by Brian Hioe
Photo credit: Jennifer Lu
In early April, New Bloom’s Brian Hioe interviewed the Social Democratic Party’s Jennifer Lu (呂欣潔) by Skype. Although several months have passed since then, we still believe the interview still to be insightful about the Social Democratic Party and its political positions in the present. This was our second interview with Jennifer Lu, we first interviewed her in August of 2014.
Becoming Part of the Social Democratic Party after a History of Activism
Brian Hioe: It’s funny because last year when I was interviewing Taiwanese NGOs and civil society groups, back when we first started New Bloom, you were the first person I interviewed. Now I’m interviewing Taiwanese political candidates and I’m interviewing you again as a political candidate, so it feels to me like it’s come full circle.
My first question is about that. How exactly you came to participate in the Social Democratic Party as a political candidate. What I want to ask is how did you go from activism to participating in electoral politics as a political candidate?
Jennifer Lu: I was very interested in politics from very early on. My first workplace was in a political party, actually, which was the DPP. At that time I had just graduated from college, I thought things had to be in politics in a certain way, and that politics was a dirty thing.
My job originally was to talk with potential voters at different events. At the time, I didn’t understand the meaning of that! But, as I know now, the point is to talk with average citizens, to have interactions, and to come to understand them so you have a way to establish relations with them. At that time, I was more interested in policymaking, policy research, that kind of thing. I did that for half a year.
I came to know Dr. Fan through my later activism. Fan Yun participates in the feminist movement and sexual rights movement, so she is very supportive of Tongzhi Hotline. I ran into her at an event and we discussed for awhile and she asked me if I would be interested in being a political candidate. She said she wanted to establish a political party with acquaintances of hers. So we set up a time and discussed about the possibility of running several times after that.
There were two considerations which led to me joining the Social Democratic Party. The tongzhi (LGBTQ) movement is caught up in the government aspect. There’s a lot we can still do from the social aspect, but within the system, we haven’t been able to get in. There are a number of women’s rights candidates who discuss issues related to tongzhi (LGBT), but there aren’t any tongzhi candidates who have been elected. So I think we need to improve this aspect and work towards the goal. It’s because we can’t wait until society to accept all of our demands we need to initiate actions ourselves.
Secondly, after participating in social movements for so many years, I have this feeling that you need to create changes within the established system—I wouldn’t say in the sense that this is more effective, per se, but I think we need people within the system who understand how it works as well as people outside to push the demands forward. The situation now with the government is that you can shout at them, but they ignore you. I wanted to try try some new things in order to bring about change, and becoming a political candidate was one of them.
What is the Role of the Social Democratic Party in Taiwanese Electoral Politics and What Are Its Stances?
BH: Recently, a number of new parties have appeared, such as the New Power Party or the Social Democratic Party, so I wanted to ask. In the past, Taiwan didn’t have a Left-wing, because of the oppression of the KMT. How would you view the role of the Social Democratic Party in helping the underprivileged as a left-wing party? And the candidates of the SDP are drawn from activism.
JL: I think it’s like this. In the past, Taiwan hasn’t really had a left-leaning third party. The dividing line between political stances has also been around the issue of independence or unification; if you support unification, you’re more likely to be pro-KMT, and if you support independence, you’re more likely to be pro-DPP. But after so many years, I think the circumstances of Taiwan’s current generation isn’t like this. We’re not so closely bound by the KMT or DPP.
And we see that many of Taiwan’s internal problems, even when they do have to do with the issue of independence or unification, aren’t directly connected. For example, in regards to that the government puts a enormous amount of its resources to further economic development rather than to take of the economically underprivileged. What isn’t taken in consideration is what is a more sustainable long-term method of economic development either, but attempts are made at producing rapid, quickly observable growth. Big companies in Taiwan may be able to produce much economic growth or increase jobs in the short-term, but damage the environment, or that growth proves unsustainable in the long-run.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lu
There hasn’t been a political party which focuses on this aspect of politics in the past, so that’s what we hope to do. Our important political platforms can be divided into several sides, but I’d also raise that we hope to push for tax reforms in Taiwan, because wages and salaries are very unequal in Taiwan. I imagine you know about this, should I explain more?
BH: For a foreign reader, it might be good to explain more.
JL: Okay. Taiwan’s tax system is such that the wealthy have many opportunities to avoid paying taxes. The government has many loopholes which allow for industries to avoid taxes. The average wage earner, like my father, may actually have to pay more taxes than his boss. This is a very unequal circumstance to the average wage earner, that is, the 70% of Taiwanese that earn a salary and pay taxes out of their salary. There are also aspects of retirement in Taiwan which are very unequal. If I were a civil servant, as compared to a regular office worker, even if we made the same salary, when we retired, we would take a different pension.
