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Ex-Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai

Taiwan: A Depressed Model Student


Taiwan: A Depressed Model Student


Never bashful about voicing an opinion, ex-Culture Minister Lung Ying-tai defends her performance in office, upbraids Taiwanese society for its impatience, and talks about the big generational challenge Taiwan is facing.



Taiwan: A Depressed Model Student

By Yueh-lin Ma, Yi-shan Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 562 )

A high-profile author, essayist and cultural critic and the Taipei's cultural chief from September 1999 to March 2003, Lung Ying-tai led the transformation of Taiwan's Council for Cultural Affairs into the Ministry of Culture in May 2012. Since then, she had been toiling in relative obscurity as the country's first culture minister, occasionally revealing glimpses of the frustration she felt in trying to get things done.

Even before the ruling Kuomintang suffered a resounding defeat in Taiwan's Nov. 29 local elections, leading the Cabinet to resign en masse, she had already tendered her resignation. In a statement explaining her decision on Dec. 1, she stressed she had helped the Culture Ministry walk "its first mile" and that it was time for her to return to her quiet writer's desk.

In this interview with CommonWealth Magazine, she talks about the trials of being a government official in an age where people expect to "feel" instant results and the country has taken on a schizophrenic side. The following are excerpts of the interview in Lung's own words:

There's a theory out there where people wonder why Lung Ying-tai made people take notice as the head of Taipei's Department of Cultural Affairs but was nearly invisible as Taiwan's first culture minister. They then conclude that her performance as culture minister failed to measure up to her stint as the capital city's culture commissioner.

A hard-working official in a local government, such as me in Taipei, can turn 22 old houses into shiny pearls within three years, something that people can see with their own eyes.

Essential, but Unseen, Tasks

I have to admit that back then I also felt the Council for Cultural Affairs didn't appear to be doing anything. This shows that I was lacking in awareness, that I did not sufficiently understand the fundamental differences between the central and local government.

The central government's responsibility is to set major policies, propose new legislation and amend old statutes, all of which involve "foundation engineering." Since when is foundation engineering something you can see with the naked eye? For example, I spent 1,000 days taking inventory of all existing laws that were outdated or that blocked progress. Can the public "feel" that? Of course not.

Take the "Museum Act," for example, which has been discussed for more than 20 years. Because Taiwan does not have a "Museum Act," the status of its 700-plus museums of all sizes remains undefined, hiring rules for staff have not been developed, and there are no guidelines for the development, authorization and sale of cultural and creative products. I spent 1,000 days completing the law's draft and submitting it to the Legislative Yuan. Do you think people can "feel" this kind of hard work?   

Of course I realize that in an environment dominated by election politics, you might not have been able to see my foundation engineering efforts. I'm sorry, but it's something I had to do, whether you could see it or not. I was willing to take public office precisely to build this foundation.

That takes a lot of determination and patience. Here's one example. Why did I put so much effort into drafting and promoting the "Underwater Cultural Heritage Preservation Act"? 

We only pay attention to things on land and rarely look at what's on the ocean's seabed. We put a premium on historical monuments but have little knowledge of the rich museum hidden in the waters around us. The "Underwater Cultural Heritage Preservation Act" is an extremely farsighted piece of legislation.

Mature Citizens Do More than Cast Votes

The public sees the development of South Korea's film and television industry, but what everybody actually sees is the tail end of the process. The discussion and debate that occurred before South Korea's Korea Culture & Content Agency became a reality and the development of an "international policy reference system" are things we are currently doing. You can't just look at the dishes that come out of the kitchen. Before the dishes are served, there's a vision, there's a strategy and there are a thousand details that have to be handled carefully.

We have a quite narrow perspective in thinking that elections are the be-all and end-all of democracy. How is that the case? Sophisticated citizens can understand that when you hold up the achievements of South Korea's film and TV industry, you cannot ignore the foundation it built beforehand – organizational statutes take time, a budget needs to be in place, and the hiring system has to be sound. This process of putting everything together is called "foundation engineering." They spent many years on this, while the Ministry of Culture has only been established for two years. Could it have started with anything but building a foundation?

Some may say it's already too late, that others have already built a 100-story edifice while we're still laying the foundation below ground. I would respond that if the foundation is not solid and you still erect the 100-story building, would you dare live in that high-rise? Our society is too impatient. Taiwanese society is overly impatient and depressed, as though it has bipolar disorder.

We should not be so despondent. From the advancement of democracy, the economy's step-by-step progress and clean and transparent government to the soundness of civil society and the caliber of our citizens, if you take these standards and see how they stack up, Taiwan stands out as a model student among the world's more than 200 countries. But though it's a model student, it is also depressed, thinking that nothing here is any good. It's quite strange.

