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Taipei Mayor-elect Ko Wen-je

Aspiring for a More Just Society


Aspiring for a More Just Society


Ko Wen-je was elected as Taipei mayor by promising to be a different kind of city leader. In an interview with CommonWealth Magazine, he expressed the desire to change the way city residents think as much as changing the face of the city.



Aspiring for a More Just Society

By Jung-Shin Ho, Rebecca Lin, Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 562 )

"Some people say Sean Lien can't understand poor people and Ko Wen-je can't understand people who are not as smart as him, so neither have any friends." That line was volunteered by Taipei Mayor-elect Ko Wen-je, his face showing he was pleased with himself as he said it.

CommonWealth Magazine interviewed Ko at his Songjiang Rd. campaign office on the morning of Dec. 5, six days after the political novice was elected to lead Taiwan's capital city. Asked what he thought was his major shortcoming, Ko answered without hesitation, "I like to make fun of others. It would be hard to change that." He said it so matter-of-factly, it was almost as if he were talking about a personal strength.

Ko boasted that he had won almost every battle fought in his life, perhaps explaining one of the so-called "Ko's Quotations": "Lions cannot understand dogs' sadness." That of course underlines Ko's big ego and arrogance, but he also revealed his sincerity underneath his outward conceit.

"I later was able to empathize because having been a doctor for 30 years, especially in the emergency ward, where you see people leaving forever every day; I experienced this every day," he told CommonWealth Magazine.   

Thanks to the Internet frenzy, this independent mayor-elect, whose meteoric rise was keyed by such catchphrases as "everyman in politics" and "white power," has become the darling of the younger generation. Ko's every utterance seemed to ridicule the pretentiousness and incompetence of both pan-blue and pan-green politicians.

Though Ko won the Taipei mayor race by more than 200,000 votes (or by just over 16 percentage points) over Kuomintang nominee Sean Lien, his personal style and penchant for not mincing words, along with his interaction with his family, have remained intact.

"My three children didn't have much of a reaction to my being elected mayor. I've been an absentee dad. They were used to not having a father as they grew up," he says.

What he says is true. After the interview, a classmate of his older daughter asked to have her picture taken with Ko for a homework assignment. Ko not only happily accepted, he also took the opportunity to gather information.

"I haven't seen my daughter in a long time. What's she been up to lately?" he asked.    

Though Ko's private life may be unaffected by his election victory, major changes are brewing in the city he will soon govern. Articulating his vision of Taipei becoming a "blue-green demilitarized zone," Ko says he wants to create "a just society that returns to rational discussion in which right is right and wrong is wrong," a reaction to the incessant partisan wrangling between Taiwan's two main parties, the "blue" Kuomintang and "green" Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Taipei residents need to start getting accustomed to this new mayor, who puts a premium on standard operating procedures, and civil servants must start getting used to a self-described "autocratic" and "ruthless" mayor.  

Ko himself must gradually realize that "the water that holds up the boat can also swallow it" and accept the strict supervision and examination of public opinion, especially young netizens. People from all walks of life are watching to see in what direction he will take the city.

The following are excerpts of CommonWealth Magazine's interview with Ko Wen-je.  

Your big election victory was what you expected. Nothing surprised you? 

Ko Wen-je: No. Everything went according to plan. The margin of victory we estimated was completely in line with expectations. That's because we did more than 20 opinion polls, and the analysis from every single one was very clear. In fact, Yao Li-ming spoke the truth. (Ko's campaign manager, Yao said on Nov. 9, 20 days before the election, that Ko would get 800,000 votes, stirring up controversy.) It's just that nobody told him to divulge the truth.    

Campaigning Easier than Being a Surgeon

I come from National Taiwan University Hospital. National Taiwan University Hospital is the most advanced place in Taiwan and where the smartest people in all of Taiwan work. Although there's a lot of infighting internally, it gives me the chance to develop the best fighting skills.

To me, the election campaign was really relaxing, much easier than working in a surgical intensive care unit. So I was relaxed the entire time. My blood pressure and heart rate never went up.

CW: Every word you say from now on will be closely scrutinized and interpreted. Will you start to be especially careful (in what you say)?

Ko: No. The most important thing for me now is to begin reshaping Taiwan's culture. I believe that beginning next year the "Ko Wen-je phenomenon" will be a hot topic and will have an impact all across society and culture, from politics and sociology to journalism.

This is a 21st-century Sino-Japanese War with an individual leaving National Taiwan University Hospital and setting out in a canoe to wipe out the "Big Lien Fleet." This was something historically unimaginable. It was Windows beating DOS, a successful political venture capital start-up.

(Note: Aside from alluding to Japan's defeat of China with a smaller fleet in the Sino-Japanese War, Ko used the name "Jiawu War," which is also a reference to the Chinese system of years that runs on a 60-year circle in which 2014-2015 is also a Jiawu year.)

CW: In recent years, Taiwan has been governed by lawyers. But in these elections, three doctors – you, Lai Ching-te (in Tainan) and Twu Shiing-jer (in Chiayi City) – were all elected mayor. Has the era of doctors governing Taiwan arrived?

Ko: No. I really don't think so. I actually think people need to think about one question. Over the past 20 years, 80 percent of Taiwan's presidents, vice presidents and premiers have come from the same school and even the same department (National Taiwan University's College of Law). In terms of the concept of a diverse ecosystem, this is definitely wrong.

I'm somebody who really likes reading history. Of China's political leaders – namely presidents and premiers – over the past two decades, only Li Keqiang was trained in the law; the rest all studied engineering. But on this side, except for (former president) Lee Teng-hui, who studied agricultural science, all the others were law graduates, explaining the difference in the two countries' development during that time.

CW: You hope Taipei will overtake Singapore in eight years, but there are those who don't think Singapore is worth emulating.

