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Premier-designate Jiang Yi-huah

A Moderate yet Headstrong Reformer


A Moderate yet Headstrong Reformer


Jiang Yi-huah has climbed Taiwan's political ladder by being an adept "policy implementer." But as the country's new premier, he now must prove himself as a political leader.



A Moderate yet Headstrong Reformer

By Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 516 )

On Feb. 1, the day he would be formally announced as premier-designate, Jiang Yi-huah awoke suddenly, looked at his clock and saw it was only 6:20 a.m., about half an hour before his normal waking time. Turning over and shutting his eyes, he tried to get back to sleep, to no avail.

Preventing him from falling back into a slumber was the huge responsibility he was about to shoulder. Every decision he will make as head of Taiwan's executive branch of government could have implications for the well-being of the country's 23 million people and affect the country's present and future.

Also weighing on his mind was the massive pressure about to hit him – from having to juggle a Cabinet reshuffle and pension reform while also overseeing international trade negotiations and trade talks with the United States. These and a multitude of other contentious storms are inexorably headed his way.

Rewriting the Political Record Books

Jiang, who earned a doctoral degree in political science from Yale University and later taught political science at National Taiwan University, has set three political records in his brief time in public service. First, he became the youngest interior minister in Taiwan's history when he took the job in September 2009 at the age of 49, having never been steeled at the grassroots level, his scholarly air still evident.

Second, the 52-year-old Jiang will become Taiwan's youngest premier in 50 years when he takes over for predecessor Sean Chen on Feb. 18. Third, he has catapulted up the political ranks at unprecedented speed. He joined the Cabinet when President Ma Ying-jeou took power in May 2008 as head of the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission (RDEC), and was then promoted to interior minister in 2009, vice premier in February 2012 and now premier. In a short five years, the country boy from Nuannuan in the Keelung area has set a new record for rising up the ranks of the Taiwanese government.

Asked about his vision of the country's future, Jiang answers without hesitation. "Taiwan has an opportunity to become and should become a genuine developed country that enables its citizens to live quality lives."

To Jiang, that vision represents the true gauge of the success or failure of a political leader or government policy. As a government official, he clearly realizes that "nobody can stay in the same post forever."

Many people are wondering, however, what was behind his meteoric political rise.

As somebody who has caught the eye, and the backing, of President Ma, Jiang is not unaware that some have dubbed him "Little Ma Ying-jeou." But when he hears the comparison, he shoots back: "Can you tell me where you think the similarities lie?"

After quietly listening to an explanation, he says, "I'm not going to answer this question now. Maybe after a certain amount of time, when my political career reaches the end of another chapter, everybody can take a look then," he says. "Maybe what you say will be proven right; maybe it won't."

The calm Jiang, who rarely responds to the outside speculation pervasive in Taiwan, has made his mark by smoothly maneuvering through several highly controversial issues in the past, from restructuring the government and assessing the president's record in delivering on campaign promises (when he headed the RDEC) to amending five land-management laws, creating legal red light districts and revising the Public Assistance Act (as interior minister).

Jiang's handling of the more recent hot-button issue of pension reform offers insight into his approach to dealing with problems. After he was appointed convener of the Cabinet's task force on pension reform, Jiang spent one month building up his knowledge of the subject to make up for his lack of experience in finance or money management. He started with the basics, finding out, for example, how labor insurance is calculated and learning what a labor pension is, and he carefully researched everything from the historical context of labor insurance to the spirit of the system's design.

"He was willing to listen and did not have any bureaucratic airs or act like a self-important official," says Alliance for Fair Tax Reform convener Wang Jung-chang, who has taken an interest in pension system reform.

When Wang, Taiwan Labor Front secretary-general Sun Yu-lian and another individual were invited to the Cabinet's offices and met with Jiang for 100 minutes, he resembled a student, listening closely and taking notes but saying little.

