Change Doesn’t Come Out of Thin Air

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像
Why you need to know

President Tsai has vowed to transform the way government operates by empowering young people and bringing new voices into her administration. For this to happen, the conservatives will have to be willing to bow out gracefully.

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Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) and her Democratic Progressive Party ran a highly successful campaign leading into the January elections. Unlike their opponents from the Kuomintang (KMT), the DPP much better understood — and reflected in its rhetoric — the public mood that had developed in the wake of the transformative Sunflower Movement in 2014. With Tsai’s election, people expected change, and the incoming president herself promised she would transform the way things are done.

Then came her Cabinet appointments, which very quickly cast doubt on the likelihood that change was upon us. With an average age of 61, the ministerial lineup was technocratic, male dominated, and to be frank, it was oddly reminiscent of previous Cabinet compositions.

Facing a storm of criticism, the Tsai administration countered with the claim that it had a limited list of candidates to choose from, and added it was aiming for experience and continuity — two fine things, no doubt, but not exactly suggestive of a commitment to rejuvenation.

Following that, it was proposed that more women, and more young people, would be brought into the system to fill the 8,000 or so deputy- and lower-level positions that needed to be filled, including appointments to government-sponsored bodies like the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy or the National Security Council-affiliated Foundation on Asia Pacific Peace Studies, among others.

However, just as they did with the list of top appointments, conservative forces within the DPP saw things otherwise. Many of them had no time for all that rhetoric about modernization and rejuvenation, and expected they would be given those positions. After eight years waiting on the sidelines, they were “owed” something and they did everything they could (usually behind the scenes) to ensure they obtained what they wanted. When Tsai, true to her word, proposed placing new, younger individuals or “outliers” with little or no experience in government, the conservatives pushed back: they conspired, threatened and banded together, played the faction card, sidelined their opponents, and launched vicious attacks on the new appointees based on their family history or “ethnic background,” all in the hope of forcing Tsai to revise her choices or, at a minimum, to make concessions — which she has a tendency to do when pressured.

At the heart of this resistance is a generational lack of trust in young people, which is compounded by a strong attachment to hierarchical structures, a phenomenon that is clearly observed across government institutions. If President Tsai meant it when she said she wanted to transform the government, she will have to put her foot down and remain firm on her decisions. She has strong enough a mandate from the public to do so and to survive whatever discontent emerges in some corners of the green camp. Among other things, she will have to be straightforward with the older members who refuse to yield their seats and offices so that younger people with fresh ideas can take over: Thank you for your services, she will have to say. You have accomplished great things for this country and we will always be in your debt, but now is time to retire, to move on. She has done this on a few occasions, and it has paid dividends. She needs to do it more often.

Should President Tsai fail to do so, her administration risks being hijacked by people who, well intentioned or not, no longer have the vision or the energy to come up with, and to implement, the new ideas that will propel Taiwan into the 21st century. More of the same will no longer do; a facsimile of the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) administration, which could very well happen if the conservatives have it their way, would be an anachronism — and possibly catastrophic — today.

The greatest gift to the nation that the elders can make at this point is to bow out gracefully by accepting the fact that one’s time in the spotlight is ephemeral, and by helping the new players find their voice so they can carry the torch to new horizons. There is no such thing as a position that is “owed” someone. Given the formidable challenges facing Taiwan today, the Tsai administration cannot afford to hand out sinecures as a way to thank people for their past services. There is real, serious work to be done, and that needs to start now.

Preventing President Tsai implementing the necessary reforms by erecting roadblocks is downright selfish, and it is certainly not what those individuals who refuse to leave want to be remembered by. They must learn to let go. For Taiwan.

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