INTERVIEW: Jason Hsu, the New Face of Taiwan’s KMT

INTERVIEW: Jason Hsu, the New Face of Taiwan’s KMT
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Can one young entrepreneur reboot the Kuomintang and change the face of politics in Taiwan?

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Jason Hsu (許毓仁) has gone from his parents’ night market food stall in Kaohsiung, to Silicon Valley startups and founding TEDxTaipei.

Like many young Taiwanese, he was inspired by the 2014 Sunflower Movement to get into politics. But rather than side with the then-opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), he joined the Kuomintang (KMT) as it faced a landslide defeat in the polls.

Now, in opposition as one of Taiwan’s new young legislators, he is trying to change the system from within. From, redesigning the KMT’s “ridiculous” uniforms to hosting regular cross-party talks, he says he is not only a fresh voice for the KMT, but is creating a new model for Taiwan’s parliament.

Critical of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), former president and KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the deadwood in his own party, Hsu, 38, promises to leave his mark on Taiwan politics.

The News Lens: To start, I’d like to go back a year or two. Can you talk about why you decided to join the KMT and run as a legislator?

Jason Hsu: I was nominated for a non-constituency legislator position. I wasn’t running for a district per se.

My nomination was because, now is the time for Taiwan to rethink what lies ahead and what is at stake. For the past 20 or 30 years Taiwan has been riding a wave of cheap manufacturing, labor and also a high-tech boom. But over the past 10 years China rose to the world stage and a lot of factories have moved to China. Because of that, a lot of economic problems were caused and young people have low wages, low salaries and not promising career prospects.

For me, I have always been an entrepreneur. I look at Taiwan’s problems today, not from one singular political or singular diplomatic problem or an economic problem; I see a whole set of problems interconnected with each other. The country missed our opportunity to transform. It is now a time for young leaders to step up and say, "We want our future back, and we want to take the responsibility to roll-up our sleeves and have a go."

TNL: Why do you think you were nominated?

JH: In the March 2014 Sunflower movement, my office was just three blocks from the protests. I went down to the scene almost every day to chat with the students and figure out what they were protesting against. I realized it wasn’t just about a cross-strait trade bill that was passed in an unlawful way; it was actually a fight against generational injustice. When I looked at this, I realized, "Wow, this is bigger than I thought," and I wanted to have a chance to contribute.

After the protest, the then-premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) asked me to organize a meeting with young leaders in different fields – new media, internet, social enterprise, agriculture, education. What came from that was the launch of the advisory committee for the premier, a group of 32 young advisers – aged from 27 to 35 – was selected, and I was one of them.

During the course of two years serving in that committee, I had over 50 meetings with government officials. I picked two topics: one was entrepreneurship and innovation; the other was and education and culture. In those 50 meetings, I realised that there is a tug-of-war between Taiwan’s executive branch and legislative branch, so much so, that the country has come to a halt. I felt, as someone in their early 30s, I could not let this continue.

TNL: A lot of young people in Taiwan would have similar views to what you just said, but will naturally align with the more 'left'-leaning party. Why join the KMT and not the DPP?

JH: There are a many aspects to this. Now that the DPP is the ruling party, they are also becoming rather right-wing. When I was nominated, it was already pretty clear the DPP would win both the presidential election and the legislative election. They portrayed themselves with an air of dominance and an air of arrogance that, "We are going to rule the country, so we are going to demolish anything on the way."

In a healthy democratic society, one needs balance in politics. You cannot let one party go down to the gutter and deteriorate.

And I believe this is a good time for young people to be involved in the KMT. The party is going through a change of blood – young people like me now have a chance to have a say. And we are now a minority in the legislature – I am one of 35 legislators in the KMT- it needs me as a young and fresh voice. I have a bigger contribution to make in an opposition party.

And who is to say the DPP won’t be corrupted. What we are seeing [now], maybe a majority of young people support DPP, but that is also shifting. The DPP is also screwing up; they have had 12 policy screw-ups. One of the policies I am opposing is the "Asia Silicon Valley," that has already caused a huge dispute in the community.

I wasn’t affiliated with any party before becoming a legislator. But the way I see it is, "How can I make a contribution to the country? How can I be a part of the transformation of the party?" Even though it will take time.

TNL: I’d like to come back to your views on the DPP later. First, even though you are not representing an electorate, who do you see yourself as representing?

JH: First, I am representing the young generation. I am doing everything to help young people to have hope for the future. Second, I am representing the tech community, especially internet entrepreneurs – I come from that background and I understand the struggles in starting a business in Taiwan, hiring foreigners in Taiwan, all sorts of things. Third, I represent the future generation, who desires education reform. I am not talking about the "de-Chinaize" dispute; I am talking about a more liberal education system that allows kids to thrive, less standardized tests, a system that fosters their gifts and passions, and bridges the urban-rural disparity with technology.

TNL: Getting into your priority areas, what are the specific pieces of legislation and committees that you are involved in?

JH: Taiwan faces a tough diplomatic situation. So I have formed several diplomatic associations within the parliament: I am the chairman for the Switzerland Taiwan parliamentary association, and I am on the board of the U.K., Singapore, ASEAN and several others. Taiwan cannot afford to just look inwards. I want to use these connections to take Taiwan’s small and medium enterprises overseas.

In terms of legislation, there a couple of things we need to look at: online payments; cross-border e-commerce; and, to relax the restrictions for foreigners who want to stay in Taiwan to work in Taiwan, especially for Southeast Asian nationals who studied here to continue to live and work here.

Also, same-sex marriage. I think you will say a traditional KMT legislator is conservative, but I am the first one to champion this cause within my party.

I have an "open congress" initiative, where monthly I host a "salon" and cross-party legislators, policy makers, opinion leaders to discuss specific issues. We’ve had three so-far, one for same-sex marriage, another for education, and the one we had just last week was for entrepreneurship.

I am creating a new model for an "open" legislature. You would be surprised. For an event like this, government executives don’t normally join. For my event, ministers, deputy ministers, they all come. This is a chance for them to understand what is really going on in the community.

TNL: What has the reaction been from within your party to these initiatives? Because it is not a traditional approach for opposition parties to work with people in power.

JH: I think that is why they need me. For the KMT, obviously people want to "trash" it. But I think, "come on," it is a 100-year-old party, it was founded by Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙). It has a rich tradition and yet it needs innovation, so that is what I am here for. I am, slowly, making sure they understand what I do and why I do it. I also need their support.

TNL: Has there been any pushback? Are people opposed to this new approach?

No, though the way I look at it is they have not "caught up" yet. Because now KMT is the opposition party, so we have changed from defense to offense, and there is a lot issues we are taking the initiative on.

So they are busy with that, and I am doing my own thing to set up a new model. I think this will help to pull the swing voters closer. Hopefully, it will inspire a new generation and how they look at politics.

TNL: Can you talk about your background, upbringing, your education and time spent overseas, and what brought you to start TEDxTaipei?

JH: I grew up in Kaohsiung. I spent most of my childhood in the night market; both of my parents ran food stalls. I grew up in an environment where survival was the most important thing, day in and day out. I would look at how my parents broke their backs, basically, to put food on the table.

I always remember that scene in the night market, where there is so much vibrancy and energy. My mom always told me, "When you have an opportunity, you create more opportunities for others." I think that is essentially what inspired me to do all the things I do. My mom only attended high school, but I think what she taught me is more than anything I ever learned at school.

I came to Taipei, studied at National Chengchi University – English literature and journalism – and then I did my exchange program at Monash University, in Australia. After returning to Taiwan I interned at Taiwan News.

Before the military, I backpacked through Central and South America – Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua and Peru – for six months before joining the air force. I was in the air force for two years in the reconnaissance squad; our duty was to process the photos taken by fighter jets.

After I [was] discharged from the military, I joined a friend’s startup in San Francisco. I spent three years in the San Francisco Bay Area working in software startups. During that time, I realized one can really make things happen, and failure isn’t the worse thing in the world, because you get to learn from that experience. That wasn’t a culture I was accustomed to, because Taiwan is very strong on "no failure, shame on you." I wanted to bring that spirit back to Taiwan.

I was exposed to TED Talks in California and had an idea to bring it back [to Taiwan]. When I returned to Taiwan in 2008, I decided I wanted to create Taiwan’s version of TED. I co-founded a conference called The Big Questions, essentially modeled after TED. In 2009, TED started a licensing program and I became their first licensee in Asia. Over the last six years, I have curated maybe 400 talks and helped launch over 30 chapters in Taiwan – half of them are in universities.

