Switch or Shift? Facts and Notes from the Field about a “Language Turn” while Campaigning


Every direct observer of the vibrant campaigning Taiwan who does not just rely on TV News reports and texts in English or Chinese is struck by the noice, soundtracks, polyphony and multilinguism of the campaign. Indeed, beyond the historical political liberalization process, the Taiwanese electoral culture is also the product of the different linguistic fields for which different forms of linguistic capital and language proficiencies are expressly required for candidacies to ROC top positions.

Social representations of language use in the Taiwan society, and basic sociolinguistic-like analysis might stress the sole official language – Mandarin Chinese referenced as “National Language” –  and a classical diglossia between this “higher” language versus “lower” ones including other mutually unintelligible Sinitic languages or “dialects” and marginally Aborigine Autronesian languages. Ethnic and political boundaries would complete this demolinguistic panorama with Taiwanese and Hakka languages for DPP Southern middle class versus KMT urban Northern high-educated upper-class in Mandarin.

The legitimate agents of such statements are the reporters and academic observers who are themselves conditioned by linguistic habitus, did not study this topic or rely on very smooth corpora. However, an ethnographic approach of language strategies of electoral candidates might fine-tune this description by pointing the struggle between two social fields with different linguistic economies resulting of the social integration process of the ROC to the Taiwan society at the turn of 21st century.

The fact is that grassroots elections preceded the arrival of the ROC in Taiwan, and local elections were held as soon as ROC institutions settled in the island. By proscribing the Japanese colonial language, Taiwanese languages became languages for campaigning. The other fact is that the Media were strongly held by the State and the Party with an exclusive promotion of Mandarin while the top positions were reserved to Nationalist Party leaders.

From the late 80s, these two fields went in contact with memorable clashes such as CHU Kao-cheng using Taiwanese for the first time at a national institution. With the direct election process for top positions of the ROC, KMT Mainlander political staff who was not proficient in Taiwanese languages had to start to learn them as soon as the early 90s with James SOONG and the younger generation whose the best representative is MA Ying-jeou.

Notes from the 2012 field:

This on-going process may seem to come to a critical point for this 2012 presidential bid. Indeed, since 1996, at least one candidate was able to make the show in Taiwanese languages – i. e. LEE Teng-hui, CHEN Shui-bian or Frank HSIEH – but among the candidates of the on-going race, none of them is at ease with the linguistic habitus of electoral meetings. Ethnicity is not relevant as an explanation because if SOONG and MA might be categorized as Mainlanders, the loudly advertised Hakka identity of TSAI Ying-wen does not induce automatic Hakka performance in front of an assembly of Hakka supporters.

The point is not the strategy which does not look like to have changed, but the problem of proficiency of the candidates in Taiwanese languages. All the candidates are multilingual but as learners of “foreign” languages for legitimate languages such as English at school and then Taiwanese languages with special coaches for special purpose : electoral campaigning. As learners of any foreign languages, they need to practice or might regress : preliminary observations point that SOONG, MA and even TSAI are not proficient as they were able to be ten years, four years ago or even just last year!

Finally, multilinguism remains beyond the symbolic initial speech for TV debates during which every candidate greet the audience in three or four different Sinitic languages;  or the candidates for vice-presidency who are outstanding performers in Taiwanese such as WU Dun-yi and SU Chia-chuan. Plurilinguism is also changing from Taiwanese languages to English in which both heavy weights candidates feel more comfortable to speak, and these striking speeches performed in English at the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei last November 22th by TSAI and MA.

The final rush will show if it is a temporary switch to be forgotten during the three ultimate weeks whether it is the beginning of the irrevocable shift of the linguistic practices in public life in Taiwan.

Yoann GOUDIN is a Ph. D Candidate in Didactics at INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales) in Paris. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute of Linguistics at Academia Sinica, and recipient of the TFP (Taiwan Fellowship Program) awarded by the Center for Chinese Studies, ROC.

Women: resistance starts here

The year is about to turn and with it the tide is also turning. Mothers, often the poorest of the poor, are no longer merely victims of the logic of market competition, division and austerity: they are fighting back. As I argue, with my co-editors in the editorial of the most recent edition of Interface, Feminism, Women’s Movements and Women in Movement, the long-established feminisation of poverty is becoming a feminisation of resistance, particularly in the Global South.

What lessons can those in the UK learn from these struggles?

Mothers who are heads of households are one of the groups (including young people) that are the hardest hit by the Coalition government’s austerity measures and the economic downturn. Cut backs to benefits, tax credits and other subsidies effect women most severely, particularly working mothers. As Emilia Hill recently argued, hard won victories for women’s equality are being eroded. Yet these women still have to ensure that their children eat, have a roof over their heads, proper clothes, schooling, health, love and nurture.

Decades before the UK banking crisis and its consequences, women in the Global South have experienced the dislocations, violences and exclusions of market logics.  They know that the removal of public provision of health, education and housing reinforces the care responsibilities of women and that economic crisis and cut backs increase unemployment, undercutting the survival mechanisms of poor families. Many are all too aware that the cumulative effect of these processes is the breakdown of community solidarities, social bonds and collectivity.

Yet, women of the Global South are not only victims, as women never are. My research demonstrates that as women are at the heart of the community and the family they have also been at the heart of resisting these processes by organising the collective provision of housing, education, health and childcare.

In the process, the meaning and practice of motherhood and womenhood become a place of political struggle.

No longer is motherhood confined to the individual care of partner and children. Instead motherhood becomes a symbol of collective community caring and nurturing. Women’s knowledges are combined and developed as the basis of creating sustainable systems of food production, health care, community education and housing.

No longer is womenhood confined to a role in the private sphere as mother, daughter or wife or to an unregulated market sphere of super-exploitation. Rather women take centre stage in the struggles for recognition of their community and family’s right to a dignified life determined on their own terms. Women become the thinkers, facilitators and organisers in their communities.

Such politics impacts upon how women’s bodies are experienced and lived. The body is not merely a site of pain, pleasure for others and exhaustion but also becomes an embodiment of the ability to create and defend life. Women who stand against the violence of the state in protest, women who sing and use their voices to bear witness to the violences of marketisation turn their bodies into sites of resistance and pride.

These practices re-make and re-invent broken solidarities, social bonds and collectivity. In the logic of their resistances is a reimagining of the political; away from the dominant script of power politics around great leaders, parties, the winning of elections and the occupying of the state towards a politics of everyday life, social relationships and self.

Such resistances compel us to stretch our understanding of what politics is, where it occurs, and what it stands for. It suggests that a reimagining of a liberatory politics and theory for our times must take women’s resistances seriously. Dialogue and solidarity between women in the Global South and Global North is an essential part of this process.

For those interested in developing this dialogue and solidarity, Interface, I hope, will give much food for thought.

Sara Motta

Does the US have a preference in Taiwan’s elections?

In a recent post on this blog, Bonnie Glaser of CSIS asserted that the US announcement of Taiwan’s candidacy for the Visa Waiver Program and the recent spate of high-level US visits to the island were signs of a “clear preference” of the Obama administration for President Ma Ying-jeou over his challenger, Dr. Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP.

I cannot agree.  US officials have clearly stated that the VWP announcement had its own timeline, and was simply the result of Taiwan fulfilling a set of criteria set by the United States.  Indeed the negotiations on Taiwan’s participation in the Visa Waiver Program were initiated by the Chen Shui-bian administration and took several years in coming. Of course it is likely that the Ma administration has worked harder to fulfill those criteria with the upcoming elections in mind, but that is another story.

On the high-level visits: another reason for the recent spate might be that the Obama administration is listening more closely to Congress, which has been increasingly vocal in arguing for more high-level visits to the democratic island. If the US government would let the Taiwan elections play a role in decisions to send high level visitors to the island, it would actually be in clear contravention of its own stated policy of strict neutrality in the Taiwan elections. We can trust the US to stick to its words, can’t we?

But Glaser’s article is also problematic for other reasons. It portrays the US as having “lingering worries” and being concerned about “Tsai’s unwillingness to be forthcoming about concrete policies towards the Mainland that she would pursue if elected.”

There may be some officials in some corners of the US government who still cling to such a position, but there many others in the Obama administration and in Congress who are more concerned about President Ma drawing too closely towards China at the expense of relations with the United States.  They are pleased with Tsai’s vision of rebalancing Taiwan’s relations and moving it closer to the US and its allies in the region.

Dr. Tsai has shown herself to be a creative and pragmatic thinker, but the response — from Ma and from Beijing – has been to revert to old and empty “One China” mantras.

The “lingering worries” officials are also barking up the wrong tree: if they really want stability in cross-Strait relations they need to lean much more heavily on Beijing. The root cause of the instability is that China does not wish to have a democracy on its doorstep, and that it sees Taiwan as a springboard for its power expansion into the Pacific. Taiwan is not threatening China in any way, except by being a vibrant democracy.

