Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Is Academic Freedom Under Assault?

My article published by the Thinking Taiwan English Platform.

Students and academics should be encouraged to care for and to participate in social issues and politics, whether they support government policies or not.
It’s been a tough week for social scientists in Taiwan. It began with Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Su Ching-chuang’s (蘇清泉) grilling of Environmental Protection Administration Minister Wei Kuo-yen (魏國彥), who was scheduled to answer questions on nuclear waste disposal, about what social scientists and the departments of sociology at universities do exactly. This was followed by Su’s tirade accusing faculty and students at public universities of “causing chaos on the streets” and his call for “education budget redistribution.” Then KMT Legislator Lu Hsueh-chang (呂學樟) stepped in and led an investigation team, organized by the Legislative Yuan’s Judiciary and Organic Laws and Statutes Committee (司法及法制委員會), into Academia Sinica, the nation’s top research institution.

The purpose of Lu’s visit was ostensibly to inspect the conditions of Academia Sinica’s staffing and performance enhancement after the institution’s restructuring (組織改造後員額編制及業務績效提升情形). According to Lu, Academia Sinica had a budget of more than NT$5 billion (US$165.8 million) for the past five years and experienced a 2% staffing increase during the same period. Given this, he said, the public has the right to examine the institution’s progress and quality of its research.
Lu’s visit to Academia Sinica would not have sparked such outrage among academics had it not happened at such sensitive time, or if he had not made such a splash of his views on certain academics and what research institutions ought to be doing.
Questioned by the press, Lu said that members of Academia Sinica had behaved in an irrational and impolite manner when they greeted President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) last month with Sunflowers, banners, and slogans as ma arrived at the institution to deliver a keynote speech at a conference on the sovereignty disputes over the Diaoyutai Islands. Ma’s visit came a week after the end of the Sunflower Movement’s three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan in protest against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China, and less than less than a month after an estimated half-a-million people took to the streets to express their support for the Sunflowers.
Professor Chen Yi-shen. Photo credit: Paul Jobin 
Several hundred researchers, staff, and students from Academia Sinica, including Institute of Sociology research fellow Chiu Hei-yuan (瞿海源) and associate research fellow Wu Rwei-ren (吳叡人) of the Institute of Taiwan History, greeted President Ma outside the venue where he was to deliver his speech with banners that said, “Taiwan’s future is for the people to decide (台灣未來,人民做主),” or “Legislative Oversight on Cross-Strait agreements! (兩岸協議,立法監督).” Some protesters also held sunflowers while they chanted “Restore Constitutionalism, Defend Democracy (重建憲政,捍衛民主)” at the president. Later on, associate research fellows Chen Yi-shen (陳儀深) and Shiu Wen-tang (許文堂) of the Institute of Modern History, along with Paul Jobin, an associate professor at the University of Paris Diderot, held protest posters in silence inside the conference room as President Ma addressed his audience.
Such behavior from members of Academia Sinica, according to Legislator Lu, was administratively unethical and inappropriate. Lu further criticized the nation’s top research institution by arguing that Academia Sinica was subordinate to the Presidential Office, and that therefore the president was Academia Sinica’s boss. “Who would do such a thing when one’s boss visits?” Lu asked. Employees at Academia Sinica are the president’s staff and should naturally make recommendations to the president, he said. However, yelling at the president is “incongruous.” Lu suggested that Academia Sinica reflect on the incident.
But he wasn’t done. Lu then opined that while institutes of natural sciences and engineering were conducting “vigorous, outstanding research,” academic work by the Institute of Political Science and Institutum Iurisprudentiae had gone astray. Researchers should not be so critical or so vocal in their opposition to government policies, he said, as employees at Academia Sinica are also public servants. Taking part in protests, he added, violates the Civil Service Administrative Neutrality Act (公務人員行政中立法). Lu recommended that the institutes that “went astray” be merged and “reconstituted.”
Professor Huang Kuo-chang
Lu’s visit and comments sparked outrage among members of Academia Sinica and academics at other institutions of high learning. Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), an associate research fellow at the Institutum Iurisprudentiae and a key leader during the Sunflower Movement’s occupation, said that Lu was “utterly ignorant” and that even former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) had not had such authoritarian tendencies. In an interview with the Chinese-language Storm Media, Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), the director of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, sounded equally unimpressed with Lu. Echoing Huang, Hsiao called Lu ignorant and added that as a legislator, Lu should represent the people and not act as a mindless follower of his party. 
Weighing in, Modern History associate research fellow Chen Yi-shen (陳儀深) pointed out that the purpose of Academia Sinica as the “highest national research institution of the Republic of China” was to serve as the country’s top research entity. Consequently, academic freedom should be at the heart of Academia Sinica, he said, adding that caring for and paying attention to society were naturally part of an academic’s work and research.
Worryingly, Lu’s outburst appears to be just one in a series of attempts by the administration and its allies in the KMT to keep academia in line. In 2012, KMT Legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元) threatened to slash the budget of the Institutum Iurisprudentiae in half if the institute’s research fellows continued to speak against the Want Want China Times Group’s attempt to purchase China Network System (CNS), which would have affected a quarter of households nationwide. Many academics from Academia Sinica were vocal in their opposition to the deal, which they feared would create a media monopoly by a company that had vast business interests in China. Besides threatening to slash the budget of the law institute, Tsai argued that it was none of the academic’s business to protest against a commercial merger and that the academics were motivated by anti-government media outlets for political reasons.
Notice from Ministry of Education to NTU
Back in 2010, the Ministry of Education had issued a notice to National Taiwan University (NTU) requesting the university to “reflect and improve the contents of its PTT Gossip board.” The ministry claimed the university’s Internet discussion board was permeated by “all kinds of political articles” and added that it hoped the university could rid the Internet forum of “political party employees” and create a “clean environment” for its users. The ministry further requested NTU strongly regulate posts that strayed from “academic and teaching purposes.”
The sustained efforts by the government to keep academics and students from engaging in politics and social issues with the threat of selectively limiting or curtailing the distribution of research and education funds — or simply by discrediting and smearing those who disagree with the government — are grounds for grave concern. It’s difficult to determine whether KMT Legislator Su is truly that ignorant about the fields of sociology and social sciences, or that he was merely attributing the blame for what he considers “social instability” to social scientists and their students. The notion that academics and students should stay within the confines of the university and research centers, or that they should only conduct research that is directed by an administrative entity, is absurd.
Social science is a vast discipline. It consists of many fields, including psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, economics, political science, and law. It studies society, its institutions, and how and why people behave as they do as individuals or as groups within society. In order to study these essential elements of society and research the variables that affect these elements, systematic, vigorous fieldwork is always required. Whether they conduct surveys, interviews, or engage in participatory observation, being physically close to the research subject is key to the ability of social scientists to carry out robust research. To urge political scientists or sociologists to only “stick to research and academia,” or to order them not to care about the impacts of a certain policy is impossible, if not downright offensive.
Most importantly, academic freedom is one of the essential elements of a democracy. Such freedom gives academics the ability to investigate, examine, and present their findings without fear of being monitored, reprimanded, or fired when the conclusions are not to the government’s liking. It is also through academic freedom and openness that students are able to learn and discuss vast subjects inside and outside the classroom and make their own interpretations of various phenomena and theories. Academia is the first sector in which authoritarian governments extend their tentacles to restrict and control people’s thoughts. Taiwan prides herself in her democracy. Academics and students should be encouraged to care for and to participate in social issues and politics, whether they support government policies or not. They certainly should not be penalized for doing so.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Day in the Life of a ‘Li Zhang’

My article published at the newly launched Thinking Taiwan English platform with more photos.

Although we don’t see or hear them very often, the local pillars play an essential role within their communities and in election time. 
“Come in, come in! Sit down and have some tea!” the cheerful voice calls out as I open the door to Mr. Huang’s first-floor office just outside Taipei. On any given day, various members of the community gather at the table for pu’er tea, snacks, fruit, and sometimes alcohol. On the day of our appointment, Mr. Huang, or “Ah-Chuan,” as everyone calls him, was sampling white wine with his friends.

Ah-Chuan is head of a ward, or “Li” (里). According Article 59 of the Local Government Act (地方制度法), “Villages/Wards shall each have a chief of village/ward, who, upon the instruction and under the supervision of the mayor of township/city, or chief administrator, shall handle village/ward affairs and carry out commissioned tasks”. In other words, the job description of the head of a ward, or “Li Zhang,” is generic, which leaves plenty of room for the elected to maneuver on the community services he provides. A Li Zhang is elected every four years with no term limit. Case in point: Ah-Chuan has been the Li Zhang of his ward since 1981.

“I think of myself as part of the service industry, and I very much enjoy helping members of my community. I was born here, and my family is from here. I don’t get paid to do what I do. What I receive for my elected post is an operational fee of NT$45,000 per month, which I have to utilize wisely to pay office bills and other miscellaneous things.

“Oh! See that activity center next to this office? I helped get that for the people here,” A-Chuan explains proudly.

Li Zhangs like Ah-Chuan were a factor in Taiwan’s political fabric long before

democratization. They play an integral role in the electoral success of politicians and their parties, and did so even when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was the only party running in elections. Under the previous multi-candidate system for legislative elections, the candidates were ranked according to the number of votes each received, and those with the largest numbers of votes were elected. In other words, KMT candidates relied on people like Ah-Chuan to promote them with the ward’s voters and to encourage them to vote for them. According to Ah-Chuan, his ward carries approximately 5,000 votes (about 1,900 families).

The Li Zhangs operate at what could be called the “super grassroots” level. Through his frequent interactions with the locals, Ah-Chuan is not only familiar with the members of the ward and their lifestyles, he has also established a sense of camaraderie with them. Throughout my visit with Ah-Chuan, I saw a constant flow of elderly residents who came to his office to use the blood pressure machine he had acquired for them. He always greeted them and asked about their health.

Ah-Chuan’s office is a trove of political memorabilia, photographs with central government

officials, awards for service and philanthropy, and commemorative plaques of excellence. There are also urns filled with expensive tea — Huang collects tea for a hobby — and statues of deities like Guan Gong and Matsu. There are also several CCTV monitors mounted on the wall, which allow Huang to keep track of the comings and goings in the neighborhood, or, perhaps more importantly, to see when a guest is coming.

As I entered Ah-Chuan’s office, I discovered that my cup of aged tea was already waiting for me at the table.

Our lunch consisted of a large bowl of the Huang family’s famous stewed pork and eggs, stir-fried cabbage and water spinach, stewed radish, fish, green onion and eggs, and two kinds of soup. The lunch guests were all members of the community and included the owner of a sound equipment company who often provides sound systems for political campaigns, a former head of the fire department in the district, a former KMT legislator, and an employee of the district government.

As the guests wolfed down the delicious local cuisine, the conversation focused almost exclusively on current political events, with a strong dose of political gossip.
“Eat more, eat more!” Ah-Chuan encouraged us as he dropped a stewed egg in my bowl. “These are just country dishes, but this is very Taiwanese! You won’t have them in America.”

Two police officers also showed up and informed Ah-Chuan that they were investigating a noise complaint from a ward resident and thought it best to visit the Li Zhang first, as he might be able to shed light on the matter. The officers said the complainant claimed he’d heard loud noises in the middle of the night, possibly from a mentally challenged person.

“There is no such person living in that lane,” Ah-Chuan said confidently as he waved his hand dismissively. “And I haven’t heard anything. You are more than welcome to investigate, but I know for a fact that no mentally ill person, or even a loud person, for that matter, lives in that lane.”

As he’d predicted, the investigation turned up nothing.

Numerous individuals came in and out of the Li Zhang’s office in the afternoon. One was tempted to ask how Ah-Chuan manages to keep track of everyone and everything. Asked about his daily routine, Ah-Chuan said, “I’m so busy. I am like a 7-Eleven, you know, like a convenience store. I offer all kinds of service to those who ask. I do everything around here, acting as mediator between two quarreling neighbors. If someone’s street light is broken, someone needs help filing his taxes, someone has questions about receiving public assistance or pension for the elderly, traffic accidents.”

Anyone who doubts that a single man can accomplish all these things need only look at his business card, on which appear no less than five titles, all dealing with community matters. Ah-Chuan also serves as chairperson of the District Dispute Committee (區公所調解委員會). The previous days, he’d had to help resolve a total of 33 disputes, and he did not hesitate to tell me how exhausting some of those meetings could get. But it matters: The decisions of those committees are binding and are recognized by the district court.
Ah-Chuan was also very keen to point out that he has no political party affiliations. He did admit, however, that the KMT city party headquarters had asked him to join the party on several occasions. Ah-Chuan nonetheless served as “consultant” in his district for the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九)-Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) ticket during the 2012 presidential election, though he quickly downplays his influence over voter decisions.

“Ay! Do you really think that I have that much influence over people?” he exclaimed when I asked him about lobbying votes for a particular candidate and party. “If I tell you to vote for someone, would you really listen to me? Of course, not! We’re in a democracy, and people vote however they want! Who’s going to listen to me?”

“Do you really think that young people are going to listen to me?” he said, throwing his hands up in the air in resignation. Maybe he was being a little tongue-in-cheek.

Some people refer to Li Zhangs as “Tiao-a-ka” (柱仔腳)in Taiwanese or “Zhuang Jiao” (樁腳) in Mandarin, which literally means a“pillar.” Politicians and political parties need these “pillars” to prop them up and keep them on the good side of the electorate both during and off election season. Ah-Chuan personally detests being called a “Tiao-a-ka,” as the term carries the connotation of vote buying and corruption, two things that continue to plague Taiwanese politics.

As much as Ah-Chuan hates to admit it, his views undeniably have a certain amount of influence over the residents he knows so much about.

When I press him to say something more about his political influence, he says that he provides “explanations” and “interpretations” of government policies to ward residents on a regular basis. While he doesn’t recommend any particular political candidates to the residents (even if they ask), he does tell them his opinion on which political candidate has a record of providing for and helping the community, he tells me. Raising his fist for dramatic effect, he then adds that Taiwan needs “a real man” to lead the country.

As I step out of his office into the scorching heat outside, Ah-Chuan calls out in a friendly voice, “Come back to have lunch anytime, OK?”

Foot soldiers like Ah-Chuan are almost invisible in Taiwan’s political scene, as they blend perfectly with the communities they live in. They are seldom in the news, yet despite Ah-Chuan’s claims to the contrary, the outcome of local elections is often determined by whether Li Zhangs like him favor a particular candidate over another. Unsurprisingly, almost every single candidate that Ah-Chuan has favored over the more than three decades he has served as Li Zhang has been elected.

Ketty W. Chen is Director of Research Programs at the Association of Public Issues Studies (TAPIS) in Taipei.

My pu'er tea

White wine sampling

The community gym inside of the community center
Closed circuit TV watching over the neighborhood
Ah-Chuan's famous milk fish rice noodle soup