TDB Vol. 1 No. 23: Ten Questions About Taiwan’s Transitional Justice

TDB Vol. 1 No. 23: Ten Questions About Taiwan’s Transitional Justice

There has been much discussion about the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice since it was passed in early December. The Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation has come up with a Q&A to respond to the myths and controversies concerning the newly passed law and to help put transitional justice in its proper Taiwanese context.

 

1. Why does the transitional justice concerned in the Act only target the Kuomintang (KMT)? This is none other than political vendetta!

Transitional justice is to hold rulers and the state apparatus accountable for their violations of the basic rights of the people and their abuse of state institutions and power. The KMT was the sole ruling party during the Martial Law period and where decision-making and discussion of many policies took place. It is difficult to undertake the project of Taiwan’s transitional justice and rectify the wrongs committed during the Martial Law period without making the party the target.

Post-democratization governments certainly are not immune to taking illegitimate actions that are against the principles of justice, but people living in a democratic society are more aptly equipped with rights guaranteed by the Constitution and protected by mechanisms such as separation of power and checks and balances. When their rights are violated, they have access to both institutional and non-institutional ways to demand a response from the government (appeal, court, petition or social protest).

What “transitional justice” deals with is the political persecution committed before democratization.

2. Taiwan’s transitional justice is purely a political scheme against waishengren and to de-Sinicize Taiwan?

In fact, according to statistical information derived from the number of people receiving state compensation, the percentage of waishengren political victims in the White Terror cases was actually a lot greater than the percentage of ethnic groups in Taiwan’s total population. The case of Shandong exiled students is an example that involved a large number of waishengren. Clearing up the history helps solve certain myths surrounding the ethnic divisions and antagonism. Due to its idiosyncratic history, Taiwan’s democratic transformation was intertwined with a process of change in people’s national identity; the two thereby have often been conflated but should actually be looked into with extra caution.

The core of transitional justice, however, is about how a society faces its history, about making those denying historical traumas and mistakes understand that it would come at a cost. Transitional justice is a task with concrete goals to achieve.

3. Chiang Kai-shek had made contributions to the country as well. Why can’t his contributions be displayed alongside his misdeeds? If not for him, Taiwan would have been taken over by the People’s Republic of China long ago and very likely be overwhelmed by the storm of the Cultural Revolution.

As said in the answer to the first question, transitional justice is to hold rulers and the state apparatus accountable for their past violations, not to write biographies for historical figures. Those political parties and individuals who harbor special feelings for Chiang Kai-shek can continue their support for him.

Nonetheless, the rhetoric of “safeguarding Taiwan (against Chinese aggression)” cannot explain why Chiang perpetuated Martial Law rule even after his control over Taiwan (and offshore islands) was consolidated in the mid-1950s (after the Korean War) and why he targeted the communists, the tangwai/dangwai people and overseas Taiwanese independence activists as “three-in-one enemy” starting in the 1970s. “Protecting the island from falling under communist control” was a propaganda slogan for the ruler to rationalize his use of political repression and carrying out of comprehensive social surveillance during the Martial Law period.

4. The government has been compensating political victims since the 1990s. What else is to be done 30 years after Martial Law was lifted?

Bound by the National Security Act and Constitutional Interpretation No. 272, before the passage of the Act on Transitional Justice, the political victims, despite receiving compensation, were not cleared of their convictions and criminal records, seized properties were not returned, and the KMT archives during the years when the country was ruled by the party-state have not been made public. Even now, we still do not know exactly how many political victims there were during the White Terror. Why were they persecuted? Who should be held accountable? How extensive was the persecuting system? What, if any, have the persecutors done to redeem themselves? What was wrong with Martial Law and the constitutional institutions? The state has to face its own past deeds. Holding the repressive system accountable is much more than simply pointing fingers at Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo; a lot more needs to be done.

▶︎ See also: TDB Vol. 1 No. 22: Taiwan Passes Act Promoting Transitional Justice

Discovered in the 1990s, the Liuzhangli graveyard in Taipei was the burial ground for hundreds of White Terror victims. The cemetery was designated a municipal cultural landmark in 2015 (Photo: TATR).

5. The amendments to the Labor Standards Act have been stalled and same-sex marriage legalization (seemingly) mothballed; is the ruling Democratic Progressive Party pushing for transitional justice just to divert public attention?

What we need to do is to work together for the realization of social justice of various kinds rather than elbowing each other out. The passage of the Act on Transitional Justice does not mean that transitional justice has been achieved. The Transitional Justice Promotion Committee has to be overseen and kept from descending into formalism. We need to take this historical opportunity and build a bridge between the past and the future in our era.

6. Granted, the task of transitional justice should be done, but don’t we need to have a sense of proportion by first working hard on improving the economy?

Most of the living political victims are aged. This is probably the only time period in which we live alongside these people. When else but now are we to rectify the past wrongs for them and grant them their historical status? There are things that cannot be bought with money: lost youth, freedom and lives. They could have had a different life, if only Taiwanese society had been free from the decades-long suppression and suffocation. It’s hard to weigh the possibilities they had once owned for their worth, let alone against money.

7. Those political victims were not all innocent. Some of them were underground Chinese Communist Party members who were supposed to be executed.

No one would object to redressing the wrongful charges against the innocent, but the greatest challenge of transitional justice precisely lies in questioning the legitimacy and legality of the laws that the “criminals” had broken during the Martial Law era. How did the state violate the people’s basic rights and deprive the people of their rights under the pretext of maintaining social stability and national security via court-martial and laws? How do we draw the boundary between national security and protection of personal rights? This is a question in need of serious debate even in a democratic society. We can choose to forget and pretend nothing of the sort happened, or we can choose to face the history. Those interested in the debate can find a related extensive discussion on the website of the third constitutional court simulation (in Chinese) that was held in November, 2016.

8. Why are Indigenous peoples and “comfort women” not included in the Act?

Those who support the redressing of historical wrongs are supposed to also be in support of the restoring of justice for Indigenous people and for “comfort women.” Taking other countries’ cases as examples, these two groups deserve separate legislative bills for delicate and thorough handling of their demands, rather than being squeezed with other groups into the same piece of cloth.

The persecution that Indigenous people have been subjected to span different regimes, which requires a more comprehensive examination and solution that goes to the root of the problems stemming from political institutions and existing laws. If not, the same kind of persecution would only reappear in different forms. The issue of “comfort women,” on the other hand, requires the government to negotiate with the Japanese government and demand compensation and an apology.

It is hard to imagine these different forms of violence that require different routes for restoring justice could be dealt with by the same set of rules. Only through different legal and institutional frameworks can these issues be allowed more room for detailed and practical solutions to these complicated problems.

9. The constitutionality of the Act on Transitional Justice is in question?

Whether a law is unconstitutional is up to the grand justices to decide. Insofar as it has not been ruled unconstitutional, a law passed by the legislature is nevertheless effective.

Questions have been raised as to whether the jurisdiction assigned to the Transitional Justice Promotion Committee oversteps the jurisdiction of the judiciary, such as Article 14 of the Act granting the Committee the right to investigate, and Article 15 and Article 16 allowing the Committee to seal documents and materials regarded as evidence and to require those under investigation to speak the truth. According to Constitutional Interpretation No. 613 concerning the operation of an independent agency, the constitutionality of the operation of an independent agency will be upheld “if important matters are determined by means of hearings, if the performance of the execution of its mission is made transparent and public for the purpose of public supervision,” and with the existing “authority of the Legislative Yuan to supervise the operation of the independent agency through legislation and budget review.” Article 19 prohibits damaging of political archives on pain of imprisonment; however, the one who initiates the investigation should still be the prosecutors, as how the offenses of destruction, abandonment, and damage of property are governed in the Criminal Code.

In general, the Committee will be operating in the same way as other independent agencies (e.g. the National Communications Commission and the Fair Trade Commission), exercising its jurisdiction independently, unaffected by the change of premier and having the power of administrative enforcement (one could refer to the Administrative Execution Act for an understanding of how the power is governed). However, the Committee should be as prudent and transparent as possible when exercising these powers, with the Committee making critical decisions by consensus.

10. What is transitional justice anyway? What should be done to achieve it?

Transitional justice” used to be a professional term developed by international academia to refer to how a society that has achieved democratic transition faces and deals with mass human rights violations committed in the past by the state. It has therefore also been termed as “dealing with past wrongs.” The main objective of transitional justice is “Never Again” and to make up for the past sufferings of our fellow countrymen and -women. The core objectives of transitional justice are: seeking the truth, compensating the victims, restoring justice, attaining social reconciliation and preventing the return of state violence.

How is transitional justice done then? The more commonly seen mechanisms include (1) trials and vetting (holding the persecuting system and persecutors accountable); (2) setting up a Truth Committee and sorting and making public the related archives (the state needs to recognize what mistakes it has done); (3) compensating the victims and their families and restoring their reputation; (4) rebuilding the memory (removing/remaking symbols of authoritarianism and cautioning future generations against the return of authoritarianism through museums, memorials and textbooks). Every country has its own distinct way of carrying out transitional justice under different historical/political contexts; there is no “correct way.”

This piece originally appeared in Chinese. Translation by Alison Hsiao

TDB Vol. 1 No. 22: Taiwan Passes Act Promoting Transitional Justice

TDB Vol. 1 No. 22: Taiwan Passes Act Promoting Transitional Justice

Nearly a year since a draft bill was introduced in the Legislative Yuan, the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice was passed on Dec. 5, marking an important step in the country’s effort to shed light on and redress past injustices committed during the Martial Law period. Alison Hsiao looks at the Act and its implications.

 

At 21:09 on Dec. 5, Legislative Speaker Su Jia-chyuan struck the gavel and announced the passage of the “Act on Promoting Transitional Justice” (促進轉型正義條例) on the legislative floor, signifying a new beginning for the country’s transitional justice.

Different versions of the bill had been proposed and heated debates on various issues — from the time span covered and the authority granted to the Transitional Justice Promotion Committee to the decision to make indigenous groups’ transitional justice a separate issue not included in the Act — were stoked in the year-long period since the draft bill was introduced in the legislature last year.

The Act that cleared the legislature on Dec. 5 put an end to the battle — temporarily, however, as the opposition Kuomintang (KMT) indicated right after the passage that it would petition for an interpretation of the Constitution on the grounds that some clauses of the Act are unconstitutional.

Covering the period from Aug. 15, 1945 to Nov. 6, 1992, when Martial Law was lifted on the offshore islands of Kinmen and Matsu (five years later than on Taiwan proper), the Act will see the setup of an independent, nine-people Transitional Justice Promotion Committee overseen by the Executive Yuan.

The Committee will be tasked with five main missions: opening up political archives, erasing symbols of authoritarianism and keeping the sites of past injustice, redressing judicial wrongs, restoring the historical truth and promoting social reconciliation, and settling and re-channeling ill-gotten party assets.

Beside the party assets settlement that has already been undertaken, the task that is expected to stir up future debate is the erasing of “symbols that are nostalgic or in memorial of the authoritarian ruler(s) in public buildings and spaces,” written in Article 5 of the Act. It has already been interpreted by some local media as a directive to conduct a house-cleaning removal of references to “Zhong-zheng” (Chiang Kai-shek’s given name) in the names of schools, places and streets. That claim has since been rebutted by Minister of the Interior Yeh Jiunn-rong, who said that it will be up to the Committee to decide.

The Act also stipulates that any institution, group or people evading, refusing or hindering investigations launched under the Act, and political parties and their affiliated organizations refusing to return political archives (determined as relevant by the Committee) to the state will be subject to repeatable penalties of NT$100,000 to NT$500,000 and NT$1 million to NT$5 million respectively. Those who have disposed of, destroyed, damaged or concealed political archives, or have attempted to do so, will be liable to punishment of no more than five years behind bars.

Transitional Justice with Taiwanese Characteristics’

The major breakthrough has been praised by the Taiwan Association of Truth and Reconciliation (TATR), a non-governmental group that has advocated for transitional justice since 2008 and which was directly involved in the legislative process leading to the Act. TATR has lauded the annulling of Article 9 (Paragraph 2) of the National Security Act — passed less than a month before the lifting of the Martial Law in 1987 in Taiwan proper — that prevented political victims convicted of criminal charges by a court martial during the authoritarian period from appealing in the post-martial-law time.

“The Act has made concrete advances on both rectifying past injustices and truth seeking, particularly the former,” the association said on Facebook. “This is a transitional justice model with Taiwanese characteristics.”

Article 6 of the new legislation now demands that the right to appeal for re-investigation be returned to those who “had been subjected to criminal sentencing — resulting in punishments, rehabilitative measures and confiscation of properties — that had violated the constitutional order of liberal democracy and the principle of fair trial during the authoritarian rule.” The cases should not be bound by Article 9 of the National Security Act, the article says, adding that redressing judicial wrongs can be achieved by “identifying the persecutors and holding them accountable, restoring and compensating for the damages to the victims or their families’ reputation and rights, and setting history right and making public the judicial wrongs.”

Two scenarios are considered in Article 6.

Those who have been compensated or had their rights re-instituted in accordance with the February 28 Incident Disposition and Compensation Act (1995) (二二八事件處理及賠償條例), the Compensation Act for Wrongful Trials on Charges of Sedition and Espionage during the Martial Law Period (1998) (戒嚴時期不當叛亂暨匪諜審判案件補償條例) and the Act Governing the Recovery of Damage of Individual Rights during the Period of Martial Law (2000) (戒嚴時期人民受損權利回復條例), shall see the related convictions annulled and criminal records expunged, according to the Act, without the need to go through judicial proceedings.

Rendered criminal-record-free without the need to go to court, they can nevertheless still make use of the reinstated right to appeal, TATR President Yeh Hung-ling said. Such individuals can now appeal the convictions of offenses of sedition or treason under Martial Law in order to receive compensation or to secure the return of properties seized as accessory penalty (which was supplementary to the principal penalty of imprisonment or death). Such appeals were not possible before, as the Act Governing the Recovery of Damage of Individual Rights during the Period of Martial Law (Article 4) restricts the right to demand the return of or compensation for confiscated properties to those who are “found innocent.” This very article was literally empty because, when coupled with Article 9 of the National Security Act, no acquittal was possible without the right to appeal in court.

The second scenario involves those cases not covered by the three compensation acts. The new legislation demands they be redressed in the same way if approved by the Committee through a review launched upon the petition of the claimant or initiated by the Committee itself.

Those rare cases are the “controversial” ones, the association said. They include that of Voyue Tosku (杜孝生), a Tsou Aborigine who received a 17-year prison sentence in 1954 for “corruption,” and of Li Ma-dou (李媽兜), whose conviction of sedition/treason “survives the legal review under current laws and rules of evidence” — meaning that he did “by violence commit an overt act” with intent to destroy the state or use illegal means to overthrow the government according to the Criminal Code, and is thereby not compensable under the Compensation Act for Wrongful Trials on Charges of Sedition and Espionage during the Martial Law Period.

The claimants in the second scenario also have the right to appeal in court if their claims are rejected by the Committee, the Act states.

Milestone’

Putting an end to the applicability of Article 9 of the National Security Act is a “milestone” for Taiwan’s transitional justice since the lift of the Martial Law 30 years ago, the TATR said.

“We ask that the Democratic Progressive Party government exercise extra prudence when choosing the members of the Transitional Justice Promotion Committee, and attend to all the indispensable aspects of transitional justice — truth, justice, compensation for and rectification of wrongs, and reconciliation — with a holistic vision,” it added, stressing the need to pass the bill of political archives that has been waiting in the wings of the Legislative Yuan to further clear up the past.

President Tsai Ing-wen, on the next day of the legislative achievement, also called the passage of the Act “a milestone of Taiwan’s freedom and democracy.”

“I’ve said on the day of the 70th anniversary of the 228 Incident this year that the goal of transitional justice is reconciliation, not political vendetta; this is the principle that the government will insist on, as only when the people face the past together can the country move toward the future in unity,” she said.

The president said she “looks forward to the advent of the day when the work of transitional justice is complete and no political party in Taiwan would any longer need to bear the brunt of the country’s criticism against past authoritarian rule.”

“People would no longer harbor hatred against each other, trapped in painful historical memory. Taiwan will transform into a different country, and our democracy will also take a step forward,” she said.

President Tsai Ing-wen addresses victims and families of victims of political repression under Martial Law on International Human Rights Day 2016 (Photo courtesy of the Tsai Ing-wen official Facebook page).

TDB Vol. 1 No. 19: Kou Yanding — A Chinese Dissident’s Journey Through Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 19: Kou Yanding — A Chinese Dissident’s Journey Through Taiwan

After spending a year touring Taiwan and meeting people from all walks of life, Chinese ‘enemy of the state’ Kou Yanding shares her views on change, the power of civil society, and the challenges facing Taiwan as China flexes its muscles. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

Chinese activist Kou Yanding (寇延丁) identified herself as a “public interest advocate” and did not know she was a dissident until she was arrested by Chinese authorities on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” the same “crime” that has led to the forced disappearance of Taiwanese citizen Lee Ming-che and the arrest of the late Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo.

After arriving in Taiwan last October as a 2017 Democracy and Human Rights Service Fellow at the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, Kou embarked on a nation-wide tour with assistance from a civil society organization and local groups to exchange thoughts with local Taiwanese and to urge them to know and face up to China.

“Through my interactions with Taiwanese people over the past year, I have discovered that they hold two alternating images of China: either it’s ‘big,’ or it’s ‘bad,’” Kou said during a seminar concluding her tour on Nov. 11. “People either talk about China as a political superpower and a global economic powerhouse, or as a regime that is autocratic and cruel.”

“Lack of understanding of China puts Taiwanese people’s interests at risk,” she said.

‘Enemy of the State’

Kou’s trip to Taiwan began less than two years after she was freed on Feb. 14, 2015, following a 128-day stint in a Chinese jail.

Her detention came as a result of a sweep of arrests targeting Transition Institute, a non-governmental think-tank in Beijing founded in 2007, and the Liren Rural Libraries, also founded in 2007 to promote education in rural areas and shape the rural young into “modern citizens.” In September 2014, the Libraries were shut down and Transition Institute founder Guo Yushan was detained, followed by a wave of detentions of NGO workers, including Kou.

The year 2014 was a sensitive year for Beijing, with Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution erupting only months apart against, respectively, creeping Chinese influence in Taiwan and Beijing’s refusal to grant universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Kou’s detention resulted from her involvement in the two movements and a wave of arrests in response to the printing of material about the Umbrella Movement by a woman in Beijing.

Kou, left, Wu Jieh-min, associate research fellow at the Institute of Sociology at Academia Sinica, and NGO workers from Hong Kong (second from the right) and Taiwan (right), share their views on why Taiwanese should interact with Chinese civil society and cultivate a “Taiwanese viewpoint” of China during a seminar in Taipei on Nov. 11. (Photo courtesy of the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation)

In her book, How is an Enemy Made? — Chinese Who Have No Right to Remain Silent, Kou details her 128-day ordeal “through which enemies of the state are manufactured.” During her interrogation she was enlightened by her interrogators (one of whom she nicknamed “pig”), who informed her that she was part of a “subversion scheme” centered on a training camp involving activists from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. One of the trainers, a convenient fact highlighted by “pig,” was Chien Hsi-chieh, a non-violent resistance advocate, but more importantly, one of the founding members of the Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan.

Before her involvement in the alleged plot, Kou’s work had always focused more on public welfare. She founded organizations to support people with disabilities in China which today continue to play an active role in areas that were most affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. She focused on grassroots empowerment that even received approval by the Chinese authorities: her Operational Democracy — Bringing Robert’s Rules of Order to the Countryside, was published with permissions in China.

It was not unnatural for a civil society worker in China to eventually look to Hong Kong and Taiwan for precedents and opportunities to share experience. But in 2014, it was more risky than ever to associate with activists from the two places.

Petitions with Chinese characteristics

At every seminar that she held, Kou and the local team that supported her tour in Taiwan screened “Petition” (上訪), a documentary by Chinese director Zhao Liang. The film covers more than a decade and ends in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. In the lead-up to the Games, a petition village — spontaneously built as petitioners stayed in Beijing for years hoping in vain that their cases involving local injustice and gross corruption could be heard by the state’s highest institutions — was torn down.

Almost 10 years have elapsed since the Beijing Olympics, and Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to be cracking down on corruption, one of the main grievances animating the petitioners. Have petitions, a form of appeal to higher ups in government seeking redress that harkens back to feudal China’s “imperial appeal” (gao yu zhuang, 告御狀), had any success in mitigating the longstanding problems with the Chinese system?

“No,” Kou says, emphatically.

“Xi’s anti-graft campaign is selective in that it targets only his opponents,” she said. “The petitions [to Beijing] continue and the most prominent one recently was that by veterans of the People’s Liberation Army.”

Asked if she apprehends returning to China after spending a year in Taiwan revealed the problems plaguing Chinese society, Kou was evasive, but stressed that the Chinese government has “done a successful job drumming up and spreading fear, even in Taiwan.”

“I’ve been very open about what I’ve been doing in Taiwan via my column [on Taiwanese online media Storm Media],” she added, suggesting that there is no need for Chinese law-enforcement authorities to be alarmed by possible “secret activities.”

Taiwanese apathy

Kou says she was stunned by how few people in Taiwan know who Lee Ming-che is, and worried that even fewer wish to know more about China aside from its apparent economic prowess.

“I was really depressed after a seminar [held earlier this year] with a group of young students at a college in central Taiwan, during which only two or three hands were raised after I asked them whether they’d heard of Lee,” Kou told her audience on Nov. 11.

In her column, Kou said she was perplexed by commentaries by Taiwanese describing Lee’s arrest as “his own doing” because he had engaged in activities that are forbidden by the Chinese government.

“It’s unbearable to see that [Taiwanese who enjoy freedom] would use [Beijing’s] logic to explain [the consequences of] your actions,” she wrote. “There are also those who choose not to look at China just because they ‘don’t like China,’ which I consider an extremely childish answer not fitting for an adult.”

“All the progress and reform in China started from the people, from peasants, petitioners and public interest advocates, whose demands got debated by scholars, spread by media and eventually recognized by the institutions.”

The last thing she needs is for Taiwanese to refer to history and politics and explain to her, as some friends and scholars have tried to do, why some Taiwanese behave that way, Kou says. “The point is not about convincing me in oral arguments. The question in the end comes down to how Taiwanese are to face up to their gigantic neighbor.”

But, indeed, how? Kou said she is here to ask the question, not to provide an answer. But an answer was nevertheless implied in her talk on how Chinese civil society is actually more vibrant and active than those who obsess about the omnipresence of the communist regime would think.

If one focuses only on the Chinese Communist Party’s size and might, it is natural that he or she would feel powerless, she says. “But from what I’ve seen from ‘among the people,’ people power is strong, as manifested in the aftermath of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, where thousands of civic groups mobilized.”

“All the progress and reform in China started from the people, from peasants, petitioners and public interest advocates, whose demands got debated by scholars, spread by media and eventually recognized by the institutions,” Kou said, firm in her belief that change comes from the bottom and through more substantial civil society-to-civil society exchanges with places with robust civil activities, such as Taiwan.

Top photo:  Kou Yanding speaks about China and why Taiwan should care (Photo courtesy of the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation).

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) delivered her inauguration speech after being sworn in as Taiwan’s first female president on May 20 last year, she pledged to build a better nation for younger generations. The first and foremost task in fulfilling that goal, she said, is to reform the nation’s cash-trapped pension system that would otherwise go bankrupt within a decade. Stacy Hsu looks into the history of and the many challenges associated with this endeavor.

 

Before the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-dominated legislature passed the pension reform bills targeting retired civil servants and public-school teachers amid fierce protests in late June, the country’s pension system was a “political time-bomb” that many leaders before Tsai had tried — and failed — to defuse.

At the center of the problem are two notorious absurdities in the pension schemes of retired military personnel, civil servants and public-school teachers: the so-called 18% preferential interest rate and abnormally high income replacement ratios.

The preferential interest rate can be dated back to as early as 1960, when Taiwan was under authoritarian one-party rule. In light of inflation and the relatively low salary received by public servants back in the day, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime issued a series of administrative orders to offer a preferential saving rate on civil servants’ pension payments in a bid to ensure their financial security after retirement.

According to the Examination Yuan, the administrative body in charge of managing public servants, the saving rate has undergone several adjustments since its introduction, from the initial 21.6% to 14.25% in 1970, 16.7% in 1979 (with the rate floor at 14.25%), and then to 18% (also the rate floor) in 1983.

The preferential interest rate was scrapped following the implementation of a new pension system in 1995, which increased civil servants’ pension benefits by allocating part of their monthly income to the pension fund, rather than relying on the government as the sole contributor.

However, it did not quash the controversy surrounding it, as public servants who were hired before 1995 were still entitled to the saving rate after retirement. (The amount of a retiree’s pension payment that is eligible for the interest rate depends on a public servant’s pre-retirement income and number of years of service prior to 1995.)

The meeting minutes of the Presidential Office’s Pension Reform Committee show that as of June last year, approximately NT$462 billion (US$15 billion) in pension payments from about 457,000 public-sector retirees were stored in bank accounts eligible for the 18% interest rating, putting a NT$82 billion dent in government coffers each year.

The committee’s deputy convener, Lin Wan-i (林萬億), estimated that the interest rate would not really become history until 2054.

Though the saving rate had its historical necessity, today it is mostly seen as a remnant of Taiwan’s authoritarian era, one of the roots of social injustice, and a form of political payout by the previous KMT authoritarian regime to cement support among the nation’s civil servants, which has in turn created an uneven playing field for political parties.

Due to the preferential interest rate and/or public-sector employees’ ostensibly “unfair” pension calculation formula, some of their actual income replacement ratios (the percentage of one’s pre-retirement income) could be over 100%. This means they could earn even more in retirement than they did when they were on the workforce.

In 2006, despite leading a minority government, president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the DPP sought to reform the preferential interest rate. However, instead of gradually phasing out the rate, he only managed to cut down on the amount of pension payment from which a retiree could earn the interest rate by putting a cap on their income replacement ratio.

Chen’s successor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT, also made pension reform one of his policy priorities, describing the problem as so dire “people will regret it tomorrow if we do not reform it today.”

The Ma administration established a pension reform task force to solicit public opinions in 2009 before rolling out a draft plan in 2013. Despite the efforts, the plan was stalled at the KMT-dominated legislature at the time — allegedly due to electoral concerns and overwhelming criticism of what president Ma called a “painful decision” to cut year-end bonuses for public-sector retirees in 2012.

Failed efforts by her predecessors and fears of further alienating the DPP among public servants should have deterred President Tsai from making another attempt. Instead, she put pension reform at the forefront of her policies and joined hands with DPP lawmakers in ramming pension reform bills that many deem drastic through the legislature.

Under the bills passed so far, the 18% preferential interest rate will be reduced to zero two years after the bills’ promulgation scheduled for July 2018.

In addition, civil servants and public-school teachers (the draft bill for military personnel is yet to be drawn up) will see their income replacement ratio reduced to 60% within 10 years and ultimately be required to calculate their pension payment based on their average monthly salary in the final 15 years of employment, rather than their last month of service as currently stipulated.

Tsai’s reform success has reflected in her approval ratings. According to a survey by the TVBS poll center on July 12, the president’s support rate has climbed to 29%, from 21% in June.

Such efforts, however, are not without their costs. President Tsai has been shadowed by anti-reform protesters, some of whom have threatened to use violence or to disrupt events such as state visits by foreign presidents or the upcoming 2017 Universiade in Taipei. The KMT and its spin-off, the People First Party, are mulling filing a request for a constitutional interpretation on pension reform legislation.