Perhaps these US officials should wonder aloud whether the Chinese leaders are both willing and able to continue the stability in cross-Strait relations the region has enjoyed in recent years. They might add that it is far from clear that the leaders in Beijing and their advisers fully appreciate the depth of the mistrust of their motives and PRC aspiration in countries surrounding China, and particularly in Taiwan.

The other problematic aspect in Glaser’s analysis is that she portrays a win by Tsai Ing-wen as adding a problematic issue to a long list of contentious issues, ranging from North Korea to the South China Sea.  It is a fiction to believe that by accommodating China on the Taiwan issue, one could get it to be more cooperative on other issues. China will play hardball on those other issues no matter what happens in Taiwan. The only way to get it to play by international rules is for the US to play hardball in return.

Winston Churchill once remarked that “One can always rely on the Americans to do the right thing …. after they have exhausted all other options.”   One would hope that the United States has learned its lessons from its earlier mistakes and that it will now be fully supportive of Taiwan and its democracy. The United States needs to show it wants to be on the right side of history.

Gerrit van der Wees is Senior Policy Advisor to the Formosan Association for Public Affairs and editor of Taiwan Communique, both based in Washington DC.

Daily shorts Dec 28

Ma’s history of underachieving is good reason for him not to be re-elected for another four years, so says Jerome F Keating. He also discusses how leaks from the US and its recent emphasis on the visa waiver programme demonstrate it is meddling in the election. Michael Turton weighs in on the US interfering in the election. Taipei Times editorial discusses how the timing of the US visa waiver announcement is very bad, as is the timing of unprecedented visits from US officials. In similar non-interference vein, a Chinese official urged the port city of Xiamen to make more effort to strengthen ties with Taiwan ahead of the election.

Having made their plays for independent voters, the candidates now turn their attentions to the base (although if you need to shore up the base at this stage, its probably a bad sign). According to Michael Turton’s discussion of the discrepancies in the latest polls, targeting the base might be a really good or a really bad idea, but frankly, no one knows. For the record though, the latest China Times poll puts less than 5% between Ma and Tsai, while the TVBS poll has 6% between them. Apple daily puts 8% between them. In each case, Ma has a handy lead. The DPP plays down the latest Apple Daily poll.

This Taiwan Thinktank poll has Tsai trailing by 0.4 percentage points, with James Soong being the deciding factor in the overall outcome – “I believe that if we voted with the current figures, Tsai would win but not by a large margin. The first factor is the shift in James Soong’s votes. The other factor is votes from those who live overseas. But the bigger factor is still Soong.” Soong is down with that, averring that if he wins 5% of the vote then the KMT will lose. A more believable poll shows that young people are worried about their futures, particularly in regard to future job opportunities. Having courted them by dressing up their platforms up with social media flim-flam, will the parties actually come through for this cohort?

United Daily News scrutinizes the four qualities that Tsai has emphasised about herself: “ability to maintain a manner neither self-effacing nor overbearing in facing China; ability to engage in humble soul-searching in facing the people; ability to grasp the international situation facing the world; and ability to keep up with the times. The bit-chomping author blows up each claim as soon as he (I bet it’s a man) has listed them.

Ma cites how improved relations with China has provided Taiwan with a new line of defence.  Ma also responds to Tsai’s allegations that he has sacrificed Taiwans’ sovereignty. From the same piece, Ma harrumphs, “Maybe the milk fish farmers in Tainan, southern Taiwan, will still vote for the DPP as they usually do, but they have acknowledged that being able to sell fish to China is a good thing.”

All three candidates are campaigning hard in their latest stops on the trail (Tsai to deliver an important cross-Strait relations talk in Kinmen). Tsai and Ma continue to exchange words following their presentations last Friday over the issues of national identity and democracy.

Peng Ming-min has a long interview piece in the Taipei Times relating to his role as Chairman of the International Committee for Fair Elections. Peng is a smart guy with pro-democracy bona fides, but he’s also one of the fathers of the Taiwan independence movement. Saying that ‘the committee is neutral and non-partisan’ doesn’t change the fact that their judgements will instantly be written off as partisan prejudice.

Tsai discusses how democracy has become more constrained under the Ma administration. I just finished reading this article that says the same thing about Chen’s administration. So do we now consider LTH as the paragon of democratic values?

