by Brian Hioe
New Bloom interviewed Lai Pin-yu (賴品妤), legislative candidate for the DPP in New Taipei City District 12, on December 12th. Lai, who was a member of the Black Island Youth Front, was previously known for participating in social movements in cosplay in the years prior to the Sunflower Movement before later becoming a political worker and eventually deciding to run for office. The video version of the interview can also be seen here.
Brian Hioe: Could you first introduce yourself for readers that don’t know you?
Lai Pin-yu: I’m Lai Pin-yu, who was recruited to run by the DPP in the 12th New Taipei electoral district. My electoral district is very large, it includes Xizhi, Jinshan, Wanli, Ruifang, Pingxi, Shuangxi, and Gongliao. Many of our voters don’t actually know that this is the 12th election district.
BH: After participating in the Sunflower Movement and working in Freddy Lim’s office, why did you decide to run for office this time?
LPY: I have relatives who are from Ruifang, they run a small business there. So I often was there and am familiar with the area. I was quite concerned with things there.
First, I’ll talk about the DPP. I originally believed that the incumbent legislator, Huang Kuo-chang, had a base here though this is a difficult district. So originally, I was going to give precedence to Huang Kuo-chang. There was still the possibility of the DPP having a chance here, but it’s not as easy.
At the time, the pan-Blue camp had already announced their candidate, who was a political elite, Li Yung-ping. The DPP didn’t believe that it could run a candidate with a similar profile, so they decided to run a younger woman instead, that wasn’t a traditional political elite. That’s why they chose me.
As for why I would decide to run, the first reason is regarding the president. 2020 is an important election. Before being asked by the DPP to run, I worked as a legislative assistant at Freddy Lim’s office. I strongly supported Tsai’s reelection.
I’ve been observing for these past few years, regarding her leadership on international diplomacy. I’ll go so far as to say that, of our past few presidents, there’s nobody who has been as successful on diplomatic affairs as her. I believe that she’s the president most able to protect Taiwan’s interests, so I already expressed support for her.
You can see differing attitudes toward China from her and Han Kuo-yu. In the past, it was controversial if the Hong Kong Chief Executive entered the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong, with a large reaction against this from Hongkongers. But Han Kuo-yu was happy to enter the China Liaison Office without a second thought and his public views have been very pro-China. It’s only in the past few days that he seems to have suddenly come to the realization that this is alienating of the public and suddenly made a U-Turn. But Taiwanese people already see what he’s attempting.
So I think that to some extent, this presidential election will decide the next few years, even up to ten years, as to whether we will orient toward China or orient toward the world. I believe that this is quite important and is a key decision.
You can see how pro-China the KMT is from its party list. Even some members of the pan-Blue camp couldn’t accept the party list, but the KMT wasn’t willing to give up on its pro-China orientation. It may have been that the KMT thought that it would do well in 2020 legislative elections based on the results of nine-in-one elections last year. That’s why they claim that they’ll amend the constitution or would sign a cross-straits peace agreement if it gets 3/4th of seats in the legislature.
Apart from that, the KMT claims that it will undo all of the reforms of the past three years, whether with regards to gay marriage or pension reform. Of course, I’m not overly optimistic about this. Freddy Lim was a strong advocate of gay marriage and I support gay marriage as well. But on that note, it is very important for pro-local and progressive forces to hold over half the seats in the legislature.
Third is that I grew up in New Taipei from when I was a child. I was educated in New Taipei and only later on moved to Taipei for work. I was always very familiar with Ruifang and Jiufen and I’ve seen the changes in the past ten years of development.
Of the DPP candidates, I was the last candidate that was finalized. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it. It’s because I have feelings toward this place that I agreed to take on this responsibility.
BH: How do you understand your participation in this set of elections, as a political newcomer? Or as a candidate who has run a non-traditional campaign?
LPY: For those of us that are newcomers to politics, there’s usually nothing bad we’ve done in the past. We’re blank slates. So there aren’t any real scandals that our opponents can use to attack us. This is why my opponent, Li Yung-ping of the KMT, is just attacking at random.
I’ll bring up an example everyone knows. The other day at a press conference, she said, “Young people acting cute is useless, voters might not necessarily like this.” This is trying to criticize my appearance.
A lot of media outlets have asked me about this recently. Because she’s afraid of her slipping polling ratings, so she’’s trying to attack me very harshly. I want to be very clear about this, I’m a completely different kind of candidate than she. She’s accusing me of trying to pretend to be someone else. My response to her is very clear: It’s not like what she says at all, she doesn’t understand young people in the least, and doesn’t understand voters today.
Lai (center-right) in cosplay as Asuka Langley Soryu from Japanese anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Photo credit: 賴品妤/Facebook
I’ve told myself over and over during this election that: “You can’t pretend to be someone else.” I hope that voters can see my regular self, and that the Lai Pin-yu during election campaigning is the same as the regular Lai Pin-yu.
In the past ten years, particularly after the Sunflower Movement, there have been successive waves of social movements, which have dragged in people who were previously cold to politics. These voters have become concerned with social issues, and they might feel worried about political developments. We can also see that small parties did well in the past elections, including on November 24th, they won sixteen or seventeen seats.
I believe that voters are hoping for “change.” They want non-traditional politicians. I won’t say that traditional politicians are bad, either, because substantively speaking, there are some politicians who are just like that. They really may be political elites.
But I believe that what voters want are politicians who are different. So I’ve seen in the last few years that non-traditional politicians had good results, such as with Ko Wen-je or Han Kuo-yu. Though it’s more complicated regarding Han Kuo-yu, since he’s actually an old politician, but he’s just old wine in a new bottle. In the end, he wasn’t successful in deceiving voters either, he may have been able to deceive voters once, but he wasn’t successful in tricking voters a second time.
I did think about how I should present myself to voters in running for office. I did think about whether I should present myself in the same way as traditional political elites, but I decided that wasn’t right.
The video of me hitting the microphone with my head went viral during the press conference I announced that I was running. That was a blessing in disguise since what is most difficult for a new candidate is becoming recognizable, particularly between 0% and 10%. But this helped with my recognizability.
I decided after that to go after the election campaigning my own way. I also have to give credit to the central party headquarters, party headquarters and my voters have both given me a great deal of space. I must seem to be a very strange candidate, to be frank, I think of myself as being very strange. But the central party headquarters hasn’t tried to intervene and my voters approve. This tells me that everyone is hoping for a different kind of candidate.
I hope to face voters sincerely, to let them know that politicians aren’t different from everybody. Outside of our focus on politics, our daily lives are the same as everyone else. I might be your daughter, your granddaughter, I might be your neighbor, the only thing different about me is that I specialize in politics or law, that I know how to make a budget or conduct a question and answer session.
Up until now, reactions have been quite good. I believe that Taiwanese people have a new imagination of what a politician can be, that it’s not only as in the past. They accept a girl that’s a bit strange as a candidate, and I think that this is a key point of difference between me and my opponent. They’ve been there for a long time, but old and crafty politicians that have been in power a long time still can’t understand.
I’m trying out something new, that if someone like me can get elected, this really means that the times have changed. I believe that this will also be encouraging of many young people, telling everyone that if they want to enter politics, they don’t have to force themselves to appear a certain way. If you stay as you are, if you have your own specialty, and are honest, voters can still accept you. Only if you’re liberated in thought can the times advance. Our politicians need to accept this.
BH: The DPP is, notably, running a number of young candidates this time around and collaborating with the Radical Party, while the NPP is experiencing internal splits. What do you think this indicates about the current state of political participation in Taiwan by young people?
LPY: First, continuing what I said earlier, I’d like to say that neither of the two major parties has been able to address the demands of the newly risen people in the past few years. You could say….that this is what led to the rise of the NPP.
But with regard to the timing, I think it’s like this. The DPP can be seen as comparatively more successful in transitioning. You could say that after the results of November 24th elections, this led to reflection, and the decision to run young candidates.
They’ve replaced many of their top personnel with young people, who use new ways to run for office. This led me to feel that the DPP had begun to make a new commitment toward young people.
For them to run a candidate like me requires courage. People have observed how I participate in social movements in the past, too, in a different way than others and it’s apparent that I’m a candidate with a strong personality. I believe that its a sign of their earnestness that they decided to run a candidate like me and they’ve met my expectations in this campaign so far.
Many of our election strategies, we came up with ourselves, and the central party headquarters was not particularly concerned. Some of the ways we’ve undertaken campaigning might surprise some people, but they haven’t interfered. I believe that they want to achieve a new understanding with young people, and I believe that this is a sign that the DPP is slowly transitioning.
The second key point is the KMT hasn’t done this. I don’t think I need to go into too much detail, you can see this with the KMT’s party list, which led to a sharp decline in their polling after it was released. We can see that this is a party with no interest in reforming.
But to discuss the NPP, which makes me a bit nervous to talk about. Though I joined the DPP now and am a DPP party member, I hold onto a friendly attitude toward the NPP. The reason for this is because there are many NPP party workers or candidates who were my comrades-in-arms in the past, I knew them before the NPP was formed.
Some people I’ve known for close to ten years. Some are friends I know very well. In the past, I’ve had high hopes for the NPP. Because as I mentioned, with the recent transition of the DPP, the hope is to build connections with young people and with swing voters. The NPP also arose from this attempt.
To speak about it in a fair and balanced way, the NPP has given space to young people with no previous background to participate in politics. Many of the candidates they ran in the past were my friends. Talking with them, sometimes I felt conflicted: If I were to run for office, should I run as part of the NPP or as part of the DPP?
Everybody’s circumstances are different, so I would give different suggestions. Young people that want to stand out quickly, I would recommend going to the NPP, since the DPP is an older party—though it’s not as old as the KMT, it’s a party that has been around for 30 years or so.
So I didn’t recommend that they go to the DPP then. I would say, “If you want to become known quickly, go to the NPP. The NPP is a better stage. You don’t have to stay there longer to become known.” I think that the NPP has given a stage to many political workers, not only regarding running in elections!
This is not only regarding candidates, but also aides and political workers. This includes me, although I wasn’t a formal member of the party. I was Freddy Lim’s legislative assistant. It’s given people a lot of space to do things and allowed us to develop our talents.
What’s a shame is that I feel that many times political issues are actually problems between people. I’ve said this before and I have to emphasize this: The NPP’s largest issues are problems between people.
There’s an issue with so-called “teachers,” that they have too much of a right to speak. This supersedes the popular will of the party. Because you can see that the young people they are running are talented, and that voters have given them many opportunities. This has allowed many young people to become elected representatives and they have the backing of those that voted for them.
Just what is surprising is that despite this, the right of young people to speak up in the party doesn’t surpass that of the so-called teachers. If this problem is not addressed, the party is at risk of dissolving.
Concretely speaking, I’ve left Freddy Lim’s office and I’ve become a DPP candidate. I believe that they still haven’t addressed this issue. You can see from their approval ratings that this is still a problem. If they are to change, this has to take place internally, it can’t be from the interference of outsiders like us.
BH: Do you think that political participation by young, progressive people in Taiwan can be situated alongside international trends in politics, regarding young politicians running on progressive platforms in the US, Europe, and beyond?
LPY: Yes, I believe that international trends are reflective of young people participating in politics. Has Taiwan been influenced by international trends in this way? I won’t say that it completely hasn’t, but as a political worker, I think that our largest influence comes from ourselves.
Because direct elections for president began from 1996 up until now, and this has been…around thirty years? Whether with regard to elections or political work, this has led to the refinement of our politics over time.
I can raise a concrete example. We sometimes have a slogan, calling for “new politics”. We don’t want to do things in the same way older, traditional politics.
But we’ve been calling for this for ten years already. It’s still unclear what this will consist of. For example, something thought of as being part of the old politics is going to weddings, funerals, and other events. But is this really such a bad thing?
Because many times this is what voters actually need. They need to meet a politician to know whether this person is someone they would vote for. They might see this person on campaign billboards or in commercials, but it might not be enough too know this person, they have to meet them.
I’m not saying that you necessarily need this form. But before you argue about avoiding this, you have to have a new way of doing things, a new way to come in contact with the people. Apart from talking about what we want or don’t want as part of new politics, we should discuss how this is progressive or how this might refine our politics.
The other point I would raise about international affairs. There’s always a lot of fuss about Taiwan losing diplomatic allies and the number of diplomatic allies that Taiwan has remaining, but this strikes me as a chicken or egg issue. If voters only look at this as a measure of Taiwan’s status in the world, this becomes a large source of pressure, and this becomes something that diplomats are constantly denounced for.
But I feel that as time has gone on, Taiwanese people’s international perspectives have become broader. We’ve found that there are other international organizations beyond just the UN, that there quite a lot, and we won’t just look at one side of things. I feel that it’s overly simplistic and mechanistic to look only at our number of diplomatic allies, as in the past.
Now we won’t only look at Taiwan’s number of diplomatic allies, we’ll look at the overall international outlook. Which direction is the wind blowing in? I believe that voters are becoming better at determining this.
In the past, much of our political discourse regarding international politics was monopolized by pro-China forces, which claimed that we would only have development if we depended on China. But now voters have more and more sources of information and are more able to evaluate things. We can see that voters are considering this now, with the current US-China trade war.
So has Taiwan been affected by international trends in politics? I wouldn’t say that it hasn’t, but I believe that it is because of Taiwanese people themselves, in continuing to pursue progress, that we’ve seen these changes.
BH: Is there anything you would like to say in closing to readers and viewers?
LPY: I want to discuss some of what I’ve seen in the past few years, which I also touched upon briefly earlier. Working with the national defense committee of the Legislative Yuan, I’ve seen how Tsai Ing-wen is one of the better leaders in the past few years regarding international diplomacy and national defense.
But what’s a shame is that regular voters are less focused on this. If you just work in an office, go to work, get off work, and go home, you can have less of a sense of this.
I believe that the Tsai administration has done something that is quite great, which is that it hasn’t put all of its eggs in one basket. We can see this with the New Southbound Policy, with the government putting a great deal of effort into policy directed at southeast Asian countries. Or in Europe, with a great deal of energy and resources put into non-official, semi-official, or civic exchanges.
Concretely speaking, you can see that more and more countries support Taiwan. I won’t credit this all to the government’s work, it also has to do with the current circumstances in the world.
But I believe that it’s like this: Opportunities only come to those prepared for them. If not for the work put into diplomacy. Even with the change in the current situation to become one to China’s detriment, if not for this work, there wouldn’t be so many countries speaking up for Taiwan at present.
There’s another point I want to discuss. During the Sunflower Movement, we opposed the CSSTA for the very simple reason that there weren’t oversight procedures over it, regarding the effects it would have on various industries.
We opposed the CSSTA because we didn’t want it to become a way for China to influence our domestic labor industry. It was for this simple reason that we opposed it, which was that we didn’t want it to become a way by which China could influence Taiwan.
What we didn’t realize was the large effect that blocking the CSSTA would have on Taiwan. Because we if we had signed the CSSTA then, with the outbreak of the US-China trade war, we would have gotten dragged down by China.
This was something that we never imagined would take place. Taiwan has been relatively unaffected by the CSSTA as a result. Nobody foresaw this, but it was an unexpected blessing for Taiwan.