This is a product of the history, that this was to serve as an incentive for the people who came over from China with the KMT to remain in Taiwan through such preferential treatment to them. The KMT preferential treatments for civil servants include the high pensions and bank saving interest rates as high as 18%.
In our generation, we’ve eliminated these things as current policy but there are still people who have these advantages and its a drain on government fiscal savings. The government needs to pay out 90 billion NT in retirement funds each year. For the average Taiwanese, this is extremely unequal, they may work as hard or as long, but these civil servants receiving kickbacks from the government get a much higher pension. And Taiwan’s retirement system is divided into many different aspects, between civil servants, soldiers, farmers, the average citizen, and the unemployed. They may pay about the same taxes, but when retire, farmers may only receive 7,000 NT per month. The average laborer may get 10,000 or 20,000 more, but if they are public servants, they could get paid as high as 60 or 70 percent of their previous salary.
We hope that this system can be corrected, in order to establish broader social equality. Of course, the people who have benefits now under the current system may not be happy, but for the long term, Taiwan needs to slowly get rid of these traces of the one-party system and move towards broader social equality. The other aspect that the SDP emphasizes is a diversified society. If you look at our party flag, it’s rainbow colored. The traditional flower emblem of social democracy is a rose, but because Taiwan is a diverse society, so we made it rainbow. This also symbolizes that we value tongzhi, as you can probably see from me or Miao Poya’s participation in the party, whom are both women tongzhi and often participate in the tongzhi movement.
Why did I pick the SDP? An important part of it is that they value the rights of women and tongzhi. In other political parties, I don’t see this. For example, the Green Party or New Power Party are also good about this, but being good isn’t enough, you need to directly try and address this problem. I can see this more in the Social Democratic Party, which is a significant reason as to why I would want to join. Regarding tongzhi, new immigrants, and Indigenous, Taiwan is a diverse society and we hope to value different groups with different backgrounds.
The Emergence of the SDP and Other Third Parties After the Sunflower Movement
BH: I wanted to ask about the Sunflower Movement and its relation to your campaign, as well as to the Social Democratic Party overall.
JL: For the Sunflower Movement, personally, I feel the hopes of the next generation of Taiwan. It sounds a bit cheesy! But I think for Taiwanese people, hope is very important. I think a lot of us have a hopeless feeling towards politics. We don’t believe in politicians. We don’t believe the country can improve in its values. So we’re all used to working hard by ourselves, individually, on our own. This is a result of how we’ve been put down for so long by the party-state system. But I think I’ve seen the hopes of people who want to work together and stand up for what they believe in. Even someone like me, who has participated in social movements for many years, feels moved.
It’s because I believe society can be changed one day so I have participate in social movements for so long. To be able to see the people around me begin to think about politics, their lives in relation to politics, and begin to take action, really moved me.
So as for the Sunflower Movement, I feel it had a deep influence on Taiwanese society, allowing for there to be new hope that society could be changed. That’s why you see so many new third parties appearing. That there are many new parties is a good thing, it represents that we have freedom and democracy, and that different people will gather together for different reasons.
But I think people are still learning. If we don’t want old politics, what kind of new politics do we need? This requires trial and error for people to determine what kind of politics are most suitable for them. That might be tougher. Yet at the beginning of this road, I find that the people of society are quite realistic in looking at this.
BH: Going off that, I want to ask regarding the New Power Party and the DPP. What views do you have regarding cooperation as in with the New Power Party and other third parties? Because it strikes me that the emergence of the so-called “Third Force” is very directly a phenomenon that took place after the Sunflower Movement.
JL: We have no plans to cooperate with any of the two larger parties, the KMT and the DDP, but in regards to political views when they coincide, I think it is possible to discuss cooperation. For us we hope that Taiwan can have a stable force outside of the power of the two large parties. We see with the power of the KMT as a majority that if there is something they want to pass, it gets passed, but if there is something they don’t want passed, it doesn’t get passed.
We also worry that if the DPP might attain a similar position of monopoly with over one hundred members of legislature. I think one party controlling more than half of legislature, for Taiwan, isn’t a good thing. That’s my individual view. That’s also part of my choice to join a Third Force party.
When I told my father and mother I was going to run for office, they first asked me if I was going to join the DPP. I have quite a few friends who are members of the DPP, of course. And in the past I considered it as well. But I decided that in examination of Taiwan’s democratic system as a whole, Taiwan is a small country, and we need different, diversified parties to concern themselves with different issues. This is something we want to address.
With the two parties, if there are places in which their political views do not differ from ours and there are places where we can communicate, cooperation isn’t impossible, but we focus on our platforms—we’re a party that values our platforms. Regarding other third parties, in electoral tactics, we hope there are places where we can collaborate. It depends on circumstance. Of course, behind every party there are party supporters who have different views, which is important in deciding the stances the party takes as a whole. We don’t think it’s absolutely of need or not of need to cooperate, but for political platforms, or if there is consensus on cooperation, we are willing to do it.
How Does the Social Democratic Party Differ From Traditional Political Parties?
BH: What are the differences between how the Social Democratic Party plans to run its campaign and how traditional political parties would run campaigns in the past?
JL: For the Social Democratic Party, we don’t want superstars, so you see that the Social Democratic Party has looked for activists for political candidates. This is because we don’t want superstars. Hoping for a superstar to solve the political problems of Taiwan is impossible. It’s like with Ma Ying-Jeou or Chen Shui-Bian, when people had so many hopes for both of them, but were later disappointed. We need all people to participate in politics in order to change politics.
Since we don’t want superstars, it becomes tough for others to recognize us. And of course it becomes a very important issue because recognition is key in regards to elections. To build foundations for that, we will go from door to door, or give speeches on the streets. And we also want to understand neighborhood districts, because we have neighborhood districts in Taiwan which are smaller pieces of a larger district, and each has a person in charge, a neighborhood representative, who are voted in by the people of that neighborhood. We will go meet each representative and to understand that neighborhood district through that person. That much is already done in traditional politics.
But we will also do new things. For example, we will host discussion of politics online on our website, to invite people to help us devise policies. We hope our policies to represent our constituents, not just us, so they can discuss with us through our website.
We also have a new activity called a “Living Room Talk.” We want politics not just to be protesting on the streets, or in the legislature, but to be in everyone’s lives, so if people in my district make arrangements with neighbors and friends, we can make arrangements to go to their homes to discuss about what kind of policies they want. This is what past politicians in some sense were afraid to do. They might also have been unwilling to do this because they felt it was politically ineffective.
Most politicians spend their resources on buying large billboards or television commercials. Actually, I heard on the news that in Germany or some other European country that political candidates were forbidden from broadcasting television ads. That would be great here, because we have too many television ads by political candidates!
The SDP has a regulation that our political candidates can’t buy broadcasting vans. You know those broadcasting vans Taiwan has that drive around and around with political candidates talking. We don’t want to do that because we don’t want to disrupt the lives of citizens, but believe politics should be an everyday thing, so we would rather go and discuss with people.
We will go to all of Taiwan, because our plan is to work across all Taiwan, and to go to the six largest cities and have these kinds of political discussions and discuss local issues. For example, in Taoyuan, we would discuss the Taoyuan Aerotropolis and the issues of residential displacement. In Tainan, we would discuss Tainan’s local problems. So we will go all across Taiwan and organize these kind of events. We’ve already done three and quite a lot of people came.
So for the first few months, I will interview neighborhood representatives, hold these “Living Room Talks”, and hold open political discussions with events. In regards to whether we need a party office, we’re still discussing, we wanted a new form of politics, so we discussed about it, but more and more people have been coming to us and saying they want to be volunteers and if you don’t have a place for people to come and congregate and discuss what needs to be done, it’s difficult. Because these candidates are all from Taipei, we would hope to rent a shared office, since Taipei’s population is not so set in place and people move and around from place to place. We’d rent an office in a central location and allow volunteers to come and organize events.
In regards to my previous activism, I will probably work at Tongzhi Hotline until August, then stop, take a break, and someone will take over my current work. I think we can point to this is a severe problem of politics, too, actually. If I didn’t have that job, I’d have no income, right? The donations I get I can’t use as my own salary, so if a person wants to run for office, they need money, otherwise they would not be able to survive. That sets a high barrier. We’re still working on how to resolve that. The party could distribute money to use to live off of but that depends on our fundraising situation. I will definitely continue my participation in the tongzhi movement, I will continue to think of ways to participate, but as for how to do it, it will have to be incorporated with my campaign.
What are the Challenges of Third Party Politics in Taiwan?
BH: In regards to problems you need to overcome, such as what we discussed concerning money, but do you think there’s anything you need to overcome in regards to political tradition? Or overcoming the system of the two parties?
JL: Yes, again, money is important because elections is very costly. There is the heavy problem of vote buying in Taiwan. So you need enough money to buy votes in order to win. But this becoming less of a problem in Taipei, so how to express one’s political views and platforms becomes very important. We need to go through public media to do this, but Taiwanese public media, particularly television networks, have their own political affiliations.
Others don’t like serious things, they want funny things or controversial things to broadcast. For example, if I went somewhere and made a big fuss, I imagine it would be in the news! But that’s not our style. I myself don’t want to get into the media by causing controversy and that becoming how other people come to know us as political candidates. So we hope to depend on online media and regular media platforms to spread word of our political opinions. That’s we hope to achieve.
What Can Third Party Politics Accomplish in Taiwan?
BH: My feeling is that in the English-speaking world doesn’t know too much about the Social Democratic Party and the appearance of new parties confuse them, because they are used to Taiwanese politics as being the KMT and DPP. And what they might want to know more is Taiwan-China relations and what the Social Democratic Party’s response to that is. Do you have any response?
JL: Actually if you talk to a European person about the Social Democratic Party, social democracy is something with a long tradition. But politics in Taiwan has been caught along the lines of independence or unification, so the values of social democracy are not discussed. If you discuss social democracy with a European person, they might actually ask why only recently Taiwan has a social democratic party, in consideration of that its something with an old tradition. But for Taiwanese, it’s a new thing.
For social democracy, we hope to actually care for people’s lives, we hope to stand by the side of wage earners, because we believe most people are wage earners and don’t depend on investments to make money or opening companies to make money. We are average people who earn a salary. And we hope to change the social and political circumstance of Taiwan where only if you have money or power you can participate in politics. We hope to gradually build to accomplish this.
For a foreign reader, I would hope to let them know, Taiwan isn’t a developed democracy yet. People still look towards a charismatic leader to solve their problems. So I think our civil society still has some ways to go in that sense. But I think through engaging with people to participate in politics, Taiwan will be able to walk down the path towards a more developed democracy.
Recently, I read an essay which a thesis I quite agree with, which stated that in the past Taiwan had two large parties, caught up on the issues of independence or unification, and towards capitalism, or corporations, these parties had relatively similar politics. Because with parties that large, they need money, and if they need money, who will donate money to them? It’s big companies and corporations.
But slowly other parties appeared like the Green Party and Tree Party, which focuses on environmental issues. They also concerns themselves with issues of sexuality, free trade, and other issues, but between the Green Party and the Tree Party, these two parties largely focus on environmental issues, instead of economic equality or labor rights. The argument of that essay was that the appearance of the Social Democratic Party could address this lack. And this would lead to a more complete Taiwanese democracy with parties that concern different social issues, including the environment, the economy, and clarity about political ideals. If cooperation is possible between these different social issues, I hope individuals can focus on the social issues that they have expertise in.
For example, I realize I’m not an expert about some topics, but there are some topics I know more than others. As for myself, I’m a social worker, so regarding social welfare and policy I know a great deal, and of course, issues of sexuality or tongzhi are another long-standing specialty of mine. It’s not possible for everyone to be an expert in every field, but the important part is whether in your place you can work together with everyone.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lu
So to foreign readers, I hope to let them know, that although Taiwanese democracy is imperfect and an ongoing process, I believe the appearance of the Social Democratic Party represents that we have gotten beyond politics caught between blue-green, and the divisions of independence-unification. We need to pay attention to the marginalized in society and the life problems of society as a whole. But of course, people still pay a great deal of attention tot he question of the relation between Taiwan and China.
The Social Democratic Party believes that Taiwan is a sovereign country, but the question is what are the methods to use to allow people to decide what direction for Taiwan to move in? Under the current situation with the KMT, there is no discussion with the people, it just decides unilaterally what to do, regarding the AIIB, or CSSTA, and other actions regarding China. We agree that we need to maintain a distance from China, but it is a question how to establish that under relations of equality.
It’s not that we believe that we can’t have any exchanges with China, but those exchanges must be established on, first, terms that the Taiwanese people understand and, second, whether we can maintain the sovereignty of our country. According to one survey, 90% of residents of Taiwan identify as Taiwanese and believe that we are an independent and sovereign country. To discuss identity, this already a long-standing issue of discussion, but I think what we need to discuss is how under this framework of identity, we can make Taiwan a better country.
BH: Is there anything else you would like to say?
JL: I’m sometimes not used to that I didn’t talk so much about tongzhi issues in interviews! So, lastly I would raise, I believe that Taiwanese people have the ability and will to accept tongzhi being politicians. In that light, I’m also hoping to demonstrate something to society by running. I believe that views towards tongzhi are largely positive, so I hope Taiwan might have already become a place where tongzhi are looked at and thought of normally. That’s what I also hope to do through participating in politics and along such lines, I see it as an extension of my participating in the tongzhi movement.