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Cheng Li-chiun, Minister of Culture

Taking Responsibility for One’s Ideals


Taking Responsibility for One’s Ideals


New Minister of Culture Cheng Li-chiun is an advocate of Taiwanese subjective consciousness. How does she plan to handle cross-strait cultural exchanges given that China balks at any assertion of the Taiwanese cultural element?



Taking Responsibility for One’s Ideals

By Yueh-lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 599 )

Cheng Li-chiun stands out from Taiwan’s new “Cabinet of old men” because she is relatively young and one of the few female ministers. A lawmaker for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) since 2012, Cheng joined the Cabinet only months after the party won reelection in January. Cheng has previously held a Cabinet post under former President Chen Shui-bian.

Cheng, who will turn 47 this year, persuaded her candidates for the deputy and vice ministerial posts to accept their new jobs with the words “We have reached the age where we should take responsibility for our own ideals.” She feels the need to “deepen Taiwan's historic memory” because, as she says, “We are all like strangers in our home country.”

She wants to redefine the cultural and creative industries to revive the strategic position of culture as an economic force and boost the industries’ influence and cultural consumption. She is also keenly aware that it is a matter of utter urgency to bolster the government’s cultural governance system at this point in time.

Young, dynamic and idealistic are traits that speak for Cheng. Thanks to her longtime work in the Legislative Yuan’s Education and Culture Committee, where she often participated in questioning sessions, Cheng is familiar with cultural and educational matters. She can also draw on previous Cabinet experience as chairperson of the National Youth Commission, which has meanwhile been merged into the Ministry of Education.

Cheng studied philosophy in Taiwan and France, earning a doctorate from Paris West University in 1997. She has clear ideas about the public character and marketability of cultural policy, and understands the delicate, lukewarm relationship between the pure arts and the cultural and creative industries. She is also aware of the creative force of young people and has a great interest in how new technologies transform the arts and the creative process.

But Cheng is also seen as a partisan politician due to her strong commitment to DPP policy. Although she declares that “there won’t be major changes regarding future cross-strait cultural exchanges; there won’t be bias, and people will be treated with sincerity,” her detractors, however, believe it remains to be seen whether she follows through on these pledges. The reason for their skepticism is that Cheng used to oppose or obstruct virtually any cross-strait policy proposals put forward by former Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai, who left office in late 2014.

During her term as a lawmaker, Cheng has also angered the music scene with her insistence on scrapping the pop music promotion office under her ministry’s Bureau of Audiovisual and Music Industry Development and other music industry development schemes.

For the average citizen, popular culture, including the audiovisual and music industries, is close to the heart. It is also the industry that most obviously contributes to the cultural economy in monetary terms. Against this backdrop, Cheng is certain to face great challenges with her policies in dealing with the Chinese-speaking world, the Chinese language market and global competition. She might also find it hard to deliver on her pledge to “boost content and use the cultural industries to promote a cultural life for all citizens.”

Bottom-up Approach

As a high schooler, Cheng was deeply influenced by existentialist philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre. “They were on a quest for free will and believed that we have to create the values in our lives ourselves.” Her philosophical studies caused Cheng to question and criticize our social structure, making her into a somewhat rebellious individual. As a university student, Cheng was influenced by Marxism and drawn to American philosopher John Rawls’s theory of justice.

While studying at National Taiwan University (NTU), Cheng was involved in the historic Wild Lily student movement democracy protests in March of 1990. The following year, she made newspaper headlines with a seven-day hunger strike in front of the NTU campus main entrance in an effort to draw attention to the need for constitutional reforms.

“She participated in the student movement and is adamant about Taiwanese democracy and bottom-up democratic procedures. She cares about local culture and is able to protect Taiwanese values,” says DPP lawmaker Hsiao Bi-khim. Cheng gained experience with cultural affairs during her time in the Legislative Yuan, Hsiao observes, but now she faces the difficult task of allocating resources to different cultural groups and systems.

Another veteran lawmaker, Apollo Chen from the Kuomintang (KMT), who is well-versed in cultural and educational affairs, points out that Cheng is an insider when it comes to the Legislature and its procedures. Therefore, she will have the advantage of familiarity with the lawmakers when being summoned for questioning sessions. But Chen also points out that Cheng, who is notorious for her sharp tongue, has strongly opposed cross-strait cultural exchanges in the past. “She strongly emphasizes a Taiwanese subjective consciousness. We will have to wait and see what concrete proposals she makes regarding cross-strait cultural exchanges,” Chen says.

Cheng participated in the drafting of President Tsai Ing-wen’s cultural policy white paper. She advocates a return to professionalism and peer review mechanisms in cultural governance. She hopes that culture can be governed in a bottom-up approach in combination with intermediary organizations. Incorporated administrative agencies, for instance, could work in concert with the government as a culture promotion system, according to Cheng.

Su Chao-ying, the former CEO of the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF), believes that Cheng clearly knows what role the government ought to play in the cultural realm. “She also cares about issues concerning the disadvantaged of our era, such as gender, ethnic groups and younger generation. She is bright, has studied philosophy and is a trained thinker,” Su says.

Su thinks the key to her performance will be how well she is able to horizontally integrate cultural affairs across different ministries. For example, she will have to cooperate with the Ministry of Economic Affairs for the cultural and creative industries, and with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for cultural diplomacy. “I hope that Minister Cheng will have patience and not rush to show off results. She must integrate basic infrastructure,” Su says.

“It is impossible for the minister to understand everything, but Cheng seems to be very enthusiastic about her new job and very willing to learn,” remarks Wang Jung-wen, chairman of Yuan-Liou Publishing Co. Ltd. and the Taiwan Cultural-Creative Development Co. Ltd., which operates the Huashan Creative Park in Taipei.

Wang says that cultural development requires mechanisms, and it is necessary to cultivate talent scouts. If you are looking for a great racing horse, you need to first find a horse connoisseur, according to Wang. Curators, agents, producers and editors are all connoisseurs [who can judge talent]. “She is young. The question is whether she is willing to act as a promoter and facilitator, whether she regards herself not as a star but as a talent scout. Gaining trust and pushing ahead with reforms is where she should direct her efforts,” Wang says.

Asked who her favorite philosopher is, Cheng replies: Karl Marx. Marx is also the author of her favorite quote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

The minister of culture is also not only interpreting cultural policy but changing the cultural environment. What will she be able to achieve? We hope to see answers to this question both in the short term and the long run.

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz