What you need to know
As a lawyer and city councilor, Huang Shan-shan felt she could only talk about the responsibilities she faced. As Deputy Mayor, she realized that she could act.
On a recent afternoon, Huang Shan-shan, the independent candidate for the Taipei mayor, arrived at TNL’s recording studio. Amid a heated battleground that saw blue, green, and independent vying for the mayoral position, she seems at ease. More than 20 years into politics, Huang has served six terms as a city councilor and most recently as Deputy Mayor and has experienced a serious illness. During the interview, she appeared carefree about both the election and her life.
Asked about her take on the election, Huang smiled and said the polls were just for reference. When vilified or maliciously attacked, she’d just see it as an indication of her opponents’ desperation. She sees running for mayor as a plan that emerged by accident. If she had not been invited to serve as deputy mayor, she would not have known if she was qualified to serve as mayor. Faced with this uncertainty, Huang frankly said that she didn’t think about what would happen tomorrow because if she did, she would become timid and want to withdraw. Huang prefers to simply go all out and work toward the immediate goals she has set for herself, and leave the rest to fate.
Mario Yang: I saw the way you explained policy housing justice 3.0. My colleagues have told me that housing prices and rents in Taipei are both too high. Many apartments are really old. It’s also difficult to win the lottery for new and reasonably priced social housing. If you were to use a simple way to communicate with younger voters, how would you make them relate to what you have to say?
Huang Shan-shan: There are a few ways to help young people live in Taipei City. Firstly, it’s social housing. Actually we have been continuously building [social housing] in Taipei. We have the most social housing units nationwide at the moment, nearing 20,000. Secondly, we have “subletting and agent management services (包租代管),” offering subsidies to renters; this translated into 20,000 units. Altogether, it comes to about 40,000 units.
However, it’s still insufficient because Taipei is too expensive. The rent of a micro-studio apartment ranges from a shocking NT$10,000 to NT$20,000. The problem lies in the opaqueness of the rental platform. Landlords are not willing to make information about their properties public. Hence, the rental market may be our next target. Our goal is to make it transparent and reasonable without making landlords feel stressful. In fact, considering the development of the entire metropolitan area, it’s quite impossible to imagine every young person living here. Some would certainly live in the suburbs. Commuting to the city center for work in the day and going back home in the evening has always been a trend.
In fact, we have considered building social housing in New Taipei City for those who work in Taipei. For example, the Meihas residential complex cluster and the Taipei Universiade Athletes’ Village in Linkou were both built by the Taipei City Government. We wanted to turn them into Taipei’s social housing, but ROC law is really interesting. Since these home units are in New Taipei City, it would breach the Household Registration Act. According to the Act, because the social housing is in New Taipei, people will become residents of New Taipei once they start living there, and in turn lose their entitlements to the welfare benefits provided for Taipei City residents. The result is that social housing outside of Taipei [built by Taipei] isn’t Taipei’s social housing.
Last but not least, you would have to make landlords be willing to offer up their apartments for subletting management, or entrust agents with the units they own. Landlords in Taipei probably all have extremely deep pockets. They’d rather leave their apartments vacant than release them for rental. As a result, we have a lot of vacant housing units. What we’re currently providing is a preferential house tax rate for self-use houses, and the rate will go up if you own more than two or three household units, in the hope that people would release their extra houses to the market. However, our reduced tax rates still couldn’t offset their rental income, so it hasn’t been effective.
Housing and goods prices are but one thing, and are also related to economic development. Taipei, after all, is the best city in Taiwan. We have more job opportunities, and certainly more people would like to live in Taipei. No matter how fast we build social housing, it will not be able to keep up. Civic infrastructure like hotels, which can provide plenty of dwelling units in a short time, would be a great option.
MY: Everyone’s interests and the range of issues each individual tends to focus on are different. From your past experience, be it law or municipal affairs, how do we go about communicating and making compromises with the public while knowing that there will always be some groups that suffer?
HSS: First of all, we need to take into consideration and balance majority and minority interests alike, in order to prevent the interests of the few from affecting those of the many. Having said that, the interests of the few still require basic protection.
Take urban regeneration projects for example. When 90% of the residents have given their consent, how should the remaining one or two holdouts make their choices? This is when the law should intervene and ensure procedural justice. It will allow them to participate and make sure their rights will not be compromised. If they still don’t consent, there’s a forced-demolition mechanism in place. It will only violate individuals’ rights provided that every procedure has been ensured and completely fulfilled.
This type of violation is no real violation though, for none of an individual’s rights and obligations have been taken away. It’s just that all the people have to be taken into consideration. It’s under such a circumstance that we find a balance. When we make any decisions, we ask first about the victims before thinking about the beneficiaries. We would need to understand situations of the victims first, conduct impact assessment, and then identify remedial measures.
After getting to know these two types of stakeholders, we then check whether this decision is beneficial to the majority of city residents. Through these three thinking points, you can know clearly what approaches to use for governance. After all, we’re a city. It’s unlikely I only let the minority benefit, but I’ll let the whole city adopt a fair attitude to view such gains.
MY: In your book Huang Shan-shan: 33 Life Stories, you said in the year you recovered from a serious illness, you made a to-do list and a not-to-do list. You also said you already ticked off all the boxes on the not-to-do list over the past few years. I’m curious to know what on this particular list you can share with us.
HSS: It included things like staying up late, drinking coffee, and other unhealthy habits; it also includes items like constituent service. Sometimes I would force myself to go to social functions I didn't like. During election campaigns there’d also be some things you’d have no choice but to do. Before, I would feel “Fine, I’ll do it for the sake of everybody,” but now, I try to follow my heart, and never hesitate to do the things I enjoy.
MY: Have you seriously never struggled?