That may be because we lack international perspective. We do not understand the 200 other countries in the world and do not have a point of reference. When a person with depression lacks an external reference and comparison, the depression gradually moves toward darkness. 

Aside from the pervasive sense of gloom, impatience also reigns. We're always saying, "We're doomed. We're doomed." Others have already built a 100-story skyscraper while we're still busy on the foundation. I often hear people say how we're in trouble because all of our talent has fled abroad. Talent, indeed, represents a key pillar of a country's success and should be dealt with as a national security issue. But when German filmmakers flocked to Hollywood, nobody there was saying the country would soon perish. Many of the books on European best-seller lists are English-language works, but people there are not saying that their country is doomed because of that.

We can work hard, but there's no need to be impatient, panicky or self-denigrating to such a degree. Heavily influenced by the media, our society is extremely unsettled and anxious. That's my concern.

New Media: A Generational Clash

Over the past three years at the Ministry of Culture, I've found it's become very difficult to communicate effectively with the media. It's impossible for major policies to get media coverage, meaning that society, citizens and even cultural circles and experts have no way to follow important developments in cultural policy. I have faith in civil society and believe that we have the responsibility to communicate with citizens and keep them informed about national policies and where the country is headed. But we have no way to reach the people because the media's structure in Taiwan has changed.

Because of this, we have discussed "new media" very conscientiously. New media is not just about technology, because technology has changed content, and content forges values. There are those who use this new communications technology and those who don't, resulting in two groups of citizens with different values.

I've found that this is very significant, and in fact a revolution has already occurred. But the traditional government has yet to fathom the depth and magnitude of this "revolution."

This evolution from technology to values has happened extremely quickly and explains several key social phenomena, from the Sunflower Movement and the fallout over a trade-in-services pact with China to the recent local elections.

Because information is transmitted so quickly, values change just as quickly, but "agencies" at all levels of government – executive, legislative and judicial agencies and even commercial agencies alike – are unable to change in the blink of an eye, resulting in a disparity in knowledge and understanding.

Government is the most stable institution, and should be the most stable institution, but a huge maelstrom has erupted in society, and the communication methods it relies on have brought a qualitative change in values, creating a gap with traditional institutions. I think this is closely tied to the political chaos that currently exists and especially the very different perceptions and understandings of public policies.

Amid this cognitive gap, if the two sides with very different values do not make an effort to understand each other, are not tolerant and are not considerate of each other, I would be very worried.

In terms of traditional institutions, there is not only the Executive Yuan. The Executive Yuan's administrative system has already realized through the dispute over the trade-in-services agreement the importance of taking seriously how new media is creating new values and the need to re-educate itself. But the government involves more than just the executive branch. What about the Legislative Yuan? How about the Control Yuan? Have the Examination Yuan and the Ministry of Civil Service, which are responsible for the system used to hire and manage civil servants, realized this?

Because the technology used to convey knowledge has spawned revolutionary change, the information young, first-time voters are exposed to is vastly different than that seen by 50-somethings. Whatever knowledge you're exposed to almost invariably determines your values. People who were born using their touch screen smartphones to find knowledge probably don't read the same things as the generation that was raised reading thick, annotated volumes of Zhuangzi or Plato. If the information people come across is very different, it will be highly unlikely that their values are the same.

A Schizophrenic Constitution

During the 1,000 days when I gave my all, the torment I felt every day often drove me to think about Taiwan's constitutional problems. Taiwan has a schizophrenic constitution. It gives the premier (the head of the Cabinet) power but not responsibility and the president responsibility but not power. This arrangement is fundamentally insane, and if all we do is relentlessly criticize this dilemma without doing anything about it, then what's the point?

If the Constitution is not amended, whoever becomes president will face one of two scenarios. Either they respect the system and cannot get anything done or they ignore the system and abuse their power. Democracy involves more than just elections. We have just drifted along in too many fundamental areas and then suffered and faced disaster.

So of course I support revising the Constitution. If we don't lay the groundwork, and spend our time wandering aimlessly and cursing the situation at the same time, swinging fiercely between anxiety and impatience, "foundation engineering" won't get done. In the end, one generation after another, 20 years down the road we will still be in the same predicament. If that's the case, is there any way our prospects can be bright?

The local elections were a big shock to me, but not because of the election itself or the redistribution of power.

The shock was the even greater realization of how divergent substance and values have become because of the different ways people acquire information. But our society is not cognizant enough of how split we are. We are not aware or alert enough of the qualitative changes we are currently experiencing, and that shocked me.

But these differences are not a problem. What's important is to have "problem awareness." Once there is awareness of the problem, people will try to learn to respect each other, extend their hands to shake the hands of those they don't agree with and don't like, and seek understanding and dialogue. But if there is no "problem awareness," the rift will continue to expand. What is dangerous is that regardless of what people's values are, we are all in the same boat.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier