It’s about three weeks before the May 20 inauguration, and already the Tsai Ing-wen administration is in hot water.

Sadly the wound is a self-inflicted one, what with Chang Ching-sen, a minister without portfolio to-be for the incoming administration, making inappropriate remarks this week about the Wenlin Yuan urban renewal project in Taipei’s Shilin District, a controversy that sparked rounds of protests by civic groups a few years ago. This is an early test for the Tsai administration. Here’s why it must handle it accordingly, and the damage that this could cause if it doesn’t do so could have far-reaching consequences.

Chang’s transgression occurred in an April 25 Facebook post (since deleted), in which he mocked the Wang family, whose fate sparked the protests at Wenlin Yuan, while deriding (and cursing at) the “overly emotional” civic groups and academics who mobilized during that period.

This is “the most KUSO social movement. The alleged victims of the construction company and the government have now received five apartment units totaling 175.02 ping, worth hundreds of millions [of NT dollars],” he wrote. “Fuck! How pathetic. I mean, those academic type youth who held candle light vigils at Wangs’ residence and wept like death.”

Subsequent posts did nothing to appease the outrage.

No doubt Chang is entitled to his opinions. However, his contemptuous attitude amid mounting criticism suggests a personality that may simply not be suited for the Tsai administration. His behavior is, after all, reminiscent of that of many of the technocrats in the outgoing Ma Ying-jeou government whose indifference to public opinion — and to society’s most vulnerable groups — largely contributed to the consolidation of civic forces and ultimately to the KMT’s downfall in both the Nov. 29, 2014, local elections and the Jan. 16 presidential and legislative elections.

It’s also worrying that an individual with such an attitude toward the victims of urban renewal and the civil society that came to their succor will, as minister without portfolio, plays a “key role” in matters such as national development planning, transportation, energy, and social housing.

A former head of the Council for Economic Planning and Development (now the National Development Council) and until recently the executive director for policy at the DPP, Chang is now a member of the incoming Tsai administration, which rode to power promising change and, among other things, a healthier and more constructive relationship with civil society. Not withstanding the argument that his remarks were the result of his highly vocal “style,” his track record on urban renewal, such as his views on the evictions sparked by the Daan Park project many years ago, reveal a man whose ideology could cause headaches for Tsai.

The problem therefore wasn’t the delivery or tone, or one of gradation. It was the content itself. Chang was wrong, period, and he has revealed his cards. Deriding civil society is hardly the signal that anyone in the Tsai administration wants to broadcast at this point, especially as a sizable segment of that politically active population remains wary of the DPP. The energies that were unlocked by social movements from 2012 onwards helped redefine the face of politics in Taiwan and created the environment that made it possible for Tsai to rise to power. Chang and others at the DPP should be aware of the processes that occurred during that critical period and that disrespecting the groups that mobilized at Wenlin Yuan is akin to spitting on the same individuals who took action at Huaguang, Dapu, Losheng, and elsewhere, all the way to the Sunflower Movement, which broke the Ma administration’s knees in March and April 2014.

So far the DPP’s response to the Chang controversy has been less than satisfactory to the public and activists. The optics of this whole affair risk hurting Tsai and her administration.

That is why this mess could turn into something much more serious, and why, as the author of a recent book about social movements in Taiwan who believes in the benefits of engaging a vibrant civil society, I choose not to remain silent.

The promise of change that Tsai effectively harnessed during her campaign was and is a crucial rallying point in Taiwan. Inclusiveness is in high order, and President Tsai and her cabinet will have to make every effort to consolidate their coalition. This cannot exclude civil society, now a major actor in politics here. The DPP will have to realize very quickly that maintaining good relations with civil society is just as crucial today as it was when they were running for office. The last thing they want to do is create the impression that social movements were merely allies of convenience in election time, and that it now regards them as “outsiders” to be treated with contempt.

Moreover, with Beijing showing every indication it intends to cause trouble, and with the soon-to-be-in-the-opposition KMT sharpening its knives, the Tsai administration will have to present a united front, one that includes the thousands of activists, academics and artists who shaped the environment in Tsai’s favor. That is why alienating civil society early on, which the Chang faux pas could well be in the process of accomplishing, is such an alarming prospect. President Tsai will have great difficulty handling the immense challenge posed by China if her administration is busy waging rear battles with its own society.

For her sake and that of Taiwan, the Tsai administration must put out the fire that Chang started at their doorstep as soon as possible.


J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Non-Resident Fellow with the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute and an Associate Researcher with the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC).

First Editor: Olivia Yang