INTERVIEW: Pension Protest Leader Wu Sz-huai of the 800 Warriors

INTERVIEW: Pension Protest Leader Wu Sz-huai of the 800 Warriors
Photo Credit: Zeke Li
Why you need to know

Wu Sz-huai of the 800 Warriors insists he is no 'fat cat.' Instead, he says, his group is fighting to defend the dignity of Taiwan's military.

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For over 500 days, protesters from the veterans group 800 Warriors (八百壯士) have been entrenched outside of Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, ‘fighting the long war’ in opposition of military pension reform. During the exhausting struggle, the 800 Warriors have even lost one of their brothers in arms, Qi Desheng (繆德生). Following wave after wave of passionate protests, they have decided to shift their approach while continuing to fight for their constitutional rights.

Ever since their establishment, the 800 Warriors have been a frequent target of criticism. At protests, they sing military songs, wave the flag of Taiwan, and chant the words “Defend the Motherland, Reunification with China.” Their actions position them a world apart from the identity and culture of the younger generation and make them seem out of touch with Taiwan’s current reality. On several occasions, large swarms of protesters have clashed violently with the media and the police, leading to them being branded as an angry mob.

In an exclusive interview with The News Lens, Wu Sz-huai (吳斯懷), the deputy commander of the 800 Warriors, spoke about the struggles of their long legal battle, from the Legislative Yuan to the streets.

Are the 800 Warriors fighting for money or dignity?

Wu Sz-huai has been an active political participant since long before the pension reforms were announced. On his Facebook, he can be seen protesting against contaminated food imports from Japan, celebrating at the “I Love Taiwan” carnival, and showing support for the anti-Kuomintang (KMT) assets society. He was a supporter of KMT politician Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱) and he opposes Taiwan’s independence. Wu clearly has his fingers in many pies.

He was recently exposed by netizens when he secretly took 30 retired military officers to China to participate in the controversial celebrations for Sun Yat-sen’s 152nd birthday, where he listened to Xi Jinping's speech. Despite numerous public squabbles, Wu still actively leads the 800 Warriors in their crusade against military pension reforms.

Wu mobilizes the 800 Warriors by day and writes letters of complaint to the media by night. But at almost 70 years old, the long struggle almost proved too much for him, as the intense protests led to him suffering a heart attack and being hospitalized in February.

Wu says that his role in the protests has never been about how much his personal pension would be reduced by. Instead, his actions are driven by the fact that he cannot ignore the hatred the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government has shown to military personnel throughout the process of reforms. He feels that legislators, celebrities, the media, and the internet have unfairly made the 800 Warriors a target for constant insult and humiliation.

“Serving as a soldier for 44 years, as an officer it is stipulated that one must stay at their post even during the holidays. I returned home for Chinese New Year less than 10 times. I wasn’t able to care for my parents. I wasn’t able to watch my children grow up. And yet even though I sacrificed so much, every day I’m labelled a leech, a fat cat. How is that fair?”

He has recently received criticism for "dragging the whole world on to the streets, all for the measly sum of NT$10,000." But Wu Sz-huai says that even if his pension was reduced by NT$35,000, the impact on his way of life would be minimal, as both of his daughters are grown-up and already have jobs. His daughters once said to him, "Daddy, even if you don’t get a pension, it doesn't matter. We'll take care of you." Wu says he was calmed by their words. He felt as if his whole life was worthwhile, because he managed to raise his two daughters well.

On top of his daily duties with the 800 Warriors, Wu has had several large-scale parades to mobilize; some events have attracted over 100,000 participants. Among those who participated, Wu said that one-third of the military personnel didn’t even have a pension, and that the pension reforms would not affect them at all. Wu believes the fight has a larger purpose: the preservation of the honor and dignity of the entire military.

In addition to not being able to ignore what he sees as the indictment of all servicemen, Wu Sz-huai also mentions that many retired veterans cannot join the picket line as they are already 80 or 90 years old and probably don’t have too many years left. Therefore, he says this war on the pension reforms is based on morality and justice, as he would never abandon his fellow officers on the battlefield. Even if there are more twists and turns in the conflict, Wu says he will persevere until the very end. “There are several thousand retired veterans,” he said. “If I don’t stand up for them, then who will?”

Why did the 800 Warriors mobilize?

Looking back, Wu says that even from the beginning, the way the DPP introduced the pension reforms was entirely unconstitutional. He says that when President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) took office in 2016, the pension reforms committee that emerged was an unconstitutional and iniquitous taskforce. Any pension reforms should have been conducted by the Examination Yuan’s Ministry of Civil Service, he says, but the President’s office instead independently established the pension reforms committee outside of Taiwan’s five governmental branches. After several dozen meetings, forums, district consultations and public hearings held by the committee, Wu and the 800 Warriors felt that the reforms remained "half-baked."

Wu and several other core members of the 800 Warriors represented military personnel at district forums and participated in the pension reform committee meetings. At one meeting, he presented his case with theatric indignation, slamming his hand on the table in objection as he spoke. However, after more than 20 meetings, he could not help but feel that the committee insisted on isolating pension reforms.

Wu believes that nothing the 800 Warriors proposed was ever seriously considered and felt that DPP legislators and the media were continuing to defame and dishonor the military. As a result, the intensity of the meetings continued to increase, and the space for dialogue became far too narrow.

The Veterans Affairs Council (VAC), however, believes communication has been healthy and robust. It issued a statement clarifying that it conducted more than 600 conferences from June 2016 to March 2018 and paid visits to 50 national veteran communities. More than 24,000 participants were involved throughout the process. Last year (2017), after the main policies of the Veterans Care Act (still in draft) was announced, the VAC also set up a “Veterans Care Institution” to answer any questions retired veterans may have had. The service was available every day for one month, during which it received 134,634 calls. The VAC believes that the final draft of the reforms was based on the opinions and responses gained through continuous communication with the veteran community.

Moreover, an unnamed section chief from the VAC revealed that many veterans called to personally ask about their own pensions, including several core members of the 800 Warriors. The Veterans Affairs Council first helped to calculate the pensions and then assisted the recipients.

The reality is that, deep down, everyone knows that the effect of the reforms will not be as great as it has been made out to be by the media. Regardless, the conflicts continue, and their casting as a battle – rather than a conversation – give the situation an air of hopelessness.

Wu emphasized that when the pension reform policies for civil servants and public teachers were first introduced, Tsai Ing-wen publicly called on legislators not to deviate too much from the version that was passed by the pension reforms committee. In reality, when the bill was passed on to the Legislative Yuan under the instructions of Duan Yikang (段宜康) and the DPP’s other legislators, the final version of the reforms was “stringently cut down to size.” The 800 Warriors were formed to protest and fight for the rights and interests of retired veterans, which was in part influenced by the fact that they did not trust Tsai and her administration.

Have the 800 Warriors gone astray?

On Feb. 21, 2017, the 800 Warriors set up tents outside the Legislative Yuan, threatening to surround the premises all day, every day, and from that day on, the Legislative Yuan was beleaguered with a long chain of chevaux de frise. On most days, there were only several officers on duty manning the tents for the 800 Warriors, and most of the retired veterans peacefully huddled together and reminisced. However, the police remained on constant alert. On the Legislative Yuan grounds, the 800 Warriors not only caused havoc in the encampments of fellow protesters like the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan (ART); they also mobbed bystanders and police officers. These violent outbreaks led to their protests losing focus.

Wu laments that such serious confrontations only came about because the national policies were disrespectful towards military personnel. Since the implementation of the pension reforms, the public image of military personnel worsened. He says they have been labelled as good-for-nothing leeches ravaging the nations finances, who benefited from when the nation was booming but are now greedily depriving future generations of hope. Wu adds that in the United States, retired veterans are highly respected, and their pensions are three times the average found in Taiwan. In Taiwan, everyone believes that there will never be an outbreak of war and that the military is only useful when offering relief during disasters. “This is a problem caused by Taiwan’s culture as a whole,” he says.

“On April 30, when the Veterans Affairs Council reported to the Legislative Yuan, they were also very candid about the street protests. They said that the “fight for dignity and protection of rights and interests” was not entirely motivated by the pension reforms, and that they were actually the result of the accumulation of various factors over the years, such as personal responses to military disciplinary actions and military mismanagement in the past, as well as to the public prejudice of doubt and condemnation towards the whole military, which has damaged their image and undermined the military’s dignity and honor.”

Wu at least acknowledges that the bankruptcy of the military’s public service pension fund is a reality. In 1996, national policies were introduced to prune the military’s power. Many officers were forced to retire, so the number of active servicemen was reduced while the number receiving pensions increased. This led to an active imbalance within the public service pension fund. But Wu is unmoved. “Should retired veterans,” he asks, “really be the ones bearing the brunt of the problems caused by the change in the national policy and the bankruptcy of the public service pension fund?”

Choosing a career in the military is like signing a “lifetime contract” with the country, he says. However, the introduction of the pension reforms breaks the original promise servicemen were given, and now they are being forced to change their lives and financial plans. The line in the pension reforms that calls for review on a ‘rolling basis’ makes everyone nervous. Even after this reform is implemented, they fear many more cuts to come. Wu says this is part of the reason the 800 Warriors have constantly opposed retrospective changes and have lobbied for the "trust and protection of initial policies."

What is the next step for the 800 Warriors?

Wu says that, because most of the DPP members in the Legislative Yuan will not listen to him anymore, they have decided to shift the battlefield to the Judicial Yuan and make litigation and constitutional interpretation into their long-term strategy.

According to Taiwanese constitutional procedures, a constitutional interpretation may be requested only after a bill has passed. The 800 Warriors have already requested a constitutional interpretation of the public service pension reforms (including the police and fire departments), which was sent to the Department of Clerks for the Justices of the Constitutional Court on June 13, where the petition will be handed to the Secretary General.

Wu explains that after the civil servant and public-school teacher pension reforms bill was passed last year, their request for constitutional interpretation was rejected. As a result, the 800 Warriors have relentlessly lobbied and communicated with legislators of opposition parties, eventually rallying 38 legislators from the KMT and the People First Party (PFP) as well as the independent legislator Kao Chin Su-mei (高金素梅), meaning they achieved the threshold for their petition. Besides helping the civil servants and public-school teachers with their petition, they also promised to help petition for constitutional interpretation after the passage of the third reading of the military pension reforms.

The 800 Warriors also set up a juridical association at the end of last year, which was approved the Ministry of the Interior. Called the “800 Warriors R.O.C Safeguarding Association,” their purpose is “safeguarding the Republic of China, following the constitution, preserving the country’s legacy, and maintaining the dignity of the military.”

Wu says that the mission of the association is not limited to military pension reforms. They will also continue to look out for the rights and interests of all retired veterans, he says. They held their inaugural general meeting on June 30 and are encouraging more retired veterans to join as they continue to support the subsequent constitutional appeal and litigation. They have also assembled an army of volunteers to assist any retired veterans with their needs.

Wu insists that at this stage, the association will put all its energy into constitutional interpretation. He is not willing to casually talk about what other future battles the 800 Warriors have planned, although some media outlets have alluded to them taking up an aggressive stance during the year-end local elections.

The 800 Warriors have encountered many setbacks over the course of their fight against pension reforms. However, Wu believes that if the government continues to “look down on the military,” it will not only affect the pensions of retired veterans; it will cause “national security issues” by bringing down the overall morale in Taiwan’s military as well.

This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

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Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall

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