[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Renée Salmonsen and Chuan-wen Chen.]
Originally posted on the Guava Anthropology Blog 28 September 2014
Author: Hsiu-Hsin Lin
Translators: Renée Salmonsen & Chuan-Wen Chen
Translator’s note: Contemporary youth and amateur politicians are taking an increasingly active interest and role in Asian politics. We feel it is important to translate this article because the result of Taipei’s mayoral election last year was a significant milestone for Taiwan. This article was written in the month leading up to the election. Many people view the result, independent candidate Wen-je Ko winning the capital city mayoral election, as a reflection of voters seeking change and expressing their dislike for both major political parties, the Kuomintang party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). The election was held on November 29th, 2014. The two most popular candidates were Wen-je Ko and Sheng-wen Lien. Neither of the leading candidates had previous significant administrative or management experience in government institutions. Ko, a former surgeon, won the election with 57.16% of votes. Sheng-wen Lien, a.k.a. Sean Lien, is the son of Lien Chan, the former Chairman of the KMT and the Vice President of Taiwan. Sean Lien won the KMT mayoral primary, but lost the 2014 Taipei City mayoral election with 40.82% of votes.
The idea for this article stems from a class discussion. Taipei’s mayoral election has been the hot topic for weeks now. Anything seemingly unrelated to the election is now related. Due to recent circumstances, I haven’t logged-on to Facebook or watched TV lately which has enabled conversations with my students to skip over the hot, trending topics of the election and return to the greater issue of the “Sheng-wen phenomenon”. In other words, whether Sheng-wen is elected or not the emergence of a figure like Sean Lien is a very important phenomenon for the social sciences.
Two or three years ago Sheng-wen put out a book titled My Life’s Adversity or My Life’s Struggle, something or other. I teased my Taipei friends that Sheng-wen is trying to coerce his way into becoming their mayor. My friends thought I was joking, the idea of his book gaining any clout in political circles seemed ridiculously funny. The joke was funny until early September 2014 when the punchline became reality. After Sheng-wen publicly announced his candidacy, I repeatedly asked my students why they thought he was being portrayed as a political figure in the media when he had no previous experience as one. Too often the media links together situations like Sheng-wen’s out of nowhere, creating a figure worth discussing. As the election approaches, whenever I hear that the gap between the two sides isn’t too wide, I begin to understand what’s happening less and less. Opinion polls have Sheng-wen ahead by 30% which further decreases my understanding: How is Sheng-wen even in the running to be Taipei mayor?
As world elections become increasingly open, there are hardly any candidates whose family net value is over 100 billion National Taiwan Dollars (NTD) and who lack any professional experience (excluding of course the inner-circle of political connections). This pampered youth has surfaced occasionally during his father’s public appearances, with plenty of photos to prove it. And then suddenly he is in the running to become mayor of the capital?! This in itself is odd. Out of nowhere Sheng-wen received a 30% public approval rating? Makes me wonder, what is really going on in Taiwan?
My colleagues, students, and I tried to figure it out: why is Sheng-wen even in the Taipei City mayoral election? Students offered several answers, “pretty wife, wealthy, political connections, power struggles within the political party…,” and then a student said, “financial capital!”
My focus abruptly shifted to the themes of TV talk shows. A hollow candidate reflects a likewise frighteningly hollow image of Taiwan ── the spirits of Taiwan’s empty valleys were summoned by Sheng-wen.
Previous mayoral candidates showed some personality at least. Even good ol’ President Ma Ying-jeou showed some personality by offering a range of opinions on executive legal proceedings to the Senkaku Islands (that he gets bad marks in my book is not the point here, he’s more of a classical political thinker anyways). On the contrary, the emergence of Sean Lien is very postmodern. Hollow as a ghost. Empty and naive like a videogame character. You would never guess that the “newness” Lien exhibits is a new phenomenon of globalization. The globalization of Taiwan is embedded in Taiwan’s relationship with China.
EasyCard is Lien’s sole “political achievement” worth mentioning. Whether he exaggerated that he single-handedly turned the company from loss to profit or not, at least he successfully imitated Hong Kong’s Octopus card and brought it to Taiwan. According to Lien, he was the first to introduce the value of plastic money to the members of Parliament and encouraged its great success in Taiwan. It seems however that his “achievement” was accomplished by again riding his father’s coattails. The persistence of these sorts of actions reflects two characteristics of globalization.
First of all, the financial sector practically exceeds the manufacturing sector. Second, the Taiwanese financial sector heavily relies on networks of influence (similarly fine-tuning globalization in any country). When Sean Lien first emerged onto the political scene he proudly announced the legitimacy of (a kind of) financial industry under the guise of globalization. The fact that he still received a 30% public approval rating explains the public’s desire to find a solution to the anxiety and insecurity Taiwan holds facing globalization. The unrest results in Taiwan’s support for hollow, nameless symbols, which also happen to be characteristics of globalization. These define the “spirits” summoned up by Sheng-wen.
Globalization has made the public very anxious. Taipei’s mayoral election is presented in the media like a presidential election. Economic growth is the crux of Lien’s campaign. Terry Guo, recognized as one of the richest businessmen in Taiwan, commented on the election as if he was a political expert. This is clearly an election for administrative territory. The Kuomintang has tried its best to spread economic panic. I often say in my sociology classes that mafia bosses are just another kind of sociologist as they most genuinely express the human desire for power. Old gang bosses surrounded by young gangsters. They drive luxury cars like Mercedes-Benz and BMW. The Kuomintang is the most sensitive monitor of the public, all too aware of our fears and our anxieties.
Let’s consider the public’s sentiment with an anthropologist’s tone. Gellner has clearly stated that the former economic imagination visualized the “nation.” When the nation “brings up” it’s citizens with compulsory education, there is an implied mobility and maximization of nationals in different industries within the nation. According to Gellner, thanks to the industrial revolution, a uniformity within the nation has been reached by methods of convenience. Nations have become interactive communities. To put it in another way, the nation exists because of the wave of nation-states, (I believe that the community is the premise of existence — what can I say, I’m a helpless follower of Durkheim), like a family but on a larger scale. From social security to the welfare system, education to the national defense, people can find support during these turbulent times from within the community. This is why the economic transition has been seen as a “progress of economic history in Taiwan,” as seen in export processing zones in 1950s and science parks in the 1980s. Take note though: although the Hsinchu Science Park mostly relied on subcontract work in the 80s, blending in with the international division of labor at the time, the nation is still seen as a collective system of individuals within any division of labor system.
Yet in this post-90s globalized world, the boundaries of nation states are weakened and production is challenged. Here are a few of the resulting issues:
The complexity of the global labor division
As the chain of marketing and production increases and we do our best to curtail the gap between them, the processes of facilitating materials and labor power deserve greater consideration. How can one master their personal niche? The challenges differ by industry. For instance, subcontractors and conventional machine operators adapt their work to change very differently. This is a rather grim challenge for all sectors of Taiwan manufacturing. Every aspect in the chain of production is about racking one’s brain to pinpoint how we are vital to the process. Whether or not everyone’s wishes are fulfilled, usually everything does not turn out how you plan. Even so, your initial position within the chain will determine the future weight of your bargaining chips. Ultimately proving that you are a necessity is unlikely.
The spirit of finance and gutter oil permeate everything
Thanks to the strained circumstances of the manufacturing industry, the financial sector is quickly and conveniently being tidied up becoming an unrivaled apparition among global industries. Among other recent revelations, the manufacturing industry is a cover-up for the financial sector. Like when the “government” covers up a construction site or aeronautics center (as if they are really making something?!) they are actually engaging in a kind of speculation. Manufacturing is an excuse, stock and land speculation are facts. The spirits linger in the financial figures (100 million as a unit of measurement) as a new coded method of transaction in the official merchant community.
A state doesn’t look like a state
As new forms of speculation poison and humiliate Taiwan, our overseas investments, and the Chinese-South Korean free trade areas, they are also used as tools of intimidation. These occurrences originate from a double-sided contradiction ── states remain plagued with expectations of “nationalities,” yet these dramas act as holy gatekeepers for financial players. Our past feelings about the state are manipulated as grounds on which to stake land and financial claims. Instead the state needs to penetrate those areas reliant upon expert knowledge.
In contemporary society we live like parasites off of the state. We gradually lose the feeling of belonging to a whole. From these positions of removal, multi-faceted dilemmas, and moments of coercion, already places of hope cannot be seen. Even though Taiwanese flaunt a “winning through togetherness” attitude, they have lost the “subject” and “object:” What is ‘togetherness’? What are we ‘winning’? Although people have only faint expectations of the state, they are endlessly disappointed. These turbulent and perplex situations are conduits to pleasure seeking and joy, laid before populations as an exit strategy.
Then, suddenly, from the realm of fear and complexity emerges Sean Lien. From out of the blue he forcefully and illegally occupies the heavens. He, with his hulking stature and his family’s enormous wealth, is obviously famous, though not so-obviously well known is why. His all-around uselessness, lack of brainpower, inability to perform even unimportant investigations, and overall lack of any sense of security in these times of uncertainty only contribute to this era of financial domination. Am I right? What is it that you like about Sheng-wen? What is it that you mock? You don’t even know how to hate him! Sheng-wen has a sort of airy cheeriness about him, not unlike the abundant emptiness of a numerical figure. The significance of Sheng-wen’s complexity is that even Sheng-wen doesn’t know how to win this election!
Thus, regardless of the election results this fight isn’t just between Ke, Lian, and Feng (and no I didn’t forget Guang Yuan). The battle is being waged globally, nationally, and among the citizens on both sides of the battlefield. Its only just beginning! But only within our government are there endless threats and intimidation. A condition-less openness is used as an antidote to serve the idiots-who-need-amusement era. No matter if Sheng-wen is happy or not, I fear our near future is incapable of giving rise to happiness.
End note: I would strongly like to open an interdisciplinary course on reducing student’s anxieties. This would include globalization’s attack on Taiwan’s industries, legal deformations, boundary maintenance, failing nation-states, new production phenomenas, new cultural networks, new communities….
Link to original article: http://guavanthropology.tw/article/6249
Chuan-Wen Chen is taking a break from being a graduate student in the Institute of Anthropology at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. Her research focuses on elderly care coordination in a multicultural urban environment. Her latest projects are learning about interior design and surviving in China