Understanding How to Communicate

Despite having been repeatedly attacked and questioned during 124 nationwide forums on the country's pension system, Jiang remained as unflappable as a ship captain steadily steering his vessel to port, and he delivered a pension reform plan on schedule.

Part of the reason is that he not only communicates effectively but also understands how to strategize. At the local forums, he spoke in Taiwanese to explain his intentions, and he was not intimidated when he ran into workers from bankrupt factories protesting outside the venues, or faced a barrage of criticism inside meetings, or even had somebody charge the stage yelling angrily, raising his fist as though he was about to strike.

Aside from speaking at worker forums, Jiang also attended meetings of government employees (who have a separate pension system) to understand the demands and aspirations of different population segments.

"The biggest benefit was being able to fully understand the concerns and worries of the pension system's main stakeholders," Jiang says. The experience enabled him to gradually grasp the practical issues that had to be considered in the pension reform process and that would shape his judgment.

A Formidable Opponent

In the eyes of legislators, Jiang stands out as a formidable opponent, someone whose moderate personality belies an inner toughness that breaks out when necessary.

"A lot of people find that attacking him is like trying to strike cotton," one senior member of a legislative caucus says, complimenting Jiang's calm under fire. His penchant for studying issues thoroughly and explaining his positions patiently, along with his ability to keep his temper in check, frustrates lawmakers eager to get under his skin and provoke news-grabbing sparks.

But getting Jiang to change his thinking can be difficult "unless you can really persuade him, because he has already thought out his position before explaining it," the senior caucus member says.

Consequently, many people who have dealt with him describe him as being "very stubborn." Others worry that his somewhat intransigent style may not be appreciated after he becomes premier.

Another potential downside may be that even though Jiang has served as interior minister, "he is relatively unfamiliar with how things work at the local level, and he has not had much contact with legislators," one official says. These are all barriers every premier needs to overcome, because he must have a broad overview of all of Taiwan rather than simply managing an agency from Taipei.

Jiang's most important task when he takes office – promoting pension reform – will have implications for the retirements of over 10 million government employees and private-sector workers. Can Jiang grow from a ship's captain into a successful fleet commander and win a battle he absolutely cannot afford to lose?

Following are his thoughts, which he shared in an exclusive interview with CommonWealth Magazine.

Q: Based on the experience of Europe and the United States, every government that has promoted pension reform has fallen in the end. You have a lot of confidence in the pension reform plan. What is the source of that confidence and what is the next step in pushing the plan forward?

A: Although there is some opposition to pension reform, I know we are moving along the right road, in the right direction, so I'm not worried. Maybe we will push it a little more quickly or a little more slowly, on a wider scale or a smaller scale. But in the end, we won't be a country that spends all of its money and possibly goes bankrupt.

Political Fate Won't Determine Success

Politically speaking, a government official's ability to stay in office and election results are often considered indictors of a policy's success or failure. But in terms of a country's long-term development, there may be other indicators that are just as important as an individual's reputation or an election result.

Q: Such as what indicators?

A: The indicator I'm referring to would be that because of these decisions you've made or systems you've put in place, the country or society is growing stronger.

Looking at national income, Taiwan seems to already be a developed country. But in terms of quality of life, we still have not truly risen to the ranks of advanced countries. I have always hoped that Taiwan could one day make people truly feel happy and get them to say with heartfelt pride that "I like this place."

I'm not saying that I want Taipei's upscale areas to match up to Shanghai. Rather, I hope that disorder and filth will never been seen again in the poorest, most remote towns or places identified by the Conservation Mothers Foundation every year as the dirtiest locations.

What I want to say is that Taiwan has an opportunity to become and should become a genuine developed country that enables its citizens to live quality lives. But as of now, many systems have yet to be improved to that level and problems often arise that leave us feeling distressed.

Whether or not we can resolve these issues is the true gauge in measuring the success or failure of a political leader or government policy, not whether somebody is criticized or has to step down from office. Every political official is fully aware that nobody can stay in the same post forever.

