching the point I have now has done my ancestors justice and has not let my parents down. 

I've worked my entire life and have never lived a life I can truly call my own. By retiring, I can choose the "old gal" life I want to lead. I have a lot of interests, but I've always been tied to my work and have never had a chance to just let go. Retiring would mean living a free and leisurely life.

But the blow from the KMT's loss in the local elections (in November 2014), didn't just cause me a lot of pain, it gave the pan-blue camp a big shock. Many people felt pain, and many others were indifferent. That indifference only made us feel sadder. Since when had a 100-year-old party fallen to that extent? Would that loss of confidence and slump in morale lead to a lack of optimism among our supporters and cause them to give up?

At that time, all newspapers were talking about was 'Ko P' (Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je), while the KMT had disappeared. How could the KMT contest the 2016 presidential election under such circumstances? It was in consideration of this that I started to become more vocal after the Lunar New Year break.

But when the KMT primary began, everybody still seemed indifferent, so I decided to pick up an application for the primary to get things going. If a small, humble woman like me dared to take such a big step, would you heavyweights who have so much influence and have been nurtured by the party and the country be willing to come out and carry the torch at this most difficult time for the party?

Running while Protesting

CW: Can you describe your experience in the KMT primary?

Hung: There's an old saying that "only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches." In the beginning, there was a lot of cynicism because I wasn't a big name. So I told myself that I was a "brave name" that dared to give it a shot and show some guts.  

CW: Many people are curious to know if it was your decision to throw your hat in the ring or if others wanted you to run? Did President Ma (Ying-jeou) support your decision to give it a go?

Hung: I'm a nobody, so how could President Ma have supported me? How could he have recruited somebody without any stature like me to run? Literally nobody took me seriously.

People then said I had no chance of winning and I wasn't running for real. I responded that soldiers can be defeated or get killed in action, but they cannot run away. Since I had already started, how could I possibly run off?

Then people started making fun of me, saying the Huang Fuhsing veterans branch of the party was helping get endorsements for my candidacy and then that it had been barred from doing so. I really had no idea who was writing these scripts. (Note: Candidates needed the signatures of at least 15,000 KMT members to be eligible to run in the primary. Hung was the only person to meet the threshold).

After I got enough endorsements, then the issue of 85 percent to 15 percent, or 50-50 popped up. (These represented ratios of different types of opinion polls to determine Hung's support rating and see if she was popular enough to become the KMT's candidate.) People fixated on that, with some saying I didn't have enough guts and was not willing to accept a challenge (because Hung was against more challenging thresholds). I said I was only willing to accept a poll showing my support rating because that's what was written in black and white in the KMT's regulations and we should not distort the rules. 

What made me happy about the end result is that I would have achieved the threshold no matter what standard was used. But I think the lack of confidence party comrades had in me was normal. It made sense for people to feel uneasy.

'Awakening' People the Campaign's Objective

I have told my aides that we needed to put up a fight and create some momentum to get more people to support us. Once that momentum takes hold and becomes hard to stop, you've won back the hearts of your comrades and they won't feel a lack of confidence in you any longer.

Hung Hsiu-chu has embarked on the final journey of her political life facing stiff headwinds.

So rather than blaming or complaining about others, it makes more sense to simply work harder. Up to now, I still feel that way – that awakening people is extremely important.

Wherever I go, people are extremely eager. You can feel their expectations. People seem to have found hope, and the expressions in their eyes and the extensions of helping hands provide the motivation that keeps me going. The more I go around and come in contact with people, the more determined I become. I will not pull out unless I'm defeated. If I give it everything I have and lose, my supporters will forgive me. But if I simply give up, how can I face them?

CW: Your candidacy only recently got going, and you only have a short time remaining before the election. How will you run your campaign?

Hung: We will continue to fight an unconventional battle. Many people say that our network of connections and financial resources are inadequate and that our opponent has been at this for a long time. But if we can win back the hearts of people in a short time, we can overcome personal and financial networks. That's the only (strategy) I can think of and is why I believe we have to run an unconventional campaign.

I have to admit that when it comes to tangible resources, what we have is inadequate, not to mention that we have stressed we will not take even a dime from the party. But that does not mean that the party will ignore its responsibility to support our campaign. It is responsible for mobilizing the organization, and think tanks can also give me a lot of advice, unlike during the primary process, when my aides were showing young kids the ropes and dragging supporters along.

CW: How do you operate a campaign that is unconventional and tries to bring people together?

Hung: Bringing people together means letting them see light and see hope, letting them see how you are different from other political figures, letting them see you bravely explain your own direction and policies, letting them see you speak the truth and not lie to people, and letting them see us express messages that do not pander to people and do it with conviction. If society did not like that kind of a person, then my poll numbers would not have risen as high as they have in such a short time.

I continue to speak out and go through various channels to allow more people to get to know me and understand me, and eventually identify with and support me because my name recognition still lags behind that of Tsai Ing-wen. When you go to rural areas and ask them who Hung Hsiu-chu is, they respond, "Who is she?"

And this may sound a little like self-deception or self-comforting, but then there are TV programs that smear or talk about me or come up with contrived stories about me on a daily basis, turning me into a topic of discussion. From a positive point of view, this (kind of publicity) is better than if I was simply ignored.

A Race against Time

CW: It's rare for women to choose to take on so much responsibility, and you did it on your own initiative. What compelled you to get up the courage to take leadership responsibility?

Hung: To be honest, people say that 'those who wear suits are most afraid of people who go barefoot.' You can call me gutsy, but in fact it was those important men who were shackled by different factors. They had all sorts of restraints and worries and misgivings and were unable to free themselves; but I had none of those things holding me back, so it was left up to me. If I lose, I lose. So what!

If I were married, and my husband and son were trying to persuade me not to run, as a wife and as a mother I would have to consider their feelings even I wasn't worried about myself, and that would be a hindrance. When there are hindrances, there are fears; I think that may be a big factor (why I don't have any constraints).      

CW: You have a difficult challenge ahead. How will you balance yourself and deal with the pressure?

Hung: I often tell myself that no matter how concerned or worried I feel or how much pressure I'm under, I have to be full of confidence when I face a crowd. If you don't have confidence, how can others see hope through you?

The biggest pressure I feel right now is not from the things people on the outside are talking about. It's the lack of time. The other candidate has been preparing for six or seven years. That's the biggest source of pressure for me.

Also, up until now, I've been fighting an uphill battle. Even from when the party congress confirms my nomination in July to next year on Jan. 16, it will still be an uphill battle for me. In the "Flying Geese" strategy, the leader is responsible for heading the flock into the wind. Even if you are elected president, the next four years are an even bigger challenge. In the environment we live in today, helping Taiwan find an appropriate road forward against major headwinds is a major responsibility.

So to me, time is really extremely tight. My age is also a demanding test. In fact, I should be leisurely traveling around the world and enjoying retired life. Instead, I'm taking the last journey of my political career. I'm treating it as the last phase of my political journey.  

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier