Cop, Philosopher, and President?

Cop, Philosopher, and President?
Photo Credit: CNA

What you need to know

New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi wrote a master class in the art of the Chinese essay and offers a compelling conservative vision for Taiwan’s future. Should he run for president, he will be a very formidable candidate.

On Tuesday, New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi published an essay to his Facebook account entitled “My Thoughts on the Referendums.”  The essay has been widely discussed in the runup to Saturday’s referendum election because Hou, the mayor of by far Taiwan’s largest city, did not endorse the KMT’s position that party members should vote yes on each referendum.

Dismaying his party and thrilling the Democratic Progressive Party, New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi (KMT) released an essay on Tuesday in which he not only refused to take a position on any of the four referendums that voters will decide on Saturday, but also encouraged voters to make up their own minds on how to vote.

But Hou’s essay is about much more than Saturday’s referendum. Among other things, it is a master class in the art of the Chinese essay, a skillful rehabilitation of his own public image, and a compelling conservative vision for Taiwan’s future if he succeeds Tsai Ing-wen as president.

Taiwanese students are taught to structure essays into four parts: beginning (起), development (承) , a turn (轉) and a conclusion (合). One important rhetorical feature of this structure is that the conclusion usually contains the author’s real point. Hou’s essay is a superlative example of the Chinese expository essay.

Hou begins by quoting Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” This works on at least three levels. First, Hou’s public image and popularity has hitherto been based on his long and distinguished career as a police officer and his highly pragmatic administrative style. His sudden affinity for philosophy shows voters a different side of the hard boiled criminal investigator who worked for decades tracking down notorious murders and kidnappers. Second, it is intended to appeal to younger voters from the Sunflower Movement who prize freedom of thought and free expression. Third, it is an oblique attempt to address the great stain on his career: his attempt to arrest free speech advocate Nylon Cheng (鄭南榕) in 1988 that ended with Cheng self-immolating. Hou is tacitly suggesting that he is no enemy of the cause for which Cheng gave his life. “No one,” Hou says in his opening paragraph, “should correct or restrict anyone else’s thought.”

總統:盼中央地方攜手合作  強化推動社宅量能
Photo Credit: 中央社
President Tsai Ing-wen with New Taipei City Mayor Hou You-yi at a groundbreaking event for a social housing project in New Taipei, September 30, 2021.

In his development, Hou contrasts the famous French Baccalaureate philosophy exam and its open-ended questions such as “Is all truth definitive?” with Taiwan’s notorious “duck stuffing” (填鴨式) educational system in which yes-no and multiple choice questions feature prominently in the examinations that Taiwanese take from their earliest days in school until well into adulthood. He critiques both the KMT and DPP (although not by name) for reverting to duck stuffing by urging voters to vote “yes” or “no” on all four referendums. Referendums, says Hou, should be an opportunity for critical thinking of the issues at hand followed by each voter voting in accordance not with a party line, but with their own free will after careful consideration.

Next Hou begins his turn (轉). This is where things become interesting. Having just delivered a somewhat lofty and abstract explication of the connection between the Referendum Act and the Constitution’s principle that sovereignty belongs to the people (Article 2), Hou shifts his tone to the personal and the expressive.

Hou starts the second and more important half of the essay with a long approving quote from Taiwanese author, journalist, and radio personality Cai Shi-ping (蔡詩萍):

My father was an extremely ordinary father—so ordinary that although he obviously loved me very much, he never knew what the best way to express his love was. He was just an ordinary soldier without much education. My Father: So ordinary, So Much Love. Route Culture 2021

My father, Hou says, was this kind of man. “He came into this life without any fanfare and he left it peacefully. “He survived war and separation from his family (Hou’s father was drafted by the KMT in China and fought in the civil war before settling in Chiayi’s Puzi Township). He cherished his peaceful life and was happy to find work as a pork vendor. He only asked that he could have a tranquil and good life (靜好歲月). Isn’t that what every one of our people hopes for?

This takes Hou to his conclusion (合). He begins by an appeal for unity, “We do not have the luxury of fighting among ourselves.” He mourns the loss of the feeling of simplicity, trust, and solidarity that Hou believes Taiwan has lost in recent decades. He urges the Taiwanese people move forward be reclaiming the old values of honesty (古意), kindness, and simplicity. 

For his part, Hou claims that he has always been guided in his public life by his passion to act for the people and serve the nation. The nation and the people’s interests come first before those of a party or its factions. “I first stood for election when I was 61. I did that with the same vision (初心) that I had on the first day I became a police officer: to protect the family and defend the nation (保家衛國). I tell myself that I have to do my utmost for the people’s health and the stability of the nation…so that each person on this land can have a tranquil, good life (靜好歲月) and pursue their vocation in peace.” Notice how the phrase “a tranquil, good life” is repeated again for emphasis. It would make a good campaign slogan.

Starting with the turn in his essay (轉), Hou ends his discussion of the referendum and his argument that people should make their own decisions about how to vote rather than blindly following the KMT or the DPP. The rest of his essay is devoted to reminding readers of his humble background, his love and respect for his father, and the traditional values that inform his public service and late blooming political career.

Fundamentally, Hou’s ethos is deeply conservative although he astutely grounds his conservatism in traditional Taiwanese values rather than the resentment that appeals to Han Kuo-yu supporters and the deep blue wing of the KMT. He also audaciously albeit obliquely addresses his greatest political liability, his alleged role in the death of Nylon Cheng, by positioning himself as a champion of free speech and thought in an appeal to younger voters.  Hou’s essay invites the Taiwanese people to take a step back from the progressivism of the Tsai administration and try a more familiar, comforting style of leadership. Hou’s essay is yet another indication that he is seriously considering running for president in 2024. He will be a very formidable candidate.


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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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