INTERVIEW: Taiwan New Power Party Leader Huang Kuo-chang

INTERVIEW: Taiwan New Power Party Leader Huang Kuo-chang
What you need to know

'Do not question our determination to eliminate the KMT. The goal is always there.'

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Taiwan’s New Power Party (NPP) was born in the wake of the mass student-led demonstrations in 2014 known as the Sunflower Movement. The party won five seats in Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, in the January 2016 general election. NPP leader Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), 43, a former activist and academic, talks to The News Lens International about the party’s impact on the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); the issues that could bring people back on the streets of Taipei; why Taiwan needs a new cross-Strait policy; and, the challenges for the NPP in expanding beyond its urban support base.

TNLI: One of the party’s key first aims was to make Taiwan’s parliament more transparent. Do you think you have achieved all there is to achieve in that respect?

Huang Kuo-chang: To a great extent I believe we have indeed accomplished that. As you can see right now, all the caucus negotiations can be seen on live broadcast through the internet. It is relatively easy for anyone who is interested in what is going on to watch online and get a sense of what has been discussed.

TNLI: What difference does that make? Now that people have the access, what changes do you see?

Huang: Society, our constituency, can get a sense of how different bills are negotiated and debated, and each political party’s position on a certain subject. In terms of transparency, it is not only caucus negotiations but also the committee debates and reviews of all sorts of bills. The people can evaluate the performance of their own legislators through a more direct way, not just through the news.

TNLI: Does it raise the standards among the legislators, now they are being recorded and watched?

Huang: Of course, you have to be very careful about your own performance in the Legislative Yuan. If you act irrationally, or ridiculously, people will know. Especially when you question the representative from the Executive Yuan [Taiwan’s executive branch of government], people will evaluate you through your questioning; it is not just the answers, it is also the questions proposed by the legislators, which will reflect his or her position, ideology and how well he or she prepared for that subject. If you don’t have sufficient preparation, any voter who pays attention to that subject will immediately notice that.

TNLI: Outside of the Legislative Yuan, whenever the NPP holds meetings it films everything and streams everything online. Though there are only a certain number of people who will actually watch the proceedings, with the greater transparency have you noticed any improvement in the mainstream media coverage?

Huang: It is tough for us. I don’t think the traditional media has changed a lot, due to the fact they still tend to report just a small portion of what has been said. Sometimes the whole picture will get twisted through the process. To be honest, we cannot control this.

TNLI: Looking at the key areas of major reform NPP called for before the election, including labor reform, do you think the party has achieved what it set out to?

Huang: When we started this political party and started our campaign, a feature that distinguished us from other political parties was that we don’t just have slogans. Each policy position comes with proposed legislation. After we entered the Legislative Yuan, we kept our promise and proposed the laws and bills we promised we would during the campaign.

The first reform we want to achieve was “new politics; people can make decisions on their own.” That involves the Referendum Act and the Election Act. We did propose our bills; the Election Act has been amended successfully and the Referendum Act has finished the committee review stage and we expect the amendments will become effective this coming session, maybe during April or May.

The second large reform we want to push is the “Legislative Yuan should become professional and transparent.” On that subject we have proposed several different bills – it involved different laws that need to be amended simultaneously – and we did accomplish that. Although, the extent of reform is not as great as we would like.

When you talk about labor rights, we were indeed a little bit dissatisfied with the law that passed. But we believe our position and our efforts did make a little difference to strengthen the protection of labor rights.

You have to understand that we have only five members; this is a very small political party in the Legislative Yuan. There is no way for us to control what laws will come [into parliament], we can only do our best on how the law will be amended. We succeed sometimes and we fail sometimes, but one thing I can say is that we did not forget what promises we have made during the campaign and we took our stand and tried our very best to influence different legislation to move toward the direction we would like.

TNLI: I appreciate you have five legislators and you are a minority party, but in some respect people would see the NPP as having a strong influence compared to other small parties in Taiwan. Do you think the DPP takes you seriously and think they need to work with you?

Huang: It really depends. As I said, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail. For example, last year when our President [Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文] nominated the president and vice president of the Judicial Yuan – it is kind of like the chief justice and vice chief justice – we were strongly dissatisfied with the nominees, because they were the secretary generals in the previous administration and they did not do a very good job in pushing judicial reform. We voiced our dissent. Of course, it was not just us, but also a lot of civic organizations and some scholars. Our president eventually replaced her nominees and nominated one scholar and one judge to the roles, and we believe the latter nominees are much more qualified, so we supported the new decision. We cannot take all the credit, many people voiced dissent, but we were the first organization in Taiwan to strongly suggest the new president should replace the nominees and in the end she did. I think we did show some influence.

Sometimes the ruling party will try to disregard what we propose, but we fight really hard at every opportunity we have. If you look closely you will find that on the surface the version of the ruling party got passed, but we think many of ideas and proposals have been accommodated in the final legislation. As a whole, that is good for our country.

We don’t really care that much if we really get the credit. What we care most about is if the final version of the legislation is moving towards the direction we would like for pushing reform.

TNLI: When there are civic issues, which the NPP is known for having strong views, I can understand the DPP would listen. But are there areas, say economic policy and budgets, where you think they actually don’t listen or you need to be stronger on?

Huang: Of course. In terms of economic policy, the reality is Legislative Yuan has a much weaker influence on the executive branch – that is a general point. So as a very small political party in the legislature, we have an even weaker influence on how the executive branch conducts its economic policy.

TNLI: The party has a really strong, vocal supportive base, especially in Taipei and other urban areas. But you have been opening offices in new areas and, as I understand it, scouting new people to represent these areas. Do you have a sense of whether these civic issues, which the party is most associated with, really resonate with people outside the areas you are already active?

Huang: Our strong support base is below the age of 40 and also people who have a college education. In this kind of groups, our approval rating is as high as the DPP, sometimes higher. Among people above 40 and below college-level education our support base is very weak, so these two areas are where we should put more effort to set out our messages. But it is very difficult for us to accomplish that because some of the mass media take the position of the KMT and some take the position of the DPP; so we are in a very disadvantaged position with the mass media. Those two groups of people are heavily influenced by the mass media.

The other way is to have local organizations to reach out to these groups. But [setting up] local organizations takes time and takes money and resources, so it is difficult to influence these groups in the short time. Our strategy is: when we set up a local organization, such as our branch in Yunlin County we try to reach out to different civic organizations there and share their concerns, like air pollution is the most important local issue in Yunlin. Our values and policy are consistent with those civic groups. So it is relatively easy for us to have a cooperative relationship with them. We also try to make them understand that the NPP views itself as a platform for anyone who agrees with our policy positions; the door is open, you can come to the platform and we can start to work together to promote the agenda, such as amending the Air Pollution Act, and we can take action in the Legislative Yuan. It is through that kind of cooperate relationship we will gradually expect our local influence.

TNLI: Do you think the level of passion and engagement in politics that was so high in the Sunflower Movement still exists? Or has it subsided now the DPP is in power and the KMT is struggling?

Huang: I’m not sure. I think the most important influence of the Sunflower Movement is to awaken many young people, to make them understand and realize it is very important for them to pay attention to what is going on in politics. As a result, more young people, they started to not only pay attention to public issues, but also to access information about things they care about, and they are not so influenced or have become biased from the mainstream media. The influence is still out there, but after a big movement or a big election, it is normal for any kind of passion to cool down. It is quite normal. I believe many people are willing to give the new government and the new administration more time to deliver on the promise of reform. So I would not interpret that as a loss of interest or a loss of patience.

TNLI: During the Sunflower Movement there were some clear targets; corruption, transparency, the KMT China’s influence. I wonder whether that makes your more job difficult, in building the New Power Party, because those targets are no longer there?

Huang: Yes, it makes our efforts to expand the party more difficult. Sometimes we have different views on policy issues with the DPP. Whenever we voice that opposition, people who want to crush the KMT first, will criticize us and say, ‘You should work with the DPP to eliminate the KMT first.”

Do not question our determination to eliminate the KMT, the goal is always there. But it does not mean we should give up the values we want to promote. For the DPP, they are the ruling party, it is natural for them to shift their positions, become more conservative. We just want to tell the DPP, ‘Don’t forget what you stood for in the past.’

It illustrates the value of our existence; if we agree with the DPP on every public issue, especially when the DPP becomes more conservative, then our existence is meaningless.

TNLI: This leads to the question of how far can you push the DPP? Without getting into the details of the policy, taking the same-sex marriage debate, the NPP and roughly half of the DPP have been really strong in support. But there is an argument that the split in the DPP is hurting the government, and after eight years under the KMT there is tension; that you don’t want to push the DPP too far. Taiwan independence would be another where you have a view, but probably don’t want to push this issue too far.

Huang: You have to understand that the agenda-setting power is within the DPP’s exclusive control. It is extremely difficult for the NPP to initiative a new political agenda. DPP controls what kind of bills will be discussed or reviewed in the Legislative Yuan; they control about 80 percent of the chairmanship. The KMT controls some but we have zero. We have to respond to whatever agenda they decide to put in the Legislative Yuan.

For example, same-sex marriage, that was not initiated by NPP but by DPP. It is just they had a change of mind or hesitated a little bit. For us, whether the bill will get passed and in what form, allow me to emphasize, is in the DPP’s exclusive control. They have the votes. When the party makes a decision they can move either way. We have only five seats, our five votes show our value and stance on that issue.

I think it is the same when applied to pursing independence for Taiwan. In terms of conducting a comprehensive constitutional reform, the NPP position is that we want de jure independence, not de facto independence. We believe it is imperative for us to have a comprehensive constitutional reform. But we can only push that direction. If the DPP does not agree with that, then there is no way for the Legislative Yuan to stop the process of amending the constitution.

TNLI: As I understand it, on some of these issues your own supporters will call out the NPP and say you are hurting the DPP.

Huang: It is not that we hurt the DPP. If you look closely and carefully you will see what we did was present our arguments and reasoning to spread our voice and what we stand for, what we fight for. That is it. We never try to occupy the meeting hall, or block the proceedings or even to have a physical conflict with the DPP lawmakers. We just make our arguments and can be judged by the general public.

The bizarre thing is; when the KMT fought for with DPP – physical conflict – after the conflict, the DPP did not criticize the KMT, but they criticized us. I couldn’t understand. We are not the ‘naughty boy.’ We just do what we are supposed to do in the Legislative Yuan. I don’t understand why people will view our action as trying to hurt the DPP; we just try to remind the DPP of what it stood for and the promises it made, and say, “You have to explain to the public why you changed your position.” During the process, in presenting our arguments, we try our very best to act very rationally.

TNLI: Hypothetically, what issues do you think could bring large numbers of Taiwanese out onto the street again, or push a big number of people away from supporting the DPP?

Huang: It is not policy. It is what kind of values the DPP wants to stand for. For example, if the DPP announced – this is a very big if, I’m not saying they will do this – they supported a trade and services pact with China, that would have a huge impact because it would be contrary to how people view the DPP and what they stood for. I have to emphasize, that is purely hypothetical.

TNLI: What if wages don’t rise? If the economy doesn’t grow? If the Southbound Policy – shifting the Taiwan economy away from China and towards Southeast Asia – fails? I know these are long-term issues, but if, say, by the 2018 local elections, the economy and young people are feeling dissatisfied?

Huang: I think it would be unfair to blame the DPP. People will think DPP should be responsible to a certain degree. But I don’t think it is fair to ask the DPP to shoulder all the responsibility because the problems existed for so many years. You cannot expect a new administration can change our economic structure within a short period of time.

TNLI: Even if it is not fair, is it the kind of issue that could make people protest?

Huang: I don’t think so. Many people will take the position I just mentioned.

TNLI: Looking at the current state cross-Strait relations and perhaps a situation under new U.S. President Donald Trump where the U.S. may be a bit more vocal in its support of Taiwan, maybe. Do you think there is mainstream support in Taiwan for Tsai and the DPP to take a more proactive stance on advocating for Taiwan independence?

Huang: That question has a generation gap. Below the age of 40, the vast majority will support that. But above the age of 40, most people will prefer to maintain the so-called status quo.

TNLI: Do you think that people under 40 now will continue to hold this view as they get older? On some issues people can start off on the left and then become more conservative over time as they start to think about the world in different terms.

Huang: Even when they get older most of them will same the ideas [on the independence issue]. I believe the majority of the people will maintain their position. When you look at the generation difference in Taiwan, you have to understand our democracy has progressed gradually and so has the level of education. People below the age of 40 [supporting independence], it is not simply because they are young. It is because they grew up in the democratic society and most of them are more educated than their elders. So even when they get old, they still have more ability to understand what is really going on. Some may change their position due to the influence of economic reality, but I don’t think most of them will change their mind.

TNLI: What is your view on how far Tsai and the DPP should push this issue – for instance, Taiwan’s participation in international forums like the WHO, Interpol, the Olympics and the United Nations – keeping in mind the risks for Taiwan?

Huang: Actually, Tsai gave China significant goodwill when she announced she would maintain the status quo. Many so-called ‘green camp’ supporters are not satisfied with the position of maintaining the status quo. That shows Tsai has indeed given China sufficient goodwill by taking that stance and making her supporters unhappy. But look at what happened. China’s oppression did not stop; it became more aggressive.

We have to think, “What is the point for us to hold back? What do we really gain from saying we will maintain the status quo?” The Tsai administration may need to come up with a new strategy. Not simply trying not to offend China, but strengthening Taiwan’s diplomatic relations with other countries, militarily, economically, politically or culturally.

TNLI: I appreciate this may be a misconception, but there is an idea that if Taiwan “goes too far” China can start to hurt Taiwan. You have just said the majority of people under 40 support Taiwan independence. But do you think within that group people want Taiwan to push further, even it means some economic response from China?

Huang: I cannot answer for all the people. But many people believe we should move several steps forward, gradually, not remain still, but do something gradually. For example, to finish the amendment of our Referendum Act to allow the people of Taiwan to vote on the amendment to our constitution through a referendum; I think most people in Taiwan support that. And to use 'Taiwan' as the name at the Tokyo Olympics, I think most Taiwanese support that.

TNLI: Take the Tokyo Olympics, is that an issue people care enough about to come out on the streets in protest?

Huang: It really depends. If China continues to push us too hard, there is a chance people will come out on the streets. Taiwanese people do not like to be [straightened], especially from China.

TNLI: Finally, we recently had Hong Kong political activists and legislators Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) and Nathan Law (羅冠聰) in Taipei, and there were protests from the pro-China group at the airport here and in Hong Kong – Law was assaulted on his return. How much a problem is the existence of these people in Taiwan, the pro-China hardliners who really oppose what you do?

Huang: It is just a small fraction of people, and they are 'special' organizations. Most people understand who is behind these organizations and that they coordinate with similar groups in Hong Kong. They have very little impact in Hong Kong.

TNLI: But they do attract headlines, and people write about them.

Huang: They just make more people dislike them. I don’t think their actions are going to win much support. Actually that kind of coverage; the Hong Kong media, especially the pro-China media in Hong Kong, will report, “Many Taiwanese people did not welcome them [Wong and Law].” That was simply not true but it still was front page news in Hong Kong. But in Taiwan, if you read the mainstream media, the media criticized the police, how could we allow this violent irrational media, people think the police should do something. You would not see the media in Taiwan saying we don’t welcome these people from Hong Kong.

The real purpose of their protest is just to make some noise, and allow the media in Hong Kong and China to use the incident.

TNLI: But you think it just alienates Taiwanese further from China?

Huang: Yes, that is right.

Editor: Olivia Yang