Ko: Singapore was just an example thrown out there. Of course, Singapore has its flaws. Singapore has democracy but not freedom. Hong Kong has freedom but not democracy; Taiwan has freedom and democracy but is not whole; and China does not have either freedom or democracy.

I think about it this way: A lion may grin but everybody only sees its sharp white teeth; people should not over-interpret things.

Every city has its strengths and weaknesses; you have to have objectives, such as urban renewal. Every time I look at Taipei, I think it's ugly. Singapore is pretty and very clean. Singapore's city planning beats ours, and its GDP is higher than ours.

CW: What changes are you thinking of bringing to Taipei over the next four years?

Ko: My six main visions: just society, cultural city, health and safety, caring and sharing, community-building and transparency. I tend to think that not only "hardware" needs to be changed but also "software." A just society means building a society in which one can "do the right thing."

A Culture of 'Doing the Right Thing'

Take the bus lane on Zhongxiao East Rd. I want to build a new culture and attitude. (Incumbent Taipei Mayor) Hau Lung-bin said, "after looking at information on the bus lane, it may not have to be removed," and I answered, "Fine. I'll look at the information you have and then decide whether or not to eliminate it." But the media then asked, "didn't you say you were going to remove it?" That culture is wrong. I said I would eliminate the bus lane, but if somebody shows me data leading me to decide not to get rid of it, that's all culture. But if I insist on eliminating it simply because I said I would, then that's a purely ideological position.

This society is very strange. I hope to build a just society, because in today's atmosphere, it's impossible to do things that are right but things that are wrong are being done every day.

The spirit of a just society is to return to rational discussion, with right being right and wrong being wrong. If we can't do every right thing, then we can at least do fewer wrong things.

Abolishing local police branch stations is a topic that can be discussed. So is (former president) Chiang Ching-kuo. (Note: Ko was criticized by the Lien campaign for saying that streets should not be named after politicians following a call by Sean Lien to rename a street in Taipei 'Ching-kuo Road.) I was very angry at the time because if we can't discuss a president who's been dead for 26 years, how can we discuss a living president who is in jail (referring to former president Chen Shui-bian)? This society has already reached the point of giving everybody labels, from Chiang Ching-kuo and the bus lane issue to abolishing police branch stations. These three issues have shown me that Taiwan is a society incapable of discussion.

CW: Many are watching to see if you can work with New Taipei Mayor Eric Chu. You said you wanted to establish a "Two Taipei Forum." Is that enough to promote cooperation?

Ko: It's simple. First, I'm not running for the presidency. Cooperation is an attitude. I told Eric Chu, you would have a harder time cooperating with (incumbent mayor) Hau Lung-bin and Sean Lien than cooperating with me because people within a party are in competition with each other, but I'm not competing with you.

I also said, "You're a professor in a college of business administration. I'm a surgeon. We both put a premium on efficiency, so we should work together."

You know, Eric Chu was talking about the process of making a video on rehabilitating the Danshui River. He and Hau Lung-bin were to be shown rowing a canoe, but even the question of who would be in front and who would be in back sparked an argument. In the end, they got a big canoe that enabled the two of them to sit side-by-side. With my personality, that would absolutely never happen because my goal is to serve the people; I won't worry about such small details. 

CW: You have said you have nothing to say to DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen. If that's the case, how will you cooperate with her in the future?

Ko: Not having anything to say doesn't mean you can't cooperate.

CW: How about cooperation between Taiwan and China?

Ko: Everything will be business as usual.  

CW: When you attend the "Taipei-Shanghai City Forum," will that be the 19th time you've been to China? When you go there, will you make it a point to say the name of the Republic of China (Taiwan's official name)?

Ko: Not necessarily. I may go traveling. I'm just going to act naturally. I won't deliberately not say the name and I won't refrain from saying Republic of China; whatever comes naturally. People have also asked how I will be addressed. I answered that they can call me "Ko P" (Note: Ko's nickname given by his students with P standing for professor) and I'll call them by their names. It's people who make names meaningful rather than names that make people meaningful.  

CW: In this election, the Internet helped you a lot, and young people really supported you. But those same young people intend to monitor your performance using the highest standards. How will you handle this?

Ko: How will I handle it? Six words: "Take a deep breath and relax" and keep moving forward. People should think of it like the stock market. The stock market goes up and down every day but all you need to really pay attention to is the general market trend. What's there to be nervous about? People living in the world should try to take things a little easier. It's crazy to go on the Internet every day to look at PTT (Taiwan's BBS website) in response to a criticism somebody makes. Why not just look at the broader market trends? If you live like that (spending a lot of time on message boards), you won't be happy.

This is a strength of people with Asperger syndrome – ignoring things and not letting criticisms by others get to you. I've finally found an advantage to having Asperger's (laughs heartily).

Not Backing DPP in Race for the Presidency

CW: In this election, the DPP endorsed your candidacy and quietly gave you a lot of support behind the scenes. When the next presidential election rolls around in 2016, will you back the DPP's presidential candidate?

Ko: No. 

Do you really think they helped me behind the scenes? Some have said that Ko Wen-je's campaign was won by a brigade organized by a ronin. Such a brigade consists entirely of people marginalized by society.

Actually, a key objective of this election campaign was to make Taipei a "blue-green demilitarized zone." It was an appeal and a slogan, to give Taiwan the chance to pull itself from the quagmire of partisan wrangling and establish a model of high quality of life, social justice, and administrative efficiency for all to see.

I think the best way to describe this election is as "rebooting" Taiwanese society. When a computer crashes, it has to be rebooted. Maybe in 20 years we can return to two-party politics, but right now when society has "crashed," the first order of business is "rebooting" it. 

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier