INTERVIEW: Behind the Scenes with Taiwan’s New Power Party

INTERVIEW: Behind the Scenes with Taiwan’s New Power Party

What you need to know

The New Power Party's leaders are well-known, but behind the scenes there are people who are equally as committed and devoted to changing Taiwan.

Formed in early 2015, the New Power Party (NPP) rose to prominence in the wake of the Sunflower Movement's occupation of the legislature in Taipei in 2014.

After a successful election campaign, the party now has five legislators in the 113-seat Legislative Yuan, making it the third-largest party in Taiwan’s parliament.

Yi Pan (潘儀,left) was one of the occupy protesters who today runs the party’s organization development, and Ya-ting Yang (楊雅婷,right) recently returned home to Taiwan from the U.S. and now handles international affairs.

In a wide-ranging interview at the party’s Taipei headquarters they discussed the transition to becoming the established "new voice" in Taiwan, social media, the future of street protests and the NPP’s plans for the next wave of party growth with The News Lens International.

The News Lens International (TLNI): You both have international experience, can you talk about what it was like coming back to Taiwan, how society had changed and why you were motivated to join the NPP.

Pan: For me, I studied abroad for almost 10 years. I believed it was time for me to come back to my home country and do something, to give back. In the beginning, I don’t join NGOs or know much about Taiwan’s social issues. But then I realized there was a lot to be done. I joined many, many different rallies regarding different social issues. I think that Taiwan’s civil society has generated a lot of power in the past five, six years; incident after incident of people trying to fight the government’s power. The government wasn’t responding in the right way, so the people got more and more upset. The Sunflower Movement was the last straw.

Yang: I didn’t come back until last year. Last year, my friends and I in the U.S. believed that this year’s election [would be] a very crucial tipping point. I was lucky enough to be in a position to be able to come back to see what I could do to help – lucky it didn’t go the wrong way. I wasn’t in Taiwan over the past five or six years, as the movement has been getting bigger, but in the community in the U.S. they also felt something is changing – like things are getting out of control. And people are getting worried and the uncertainty of that feeling has been brewing. I saw the community inviting more and more "big names" from the Taiwanese social movement to the U.S., trying to "wake up" people on the outside. Of course, people that cared did "wake up" and did help, and some, like me, came back and jumped in.

TNLI: I know a lot of people have, perhaps, similar views but support the DPP, what made you gravitate towards the NPP instead?

Pan: The founders of the NPP are scholars and people that I’ve worked with in the past. For example the chairman, Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌) he has been very active in many issues – the cross-Strait trade agreement he has been involved for at least four years. I also noticed this issue at the beginning and have been working on this issue for a while, and the founders of NPP have also been working on these kinds of issues for quite a while. They are all very "grassroots," not typical politicians. I feel like they have an ideal of what Taiwan should be like and I think my idealism is more similar to theirs. Another founder, Lin Fong-cheng (林峯正), was the head of the Judicial Reform Foundation, and Freddy Lim (林昶佐) was the chairperson for Amnesty International [in Taiwan]. I’ve known them all for quite a while and I believe that we hold similar values in terms of Taiwan’s future.

Yang: I didn’t know many of these people before I joined. Before I came back, there were a lot of talks held in the U.S. by local Taiwanese groups. These included Huang Kuo-chang. I went to the event, listened to their talks and read a lot of articles regarding the other parties. It was more like a gut feeling; I feel like these people are sincere and they have a solution. Some people, they might say "this needs to be changed" but they don’t know how to solve it. I feel like NPP does have an idea how to solve these problems. Of course, you cannot be perfect, but NPP is willing to seek help from other professionals to solve issues and problems.

Pan: I would like to add, the party holds four values close to our heart: transparency, openness, action and participation. I believe being transparent and open to everybody is very important for our generation, and for the country to change this is a basic value we need to have. So, NPP provides this kind of platform for the new generation to be able to participate in politics. We elect our representatives by voting within the party – [leader] Huang Kuo-chang was voted by the party members and friends of the party. You can go online to join; you can either be a party member or a friend of the party and this grants you the right to vote.

Also, NPP is burdened, compared to the DPP. The NPP is not afraid of saying what it wants to say, but the DPP sometimes they have to compromise – [under the DPP] you cannot be so free, you have to follow the bigger party. How they generate their future candidates is very much tied their internal party election and involves a lot of regional competition, so they have to be careful if they want to have a future in this party.

Yang: I also think their burden comes with their age. DPP is 20 years old. During that time how many favors have you taken?

TNLI: Can you talk about the size of the NPP staff and how the organization is structured?

Yang: We had quite a few volunteers before the election, but have the election we tried to minimize to a very low level – for one thing we don’t want to exploit their free time. Right now most of our people are fulltime employees. At the headquarters we have 11 fulltime, one or two part times, and over at the Legislative Yuan at the party office is maybe 10 to 12 full-time staff, and in each legislator’s office there is about six or seven.

Pan: We also have five different branch offices – New Taipei, Taipei, Taichung, Hualien and Hsinchu. Each of them has two to three people.

TNLI: And how is the party funded?

Yang: The party vote gives us NT$50 (US$1.60) per vote, subsidized by the government, per year. So we have NT$37 million a year. But when you think about all the branches, and people we have to hire, there is very little money for us to develop. We have to be frugal about money.

Pan: And each legislator, their assistants are paid for by the government, as is the party office at the Legislative Yuan. So the party vote subsidy pays for the headquarters and five branches.

TNLI: Obviously the focus previously was on the election and campaigning. We are now into the daily running of parliament, can you talk about what your day-to-day role now covers?

Yang: I am in charge of international affairs. We want to broadcast our voice onto the international level. Joining international organizations is also part of our focus.

Pan: I promote the party within the island. I have to come up with different activities and events. I meet party members in different regions of Taiwan. I organize events to promote the current policies we are trying to pass in the Legislative Yuan. I connect with local people who have some potential or political background, who might be willing to help NPP in the future. And also, just promoting our party’s ideas in general – that could be things like speeches, lectures and movie screenings.

TNLI: After the Sunflower Movement there was a lot of attention, internationally, on Taiwan. Since the elections, now that there is a new government, has it been hard to keep up that international interest?

Yang: I think the momentum is quite stable. [International supporters] have always admired NPP’s idealism and energy, they may be a little upset at the DPP, but support for us is the same and there is still a lot of contact.

Pan: I would say there has been more attention since the election. Before the election we didn’t have a lot of visitors from overseas to visit our party specifically. Now, we have five seats, so there are groups of delegates that are coming.

TNLI: What sort of people?

Pan: We’ve had congressmen from Japan, people from U.S. think tanks.

Yang: And of course foreign representatives in Taiwan.

TNLI: Why do you think it is important for the party to have this international focus.

Yang: A lot of what we want to do internationally, we need support from other countries. And we want to hear what they think of our ideas and goals. Of course, we have to listen to what they say; if they are all opposed to something, then we might have to come back and say "what is wrong?"

TNLI: What is an example of a particular policy that people, say the U.S., has a different view on?

Yang: The TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership]. We may have some ideas, but the United States will say "that shouldn’t be an issue." So we have to try and find the middle ground.

Pan: I think it is important for the foreign media to pay attention to the NPP. They know that Taiwan isn’t just DPP or KMT. It is not just those two voices. NPP got a lot of support from the younger generation – people that do not believe KMT or DPP. We are the third voice, the new voice of Taiwan.

TNLI: In a recent interview I had with Freddy Lim (林昶佐) he suggested the election result was well below the party’s potential, and that support for the NPP is closer to the 15% mark. While all politicians will say they could have done better, this was specifically because NPP was a new party and next time round it will be better organized. Can you talk a little about your own polling and how you measure support?

Pan: We haven’t done any polls recently. We have very little resources and polling costs a lot, NT$300,000 at least. My observation is that Taiwanese are not really interested in elections, or politics, up until three months before the election. So right now we are not generating a lot of public donations. That is a fact, but it is a fact across the board.

Right now we don’t really have a good indication on support, unless we start analyzing the number of our Facebook fans, or that kind of thing. There was some data that showed the number of people who clicked on the video streaming service of the Legislative Yuan. Only 800,000 people viewed it in 2015 but this year within two months in April and May, 1.5 million people viewed the video online. In April, 32,000 people viewed Huang Kuo-Chang's video – of him questioning the government. People are paying more attention to politics, and also paying a lot of attention to Huang Kuo-chang.

TNLI: And from these observations what do you think are the issues people are most concerned with?

Yang: I think people are most concerned with money. When there are bills [in parliament] that involve labor, salaries, housing and general economics, people pay attention. Everyone hopes that the new government will bring changes to our economic situation.

Pan: Also, the topic of Taiwan sovereignty. It has always been a big topic for all Taiwanese voters – talking about Taiwan as a country.

TNLI: In that sense, a lot of the NPP’s key platforms – like KMT assets, indigenous rights, transitional justice – although these are important they are perhaps not the issues that affect people’s salaries, or the things that people worried about paying rent will be preoccupied with. What are you seeing in terms of the focus people have on those issues?

Yang: I remember reading an article that said, "Why do you have to care about [transitional] justice or indigenous rights? It doesn’t make money." But then it expanded and said, "Once you give back their rights, the indigenous people will be able to do a lot of things to support their own economy, and eventually that is boosting everyone’s economy." It is not just doing things that are right to do, but everything is connected.

Pan: The issue of transitional justice has been a hot topic for the past, I don’t know how many years. It is hard to push it forward. I think DPP and NPP have different ideas about what kind of policy we are trying to make. Right now, NPP’s policy incorporates the indigenous people’s rights inside the transitional justice package. But the DPP is separating the two, mostly focusing on the White Terror era. So we have different approaches to the same issue. We will continue to try to find the middle ground. We can only start moving forward in the right direction, if we are willing to stop and look at the mistakes we have made in the past.

TNLI: If the economy in Taiwan doesn’t recover and salaries don’t start to rise, could these issues lose momentum?

Yang: I feel like the younger generation is a "dreamer" generation. We hope things are done right. We hope to make the "wrong" things "right" again. Even though if it doesn’t make money, I think the younger generation thinks, "If it is the right thing to do, we should do it."

It is also a generational gap. For my parents, they have to make money otherwise the whole family is going to starve. But for my generation, sometimes money may not be the main issue for us. We don’t have wars in our generation, we don’t have famines. We worry less about that.

Pan: Different issues have different target groups. But I may be more of a dreamer, I think whatever is "right" is "right." Whoever supports labor rights, will of course support transitional justice.

But people that have the energy to start discussing labor rights, may not be the people that have to work so hard to survive. In Taiwan, there are always people who don’t make a lot of money but always focus on different issues. But there are also people who are barely surviving, they have to make money; they may not have the energy to think beyond making ends meet.

TNLI: Since the election, you are now in a position where you can get things done, even as a minority party as you have a solid relationship with the DPP. How have you found dealing with the KMT?

Pan: The KMT is still blocking a lot of important bills in the Legislative Yuan. They are still not doing anything right, in my point of view, and people know that. They don’t know the rules of the Legislative Yuan. You can see it very clearly: they don’t know how to be an opposition party.

TNLI: Your party is well-known for effective use of social media to connect with the public. I would be interested in hearing about the different ways you engage with supporters, and how that maybe changes your own views?

Pan: If there is an important bill that we are trying to pass, and we just read out the bill, no one understands it. My colleagues from the Legislative Yuan will pass us the bill [our social media manager] will look at the bill and try to make a simplified version of the bill, and incorporate it with our art department, to make an easy-to-understand illustration.

All the new technology, the new tricks, are not that new. We are just continuing that tradition. But we have the live video – all our media conferences, our lectures, our speeches. That is a way to bring people to join the event. That is all creating more channels for the party to have dialogue with our supporters. That doesn’t really change ‘what’ we say. It helps the NPP be a more transparent party.

Yang: I think everyone who uses the digital, social media to participate also creates a sense of inclusion, compared to the other parties.

Pan: One of the reasons we started to doing live video was because journalists are sometimes asking questions that are totally "out of the loop" or even inappropriate. Or, we might give an answer but it is edited in a way that did not show how they actually responded. We are just trying to be authentic, to be honest.

TNLI: What have been some of the most popular live feeds and what issues attract the most people?

Pan: We recently held a lecture before screening the Hong Kong movie “Ten Years” – the movie that was banned in China – to talk about Taiwan and Hong Kong democracy. About 80 people actually came [to the Taipei headquarters] to watch and a lot of people watched online. In general, whenever a legislator comes to give a lecture, there a lot of participants.

TNLI: Freddy also mentioned work would be starting soon to get candidates lined up for the 2018 elections. It seems like Taipei has been the hub for the party so-far, how has growth been outside of Taipei?

Pan: Our first wave of growth is the five branches we have right now. Each branch has one legislator – for example, Freddy in Taipei, Kuo-chang in New Taipei and [legislator] Kawlo [Iyun Pacidal] in Hualien. They each have their own duties. Our next wave will be in southern Taiwan.

TNLI: When will the party start to open up branches down south and get more people on the ground?

Pan: Next year is our goal. We have a lot to do once we open a branch, that is a lot of money and you have to find the right person to run that office. That requires a lot of preparation.

Yang: And of course a lot of our people are in Taipei or northern Taiwan.

Pan: Of the six capitals [i.e., special municipalities] in Taiwan, we are lacking [branches in] Taoyuan, Tainan and Kaohsiung.

TNLI: It’s obviously a big commitment to go from being behind the scenes to becoming a public figure. Will it be easy to find people to take that step?

Pan: I personally am not going to.

Yang: I feel like that even though Taiwan is not a big country, people from different regions and areas operate on a slightly different vibe. You can’t just throw me into Kaohsiung and hope I can get on with everyone. I might be a real oddball in Kaohsiung! It comes back to the point that you have to find the right person that fits in with the region.

Pan: And also that candidate must truly understand the NPP and what we stand for.

TNLI: Recently, there seems to have been a lot of protests in Taipei. But I wonder whether the public and media might start to get some fatigue. NPP’s members are closely involved in a lot of these events. Can you talk about the strategy with street protests and whether you think they will continue to be effective?

Pan: NPP is involved because we support their cause. But I don’t think NPP has organized one. Taiwan’s civil society working on social issues in the past did not have much choice. The only way they could bring attention to certain issues was by protesting, holding demonstrations. That was because the previous government didn’t do much to solve problems. So, people were really angry towards the last two years of Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) term. During that time, basically every weekend I was on the street. I had to go on dates with my girlfriend, while we were on the street – seriously. Now it is not every weekend.

The new government has also done some things that have started to anger some civil society groups. So we are beginning to see some rallies. And I think it is going to continue.

TNLI: Notwithstanding the success the flight attendants union had with the China Airlines strike, will they continue to be successful?

Pan: No, China Airlines was a very, very rare example, super rare – I don’t know how to stress this enough. It will not be successful all the time, but it is one way to bring at least some media attention and some public awareness. But for example, there are [cases of] old factory workers where the company has just shut down and didn’t pay them. This sort of case will never attract attention, because it is not as glamorous, it is not immediately affecting travel plans.

TNLI: In terms of policy, will be your focus for the rest of the year?

Pan: Although the next six months in the Legislative Yuan is more focused on budgeting, the NPP is always going to focus on issues related to a more transparent Legislative Yuan, labor rights. And recently we’ve started working very closely with environmental groups – talking about air pollution, nuclear power plants, nuclear waste, that sort of thing. We do have 15 policy directions in our guidelines and we will continue to work on those policies.

TNLI: Finally, taking the nuclear issue, do you think the DPP can fulfill its promises to make Taiwan nuclear free by 2025?

Yang: We all hope the DPP will fulfill its promises. But we have seen a couple of examples that they didn’t follow through, didn’t do what they said they would do. It is a different attitude before and after the election. That is why the existence of the NPP in the Legislative Yuan is very important. Even though we only have five people, we raise people’s awareness of things that are not right. Huang Kuo-chang has always said in general we will support the DPP’s agenda. But if there is a specific issue we don’t agree on, we will speak out.


First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Olivia Yang


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