Just as in other countries, pension reform is almost always a magnet of unpopularity and fierce protests. A good leader will know when to overlook temporary noises and focus on the long-term good.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

Physical violence and denial of access to members of the press are two tactics that have been used with alarming frequency in recent months by civic groups bent on blocking legislation proposed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. J. Michael Cole reports.

 

Same-sex marriage and pension reform are two pieces of legislation that have resulted in escalatory action since late 2016 by civic organizations. In the former case, conservative Christian organizations have spearheaded efforts to block a marriage equality bill; in the latter, retired personnel, as well as organizations such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have led the movement. While marginal, the Alliance has a track record of disruptive behavior and physical violence against officials.

As a result of the spiralling unrest, rather than be debated rationally the complex issues have become politicized, giving rise to a spectacle of emotions, crass party politics, divisiveness and disruptiveness. While passing off as normal civil society and purportedly emulating the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014, the opposition groups are discrediting Taiwan’s democracy and undermine government institutions in the pursuit of goals that do not enjoy majority support across society and which tend to be diametrically opposed to the aspirations of younger generations.

More than 80% of young people in Taiwan support same-sex marriage; a majority of young people, meanwhile, support measures that will ensure the viability and sustainability of the pension system, which under current rules and after decades of abuse threaten to break the state coffers in the not-too-distant future.

Furthermore, the two groups mentioned above have taken actions that would have been inconceivable to the young members of the Sunflower Movement and groups associated with it, primarily violence against individuals and the systematic targeting of members of the press. Alarmingly, both trends have accelerated in recent months.

On several occasions since late last year, members of the LGBTQ community have been physically assaulted by groups opposed to same-sex marriage; in a few cases the assaults resulted in minor injuries. The use of violence against elected officials from the Tsai administration, as well as DPP legislators, has also become more frequent, with several incidents occurring outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei this morning (April 19). Despite a police presence at the scene — clearly insufficient and often disorganized — a number of officials were grabbed at, pushed, or body-slammed; Deputy Taipei Mayor Charles Lin was pushed against a police fence, injuring his hand; another (Tainan City Councilor Wang Ding-yu) was repeatedly pushed and had a water bottle thrown at his face. New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Hsu Yung-ming was also pushed and splashed with water.

On an evening talk show on SET-TV, a convener of the Changhua Military Civil Servants and Teachers Association argued that “DPP rhetoric” had made them “very emotional” and that they could not be held responsible if they “killed someone.” Worryingly, this was not the first time that a member of groups opposed to pension reform referred to “killing.” In an earlier protest, someone argued (arguably in the heat of the moment) that President Tsai herself should be killed.

According to Wang, the protest groups may have been infiltrated by Chinese trouble makers. There is also a possibility that members of crime syndicates, many of them pro-China, are also playing a role in the protests, not so much out of interest in the policies but simply to undermine democracy and destabilize the Tsai administration. With more radical elements highjacking the movement, the grievances of the more moderate members of society who stand to be affected by pension reforms, and who understandably will seek to lose as little as possible in the bargain, risk being lost in the noise.

During the April 19 protest, which also spilled to the DPP headquarters, several members of the press reported being denied access to the venue. Protesters routinely asked journalists to see their press pass; media that were deemed to be too closely associated with the green camp (DPP and NPP) were surrounded by protesters and ordered to leave the scene; pro-China media, meanwhile, were left alone. The windshield of a SET-TV news vehicle was also smashed with a hammer. (During the Sunflower occupation, a journalist from the China Times Group was heckled by protesters but was never prevented from doing her work; criticism of the incident ensured this did not happen again.)

Photo: Yahoo News

Similar disruptive actions against members of the press (also mainly pro-green camp media) have occurred during protests organized by opponents of same-sex marriage legislation since 2016.

Both controversies have undermined democratic mechanisms and tarnished Taiwan’s image, which for some protesters appears to be the intended outcome. Shortcomings in personal protection for elected officials by law enforcement agencies, as well as failure to arrest and prosecute protesters for physical assault, have also contributed to repetition and escalation. Police’s unwillingness to ensure that members of the press have full access to protest sites and can carry out their work without interference has also created a hostile environment for journalists.

(Top photo: Match.net.tw)

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