HSS: I’ve died once. What’s there left for me to struggle with? Of course I’ve struggled, but I’ve got to declutter. If I hadn’t made the decisions, I’d be doing the unpleasant things that I’d have no choice but to do forever. All in all, when it comes to elections, there are some things you must do. Even so, at least you shouldn’t end up engaging in things against your conscience or turning into a different person. In other words, you need to be yourself.
I’ve always been someone who does what I myself enjoy doing. Having fallen seriously ill has only reinforced my belief in this principle.
MY: Did the experience of serving as Deputy Mayor motivate you to run for Mayor?
HSS: It surely did. If I hadn’t worked as Deputy Mayor, I wouldn’t have known if I would have done well. I had never worked as the director of a large department. Therefore, when Mayor Ko [Wen-je] invited me to serve as Deputy Mayor, it was actually not only a huge challenge for me, but a massive gamble for him.
On the other hand, I thought I came to learn. I didn’t think I could do anything substantive in the beginning. I was also worried about whether I would be replaced in less than three months if I hadn’t done my job well. Three months into assuming office, I became the deputy commander for epidemic control. Initially I was in fact quite nervous because I didn’t have expertise in public health.
After entering the City Government, the first thing I had to learn was how to communicate and coordinate. Mayor Ko made the decisions on epidemic control, and I did the implementation. Throughout the process, we had to work with each department and bureau and assign tasks clearly to them. After we had the right people do the right things, my job was then to connect them in order to advance toward the goals. It was because of this experience that I got to know I could lead and manage people.
Apart from carrying out the epidemic control mission, I also had to supervise 15 bureaus and departments. I needed to communicate and coordinate with everybody on work and responsibilities. I couldn’t simply issue an order and then expect others to carry it out. This wouldn’t necessarily be effective. So I had to engage in constant communication with everybody. I often say that since God gave you this position, you’ve got to sit tight and work hard. If you can't take on the responsibilities, don’t even think about taking the next step.
MY: You’ve been Deputy Mayor for several years, and have handled many thorny cases, from Taipei Dome’s agreement negotiation, street vendors’ refinement program, to government-led urban renewal. Have you ever thought about what differences there would be if you became Mayor?
HSS: There may be differences. Previously I was more like an implementer, and thus for most work tasks I had to be on the frontline. For the street vendors' refinement program, I spoke with owners from one stall to another and informed them about what the municipality’s plan was. Although my civil servant colleagues didn’t explain it clearly enough before, since I came from civic society, what I often did was to serve as the translator between the government and citizens. They didn’t get what you were saying, and you didn’t understand what they were talking about. What was lacking in between was in fact the process of mutual translation.
If I become mayor, this would be a vital process, rather than seeing people often gathering to protest. In recent years though such incidents have become much less frequent. If I am elected, I surely wouldn’t be able to do the coordinating work myself. Yet, it’d become our governance culture. That is, we hope to solve the problems before they even arise. In another respect, to implement the right policies, we’d need to explain them clearly. Having said that, I would not be overly populist since we still have to insist on the values that are helpful for making progress.
MY: You said you were neither blue nor green, and that you hoped this election could transcend the parties. Specifically, what do you feel blue and green each represent?
HSS: Blue and Green division is actually highly parochial, it’s nothing but the single fight over unification or independence. However, given the current situation in Taiwan, there’s nothing worth fighting about. We’re all the same people, all Taiwanese and ROC citizens. I believe for young people under the age of 45, they already don’t know much about the kind of unification or independence we talked about in the past. What remains is how mainland China bullies Taiwan daily, and how to resist China to protect Taiwan. But their ideologies have become no different from those of everybody else’s.
For me, what Blue and Green mean is nothing but the fact that you have to label people as such so that you can start manipulating ideologies. Without manipulation, how can a party survive? The key then is to paint each person with a particular color—if you’re mine, you cannot vote for somebody else. Nevertheless, as Taiwan includes Taipei, we have transcended such an ideology over the last eight years, and there hasn’t been as much segregation into blue or green turfs anymore. Those who have voted for Ma Ying-jeou have also cast their ballots for Tsai Ing-wen. Of the 8.17 million votes that Tsai received, half of them came from those who had in the past voted for the KMT.
So, a large portion of the population are in fact swing voters. They may vote for you this time, but vote for another in the next election. It’s not so much for the reason of blue or green affiliation as whether you’ve done well during your tenure or you’ve made a problematic decision in a particular case. Having said that, I feel where the median voters move determines which party wins. You just don’t know how they would tilt. That’s why you need to put forward a vision and approaches that would make them happy.
I’ve always been neither blue nor green. In my past constituencies, strangely enough, even though blue and green party followers accounted for half and half, I would invariably manage to win a seat. So, I think this power [of swing voters] has always been there, and it’s growing in scope.
MY: I saw in the book Huang Shan-shan: 33 Life Stories the concept “Benefit both the country and its people” mentioned multiple times. How did this notion emerge and come into being?
HSS: As a lawyer, I could only tell people that a certain piece of legislation is wrong. Within that framework, I was not able to change anything about it. That’s why I wanted to become the very person who amends the law. Only after serving as a councilor did I find out it was not just the law that was problematic. There were myriad other issues as well. And these actually were what we as politicians could easily change. If our existence were not for this purpose, then what’s the use of our existence after all?
Administering municipal affairs means changing the city for the better. Benefiting the country and citizens doesn’t have to be on a large scale. It may well just be having a green sidewalk or having the manhole cover fixed in front of your home. We’re aware our daily work is having an impact on each resident’s life. I could only speak about the many issues at hand before; since serving as Deputy Mayor, I’ve been able to go and listen, give my opinions and lobby, and execute by myself. Once we completed something, it made me feel like we were changing Taipei little by little every day. With time Taipei as a city would indeed change a great deal.
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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