Notes from a pilot's kid

Rags to Richest Politics Doesn't Work in Taiwan

The ‘rags-to-riches’ image in politics that works well in America may not be useful in Taiwan/chinese democracies.

In discussing current US politics with my friend Liv, I mentioned how Americans love rags-to-riches stories and tend to prefer candidates that play up an image of coming from a humble background and rising to success on their own achievements. It’s a very capitalist and democratic and “American” sentiment, perhaps. Several Republican candidates are building this kind of story in the current election cycle (and others, like Donald Trump, who don’t have such an experience to draw on, are surely still paying lip service to it).

Liv responded by arguing that the same is not always true in Taiwan. First, she said there certainly aren’t as many such stories in Taiwanese politics as there are in America. Since the beginning of its democratic government, politics in Taiwan have been dominated by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Members of the party - especially members who become politicians - typically come from wealthy backgrounds (for several historical and anti-democratic reasons not worth elaborating on here).

And because there aren’t as many stories, the one that probably first comes to mind for Taiwanese isn’t completely virtuous. Chen Shui-Bian, Taiwan’s only non-KMT president who governed from 2000-2008, has exactly the story that would sell well in American politics: he was born in tenement housing to a poor family, studied hard to get into the best local high school and the highest-ranked university in the country, and then practiced law and only got involved in politics through his career.

However, what Taiwanese may now first recall about Chen Shui-Bian is that his terms in office were plagued by serious corruption, bribery, and money laundering charges that eventually led to a 19-year prison sentence.

In American politics, the root of this kind of corruption would be assumed to be related to extended involvement in the political sphere. Politics corrupts people, and it can corrupt even those who grew up far outside of it if they spend too much time in it.

But in Taiwan, as Liv offered, some drew the connection between this corruption and former president Chen’s poor upbringing. Someone who grew up with no money cannot be trusted to be given power over over the government’s money and connections, regardless of the person’s level of education or track record. First, they’re not used to such a responsibility. Second, it is only natural that someone who didn’t have money growing up to do everything in their power to prevent their family from being in the same situation again, even if it means doing something illegal.

As a result of this general view and the specific memory of Chen Shui-Bian’s time in office, it is possible that candidates in Taiwanese politics who are portrayed with this image may actually be perceived by voters as untrustworthy.

I don’t agree with it, but I can see how people would draw this conclusion. It is traditionally chinese. In Chinese history there have almost always been rulers from wealthy, established families that are believed by society to be those designated to govern, and a poor child from a small town’s only chance at being a part of this is if their parents can somehow support them to pass civil service examinations that typically require years of dedicated study with a private tutor to pass. This history could be the framework by which some Taiwanese conclude that it is no surprise that someone from a poor family could not be trusted to govern the country.

That rags-to-riches stories may not work because of the country’s experience with Chen Shui-Bian brings to mind something my friend Annie told me when I first arrived in Taiwan in 2013 and was curious about current President Ma Ying-Jeou’s abysmal approval rating: yes, Taiwan is the world’s only chinese democracy, but democracy came to Taiwan more from American pressure than from strong local support. Although there were smaller democracy-minded movements for decades, there was no revolutionary or civil war in Taiwan or any comparable level of democratic sentiment that led to the formation of Taiwan’s democracy. Because of this, Annie said, it is possible that Taiwan simply isn’t ready for democracy yet, and finding a way to make democracy work for a chinese culture with such a history hasn’t been figured out yet, which is why it often seems half-broken and non-establishment non-elites can still struggle to be politically successful while unpopular but elite politicians rule.