Q: So one could say that you believe the right course should be followed and you don't care about your official position or what others say about you.

A: That is accurate. But those words are often cited in criticizing me for having only idealistic goals and not concrete policies or methods, and that aggressively pushing forward in pursuit of those goals will only lead to disaster or do more harm than good.

I think that a political figure, aside from having legitimate objectives that he strongly believes in, must also have methods and strategies that enable him to achieve those goals. Without the necessary measures and strategies, the goals will probably not be achieved. This is equally important.

Q: There are those who believe that during your time as head of the Research, Develop and Evaluation Commission when you were involved in the government restructuring project, the policies you advocated were relatively conceptual and lacked a certain degree of practicality. This time, in campaigning for pension reform, there was a relatively firm grasp of details. Did you feel any difference?

A: Let me think… Actually, no. Because my personality is such that I like doing research and I tend to go through a lot of materials and generate many statistics and models.

When we were reorganizing the government, it actually got quite annoying. There were times when figuring personnel quotas for different agencies became infuriating. Agencies would often resist merging with other organizations simply because they wanted to protect a few jobs. The irritating part of the pension issue is numbers, where you end up constantly punching a calculator. They represent two different kinds of aggravation.

The reorganization project involved changing the structure of government. To a political scientist, it was extremely clear what you were doing. But the pension issue is more up the line of a sociologist. I was getting into an area I was relatively unfamiliar with, so I had to put more time and effort in learning everything. But once I threw myself into it, after the first month I had an idea of what was going on, and then it became of question of judgment.

Change for the Sake of Future Generations

Q: What are the values, objectives and ideals of your pension system reform initiative?

A: Sound finances are the primary goal. The president once said he wanted to ensure that people just entering the workforce now will still be able to collect a pension when they retire. Using this standard, our goal is 30 years (of viability).

This is the first time that the separate pension systems for private-sector workers and public employees (teachers, civil servants, military personnel) are being discussed together, and the sense of fairness between different occupational groups is especially noticeable. So the second goal is to bring about social equity by narrowing the gaps in various pension systems across occupations, better reflecting the salaries earned during peak earning years and keeping the chasm in quality of life from growing too big.

The third goal is a generational issue. If the pension system is not changed now, today's young people will be out of luck in the future.

Q: In the version of pension reform being proposed, the labor insurance system caps the salary on which insurance premiums are paid (at NT$43,900 per month), leading to a huge gap between income replacement in retirement and pre-retirement wages earned. Could that be adjusted in the future?

A: Many scholars advocate eliminating the cap and paying labor insurance premiums based on one's actual salary. This can be considered. But the question that then has to be asked is how high can you go? Doctors at clinics who have labor insurance earn incomes of hundreds of thousands of Taiwan dollars. You still have to set a cap. Whoever suggests raising the cap also has a responsibility to explain how premiums and contribution ratios (the shares of premiums contributed by the insured, employers and the government) will be calculated.

To be honest, this was not our most urgent priority. Our most urgent priority was to figure out how to prevent the labor insurance system (for private-sector workers) and the public employee pension system from going bankrupt. We had to first achieve that, and then if possible, as you suggested, not only narrow the gap in the different pension plans' income replacement rates but also increase the cap on the amount of salary on which labor premiums can be paid. This would be even better.

Maybe when the economy is growing again and people's incomes are on the rise, a discussion on further reforms will have more of a foundation.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Jiang Yi-huah

Born: Nov. 18, 1960 in Keelung

Sign: Scorpio


Master's in Political Science, National Taiwan University

Ph.D. in Political Science, Yale University


Political Science Professor, National Taiwan University

Chairman of the Research, Development and Evaluation Commission

Minister of the Interior, Executive Yuan

Vice Chairman, Executive Yuan

Sports: Tai Chi

Motto: Forewarned is forearmed