Over the course of the last seven years, I’ve had a large network of these change makers, and social innovators. I realized there is so much positive energy in Taiwan. [I thought] "How do I connect them together and present them in a way that is obstacle-free, they can be used by government and leveraged?" But they also need resources.

I am always thinking about, "What is next?" I wanted to focus on actions. That is why, I realized, as a legislator I could really make a lot of things happen.

TNL: When you are looking at the tech space and the startup scene in Taiwan, what are the things you would change?

JH: There are four elements: money, regulation, market and talent. These are the four things that need the most change.

Taiwan startups are lacking support in seed stage investment and angel investment, as well as A-round – between $1 million and $3 million. Our government hasn’t done enough to encourage such activities. What if we could create laws, regulations to encourage angel investments? There could be a tax deduction for angel investment and that sort of thing.

How do we attract more international talent to work and set up companies in Taiwan? How do we remove the legal barriers for entrepreneurs to raise money more easily? Because nobody wants to invest in a company set up in Taiwan, there are just not the international standards. If I am in e-commerce and reach out to Southeast Asia, they would not want to invest in a Taiwanese entity, because our ‘gamebook’ is not aligned with what is going on [internationally].

Obviously the market is also a problem. How do we help the government to direct their policy towards markets that are suitable for Taiwan’s startups? I was just in Berlin a few weeks ago, they have a lot of programs to attract venture capital, entrepreneurs and startups to set up in Berlin. How do we make Taiwan open, more aligned with global standards and attract more investment? I think we need to look at that as well.

TNL: You mentioned the DPP’s policy to create ‘Asia’s Silicon Valley’ earlier, what issue do you take with that?

JH: Taiwan’s startup eco-system does not need more space. We certainly don’t need acres of land, and erect a bunch of buildings and attract multinational companies to move in. What we need is an eco-system to encourage more merger and acquisition activities; for companies like Acer or HTC to support more startups, use their distribution channels, and merge and acquire more startups. If you look at Singapore, that is essentially how the startup scene was boosted. They don’t have much IPO activity, but we’ve seen quite a bit of M&A.

The whole set up of the "Asia Silicon Valley" is problematic. Silicon Valley was not ‘built’ it is there because all the talent is there and all the money, technology, research is there.

What is upsetting for a lot of entrepreneurs, the government said, "This project will be effective by 2019." What are you doing from now to 2019? This is a US$3 billion project. We could have used this money to send 500 startups overseas, and to make 1000 investments in small and medium companies. Sadly, it is President Tsai’s election promise, so I think it will go ahead even though there is an outcry of opposition in the community.

TNL: A lot of what you’ve talked about earlier – in terms of civil society, connecting Taiwan internationally and promoting startups – I think is generally in line with DPP policy. Outside of the policy you’ve just mentioned, where else do you diverge from where the DPP is taking Taiwan?

JH: Firstly, they are running away from China; I think they cannot not have a cross-strait framework. They don’t want to deal with China; it is something they are incapable of doing.

If you look at the global situation, you have to have some sort of mechanism with China. Taiwan is an independent country, it is a sovereign state, but we need to have a "conversation framework" with China. We have no conversation framework with China, and that will drastically undermine any policy that the DPP administration is putting forth.

Their new Southbound Policy is also problematic in this regard. Cambodia has just decided to send 12 alleged criminals to China. Right now, as we speak, there are over 200 Taiwanese imprisoned in China for telecom fraud. We have zero communication with China. There were over 200 emails sent to China from the [Taiwan] government, zero were returned.

You just can’t run away. You have to look at the problem in a pragmatic, inclusive way.

Secondly, the DPP is doing a good job in terms of injecting momentum into society. A lot of people weren’t happy with the KMT or [Ma Ying-jeou], they are putting those problems under daylight. That is a good gesture. But they also need to understand Taiwan’s economy is really, really bad. People are losing jobs, salaries are tanking.

I don’t see much focus being put on the economy.

In the Legislative Yuan, they are rushing to pass the party assets law, and to pass the transitional justice law. These things ... okay it is important, but we need to have society-wide conversations about these. I have conducted several public sessions on transitional justice, brining international scholars to look at how Germany, Australia and different countries have faced similar problems.

But the DPP now has a majority, when they go to vote there is no turning back. I do think the KMT is getting tangled in this. If we were a smart opposition party we would say, "Pass all the laws that you want to," but we would challenge [DPP] on the practical issues that Taiwan is facing. And I think KMT should put forward a "shadow" cabinet.

TNL: To go back to your point on China. How do you reconcile your view, with the situation that Taiwan’s closer ties under Ma have been so unpopular?

JH: What I said is: Taiwan needs to establish a "conversation framework" with China. Premier Lin Chuan (林全) publicly admitted there is "zero" official interaction with China so far. He is frustrated because we cannot ignore the fact that there are over 1 million Taiwanese doing business in China, and 3 million Taiwanese live and work in Shanghai.

There is a "deep green" populace that the Tsai-administration has to cater to. But there is also a wider spectrum of people who want to have economic prosperity.

[Closer Taiwan-China ties under Ma] was unpopular because it was politically maneuvered. [The DPP] have to start thinking about a conversation framework. Right now, I don’t know if it is on their agenda, or if they have any ways to do it. The DPP is now the ruling party, they need to think in terms of the welfare of the entire country.

TNL: Some might argue that China is dictating terms in this relationship at the moment, and it is putting Tsai in a position where she cannot do what it asks, because of the mandate she has been voted in with.

JH: On the contrary, I think Tsai has a better position in this. If Ma carried out this role, he would be labelled a traitor, as someone who is trying to sell Taiwan to China – because of the baggage of KMT and the last eight years. I think she has strong, popular support. If she dares to venture outside the DPP comfort zone, and in her presidency sets up a cross-strait peace framework, that would be historic. I think the people would support her.

TNL: Even with the current the semantics around the so-called 1992 consensus, "one China" that Beijing is asking Tsai to acknowledge?

JH: The way I look at it, Beijing also wants to continue the relationship with Taiwan and Beijing cannot afford for Taiwan to "go berserk." I think this year is particularly fragile with the U.S. election and also in China [President] Xi Jinping’s (習近平) leadership is threatened internally.

I think KMT, you could say, is more pro-business, pro-commerce. DPP is more idealistic, they are looking for an "ideal" Taiwan.

I grew up in an age where I don’t feel too much about it. But I’ve seen my parents working hard, to support the family, so I want the future generation to have a good future. I don’t think we should put that at risk because of this political stalemate.

TNL: The start to the new legislative year has been characterized by some as "more of the same," more of the old-guard of the KMT fighting with the DPP. Do you think there is some dead-wood that needs to get moved out?

JH: Totally, that is why I say KMT needs to have a new strategy. This whole "blue" and "green" duality is a little bit outdated.

We’ve also seen some new blood in the legislature. For example, we have the New Power Party, who are very vocal, radical, and I think it is good to have them. We have people like me, who are traditionally not very "blue," but willing to step into the camp and do something. Also, look at the age and the gender ratio – we have seen a bit of a healthy change.

But I am a rookie, so I cannot say too much. People have told me: "The water of politics is deep. You don’t know whose feet you are kicking. So you better be careful when you swim." I am still learning; I am trying to see whose feet I should not kick.

TNL: You have only been in the role for a short-time, but how different is it from running your own company?

JH: It is very, very different. I am not used to this. I don’t usually dress like this; I am a jeans, tee-shirt and sneakers type of person. I don’t come from a legal background, so I spend a lot of time reading and understanding every clause of the bills and talking with my team.

Work is demanding. When parliament is in session, every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday we have standing committees. I am in the committee of standing law and justice, there is a lot of debate over transitional justice and many important things. A lot of them are quite ideological, that is not my strength, so I watch, learn, and sometimes speak.

In Taiwan, if you ask your friends what their view is on the legislature, they would like to spit on the legislators. The reason is the really bad reputation of the past. When I think, "Why I am doing this?" I think: this is not something that I asked for, but it has been given to me. I see it as a mission and I want to carry it out.

If I don’t run for another term, I would hope my four years would amount to something substantial. When people look back, they would see a young legislator has done something different.

Politics is very complex. It is hard for one single legislator who is passionate and idealistic to effect immediate change. I am learning to communicate, and it is a good thing that the KMT is also listening. I am bringing in designers to help them re-design their uniform – they looked ridiculous in the past. I am just trying to make society better.

TNL: Finally, would you put your name forward for a leadership position in the KMT if it was offered, or suggested to you that you should?

JH: Yes, I would definitely consider it if there was an opportunity. But we’ll see.

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