by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Neil Peng Facebook

A FLURRY OF media speculation and public commentary has ensued after author, comedian, and social activist Neil Peng’s (馮光遠) withdrawal from the New Power Party (NPP). Peng was an early member of the party. Peng had previously run for mayor of Taipei in the 2014 “nine-in-one” elections, although he was not successful in his mayoral bid. After the formation of the NPP following nine-in-one elections, Peng planned to run in New Taipei District 1 as an NPP candidate during 2016 legislative elections, but the DPP refused to withdraw its candidate Lu Sun-Ling, a twenty-seven year old third-generation politician, in favor of Peng. As a result, Peng was forced to withdraw his legislative bid.

While not running in 2016 legislative elections as a result, Peng remained a member of the NPP’s executive committee until his withdrawal from the party. However, his diminishing presence in NPP publicity events has been noticeable in the past year ever since the NPP won five seats in legislature after 2016 elections. On the other hand, other unsuccessful NPP candidates, such as activist lawyer Handy Chiu, have remained within the NPP’s orbit.

As such, some have questioned whether or not Peng’s withdrawal from the party is a sign of internal tension within the NPP. Peng was previously a popular figure among social activists during his mayoral run, as well as for actions such as serving a twenty-day jail term for refusing to pay a fine after calling former Council for Cultural Affairs minister Emile Sheng “a scum public servant” and accusing former Secretary-General of the National Security Council King Pu-Tsung of having a closeted sexual relationship with then-president Ma Ying-Jeou, although Peng was notably the only candidate for Taipei mayoral elections that openly supported gay marriage and the screenwriter for Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, one of the first Taiwanese films to address queer topics. Peng, the child of immigrants from Shanghai, was also a high-profile waishengren who participated in pro-Taiwan social activism.

Peng as a candidate of the New Power Party. Photo credit: Neil Peng Facebook

But Peng’s image was badly damaged before 2016 legislative elections due to an incident in which a taxi driver cursed out Peng for his political campaigning and Peng’s response was to threaten to sue the taxi driver and post an account of the incident on social media. While Peng may have expected netizens to rally to his defense, Peng was instead criticized for targeting an everyday member of society as a well-known public figure, in particular because he posted the personal information of the taxi driver. The taxi driver later lashed out against “Green Terror” as orchestrated by Peng and other post-Sunflower movement politicians and the incident was seen as potentially damaging to the credibility of the NPP at a time in which the “Third Force” party had newly formed and was struggling to force its way into politics.

Peng broke news of his withdrawal from the NPP by posting a twenty-minute video on Facebook, in which he stated that he was withdrawing from electoral politics to return to attempting to influence society through culture. Peng thanked members of the NPP who had supported him, including Freddy Lim, Hung Tzu-Yung, and social activists including Taiwanese New Wave film director Wu Nien-Jen. However, Peng notably left out thanking party chair Huang Kuo-Chang, party secretary-general Chen Hui-Ming, and legislator Hsu Yung-Ming. Much attention has been focused upon comments in which Peng accused the NPP of having become a “National Prosperity Party” (國運昌隆黨) and stated that he did not want certain individuals “harvesting” his political efforts.

As the phrasing of “National Prosperity Party” seems to be a pun on the characters that form the name “Huang Kuo-Chang” (黃國昌), many have interpreted Peng’s withdrawal as a sign of tension between Peng and Huang Kuo-Chang’s leadership of the party, Peng’s claim being that the NPP had become dominated by Huang. Peng had previously expressed displeasure with Huang retaining the position of party chair, therefore, his split from the NPP is not entirely surprising. Peng may have been accusing Huang of seeking to politically benefit from the NPP for his own personal interest.

Peng and Huang at a march while campaigning with the rest of the New Power Party. Photo credit: 蕭長展/WikiCommons

Huang’s legislative aide Chen Zhi-Ming, a noted LGBTQ activist, would later lash out at Peng on social media, claiming that Peng was unfairly attacking individuals who had only tried to act in Peng’s best interest. These comments were later deleted. Freddy Lim, another noted figure of the NPP, would later make public comments stating Peng had left the party of his own volition, but that it was important to remember that the NPP’s decision-making structure is not such that Huang Kuo-Chang has the final say on any and all actions. Lim and others have suggested that there has been some failure of communication within the NPP internally and that NPP members will make attempts to convince Peng to return to the party. Sunflower Movement leader Chen Wei-Ting, who also left the NPP, later issued a statement on Facebook stating that he did not know the reasons for Peng’s departure, but his own reasons for leaving the party was not because of dissatisfaction with Huang’s leadership.

A less generous interpretation may be that Peng could not stand sharing the spotlight with Huang, or that Huang’s efforts to damage control the fallout from Peng’s taxi scandal offended him. It is likely true that Peng was in some way a political liability for the NPP because of his past scandals. Few seem to view Peng’s departure from the party as a sign of significant rupture within the NPP, although it does indicate that there most definitely is tension within the party. In general, with the NPP currently attempting to expand for the next round of legislative elections in order to potentially challenge the DPP, its “frenemy” party within the pan-Green camp, some growing pains are expected. As such, it is not surprising that some would take issue with Huang Kuo-Chang’s leadership of the party, seeing as Huang is very probably the party’s most visible figure and has a disproportionately large role in the party, seeing as the party is still heavily reliant on a fundamentally small set of people.

Indeed, third parties in Taiwan have historically suffered from over reliance on a single key figure, such as the reliance of the Taiwan Solidarity Union on its “spiritual leader” Lee Teng-Hui. Lee has at times also suddenly turned against the TSU, and the party is in many ways at his mercy. After the TSU failed to win any seats in 2016 legislative elections, Lee seemed to consider allying himself with the NPP instead, holding meetings with newly elected NPP legislators.

Photo credit: Neil Peng Facebook

Likewise, the Social Democratic Party, which, like the NPP, is a post-Sunflower “Third Force” party, was in many ways hampered by its over reliance on party leader Fan Yun during 2016 legislative elections. After a period of the SDP claiming resolutely that it would not work with the DPP because of its desire to wash its hands of the old, corrupt form of electoral politics practiced by the DPP, it was perceived as a betrayal that Fan Yun was willing to ally with then minority whip Ker Chien-Ming over her fellow “Third Force” party the NPP. Ker is seen as an especially corrupt DPP politician by many members of Taiwanese civil society, and the SDP had previously tried to distinguish itself from the NPP on the basis of claims that the NPP was willing to work with the DPP while the SDP was not. Fan’s perceived hypocrisy cost the Social Democratic Party severely in 2016 legislative elections, and continued difficulties turning the party’s fortunes around in many cases returns to the fact that Fan still holds a great sway over the party’s image in spite of stepping down as party chair. In spite of this, part of the SDP’s current support seem to actually comes from the NPP despite the past actions of the SDP under Fan Yun.

As such, we can see the NPP’s dependence on Huang as part of this larger phenomenon. Huang’s status as the public face of the NPP has led, in some cases, to political campaigns directed against him, with the notion that this is targeting of the party as a whole. For example, Huang currently also faces a recall vote targeting him fronted by Christian anti-gay marriage groups, who are upset because of the NPP’s consistent advocacy of marriage equality. As the party chair, Huang is blamed for the NPP’s actions more generally and thus personally targeted.

Photo credit: Huang Kuo-Chang Facebook

While the NPP does in fact seem to be making efforts to make sure all of its legislators receive the public spotlight in order to avoid over reliance on its better known political figures, such as Huang Kuo-Chang or Freddy Lim, it remains to be seen if it can overcome this problem which has historically confronted third parties in Taiwan. As of now, Huang and Lim still overshadow the other legislators of the NPP. Speculatively, the internal functioning of the NPP may also be over reliant on Huang, meaning a change of leadership could be damaging to the party’s ability to continue to function.

This is probably what Neil Peng’s departure indicates more than anything else. However, with only five legislators in the Legislative Yuan, it remains to be seen whether or not the NPP will be able to seize opportunities for growth in order that it might become able to stand on equal footing with the DPP in legislature so that there are two pro-Taiwan parties within the Legislative Yuan. Certainly, it is true that the over reliance of the NPP on a small set of public faces needs to be overcome.

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