President Ma had a simply wonderful Christmastime, visiting several locations on Christmas eve. Dressed for the occasion in a spiffy white jumper and down-to-earth-just-like-you-and-me blue jeans, Ma did carol singing, gift giving, board playing and attended Midnight Mass.

Finally, the Taipei Times has an article based on the post that Bonnie Glaser made here just before Christmas. Alas, your favourite Taiwan 2012 election blog did not merit a mention, forever doomed to anonymity by the callous indifference of the descriptor “an online article”.

Mail me at jonathan.sullivan@nottingham.ac.uk, follow me on Twitter @jonlsullivan, or access my papers at http://jonlsullivan.com

Observations from a Taiwanese politics correspondent

With three weeks left before the election day on January 14, here are my observations of the tightly-contested elections:

US messages

The American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) announced on Dec. 22 that Taiwan was nominated for inclusion in the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), saying that it was “the culmination of hard work and cooperation between the authorities in Taiwan and the United States.”

Despite the AIT stressing that the announcement was unrelated to the presidential election, the fact that the announcement came three weeks before election day still had the political implication of a US preference in the election – at least for Taiwanese politicians.

In the first of three televised platform presentations on Dec. 23, President Ma Ying-jeou wasted no time in highlighting that the US decision was a reflection of warmer bilateral relations during his term and it was part of his successful diplomacy while the Democratic Progressive party (DPP) said the candidacy has been a collective effort of the government and the Taiwanese people.

This is not the first time the US was said to be sending messages with political implications at the wrong time.

In September, London-based Financial Times quoted an unnamed US official as saying that the US was concerned about stability across the Taiwan Strait if DPP Chairperson Tsai Ing-wen was elected.

The US also sent deputy secretary of energy Daniel Poneman, the highest-ranking US official to visit Taiwan in over a decade, to Taipei last week.

The US should do what it preaches – maintain neutrality in Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election.

Do you believe in polls?

Public opinion polls on the presidential election conducted by various news agencies, thinktanks and institutions have been published almost on a daily basis. Anyone who follows them regularly would find the results very confusing.

While several recent polls showed that Tsai’s support rate had caught up with – even surpassed – Ma’s, most polls still say Ma is ahead.

Sources have said the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) internal poll showed Ma is leading by 7-8 percent, which represents over one million votes while the campaign of People First Party (PFP) chairman James Soong and the national security authority, which conducted its own poll privately, both believed Tsai is going to win by a margin of 2-4 percent, which translates into 260,000 to 520,000 votes.

When Tsai was asked about her opinion toward public opinion polls, she has always said that her campaign will take them “as references.” So you get the idea.

The DPP’s support rate in presidential elections in the past were often underestimated by 10-15 percentage points. It appeared that this year is not the case because more pan-green supporters were willing to express their preferences.

Impact of negative campaigning

The KMT and the DPP have engaged in a war of negative campaigning as the KMT has brought up the case about Yu Chang Biologics Co. and questioned Tsai’s role and alleged improper profiteering before, during and after the formation of the biotech company.

The DPP has answered with a controversial case of the merger of two banks in 2002 when Ma served as Taipei City mayor.

Both parties have accused the other side of “character assassination.”

It seems to me that the negative campaigning from both sides did not benefit their campaigns, as many people expressed their displeasure of the smear war in the newspapers, blogs and social media websites.

As the one which first launched the attack, the KMT’s motive was intriguing. If it is leading by 7-8 percent in support rate as it claims, launching such attack one month before the election day would be unnecessary.

Some analysts observed that, because the election has been so tightly-contested, the KMT was hoping to vie for the support of swing voters by doing this – even if it ended up influencing only one per cent of the electorate.

Legislative Yuan elections

The KMT is trying to secure 60 of 113 legislative seats in the legislative elections while the DPP is eyeing 50. These goals tell different stories.

The KMT’s goal of 60 shows how bad the party has done since 2008, when it won 81 of 113 seats. However, if it is able to win 60, the KMT will still control the legislature.

The interesting thing is, while the DPP’s slogan for the LY elections appeal for support to gain more than half of the 113 legislative seats, the party already knew it would not accomplish the feat, which was why it has a goal of 50.

A phenomenon worth noticing is the so-called “split voting,” which means a voter votes for party A in the legislative elections and party B in the presidential election.

There have been reports in southern Taiwan that KMT legislative candidates asked voters to support them and said it’s fine to vote for Tsai in the presidential election. The main reason is the KMT, Ma in particular, has been unpopular in the south.

Chris Wang is a politics reporter and analyst for the Taipei Times