Lin Fei-fan: I Don’t Feel Pressure to Run for Office
The Gazette sits down with Lin Fei-fan to discuss the impact of the Sunflower Movement, running for political office, and the future of Taiwan’s “Third Force” parties.
By Aaron Wytze Wilson
In 2014, Lin Fei-fan was the public face of the “Sunflower Movement,” a large-scale protest movement against the then-ruling Chinese Nationalist Party’s plan to pass a controversial free-trade agreement with China. Four years later, Lin is now studying abroad, and has largely avoided the limelight. The Taiwan Gazette sat down with Lin during his visit to the University of Toronto’s Asian Institute in March 2018.
Q: It's been four years since 318 (The Sunflower Movement), there’s been a lot of changes in Taiwan politics, but a lot of things have also stayed the same. So what do you think are the lasting effects of 318 on today’s politics?
Fei-fan: In terms of politics, I think the biggest impact is how young people in Taiwan have changed their attitudes to become more proactive. Internationally, people now know that civil society is important in Taiwan, and it’s not just about the two biggest political parties. [He pauses for a moment.] My answer is quite vague.
Q: Why are you being vague? Are you not so sure about the impact?
Fei-fan: Because I am a little bit suspicious. Most of my friends have already entered politics and joined political parties. That’s a good thing. On the other hand, when people get into politics too soon, that’s also a problem. I would be quite critical of those people who are in a position to run for office, but they didn’t realize they’re only reproducing the whole political structure.
Q: What do you mean by reproducing the political structure?
I mean they become part of the system, but they don’t try very hard to change it. Especially those who are a part of the DPP, and who just follow the mandate of their faction, and higher ranking political leaders.
Q: Is there an expectation that they have to change it? It’s politics, people understand that it’s politics. Why do they have to change it?
Fei-fan: I mean, we don't really need 5 or 10 candidates that are doing the same thing that the DPP is already doing. We need some people who can push some issues forward. I’ll be more critical of people who joined the DPP, than those people who joined third force parties.
Q: Why is that?
Fei-fan: On issues like LGBT rights, indigenous people's rights, labor law reform, those people just kept silent. They’re just afraid of saying too much, and the party would not support them. So they don’t dare to challenge the establishment. That's the issue. If the Sunflower Movement’s impact is to give these people a chance to run for office, I hope that they can go beyond this kind of barrier.
Q: The DPP really benefited from the Sunflower Movement. Do you feel the DPP is living up to the expectations young people had for them?
Fei-fan: No, I don't think so. I think they’ve abandoned a lot of promises. I think they’ve changed their attitudes and become more conservative. Sometimes you can feel those people who are in the DPP don’t really care what young people think. They kind of exploited the Sunflower Movement.
Q: Young people played a very big role in the DPP victories of 2014 and 2016. Young people also played a role in electing the New Power Party’s Freddy Lim (林昶佐), Hung Tzu-yung (洪慈庸) and Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌). Do you think that young people will still be a force in 2018 and 2020? Or are they frustrated with politics?
Fei-fan: It is really hard to say, I feel it’s a bit polarized. On one hand, I can see more people feel frustrated and depressed. But on the other hand, I saw another kind of attitude, people trying to be more proactive and trying to be more positive, so it is kind of polarized. I haven’t been able to catch up with what is happening right now in Taiwan, especially for people in my generation.
But I feel there are two kinds of attitudes toward politics or political parties. I mean, the people I know in the New Power Party are more proactive, and they have a lot of hope. They are quite optimistic about the future election. But on the other hand, people who have stayed in social movement campaigns, like those people who joined the anti-labor amendment law protests, those people are more depressed.
Q: What about yourself? Are you optimistic that third-force parties will have an opportunity in 2018 or 2020?
Fei-fan: hmm. [He pauses for a moment.] In the short term, the NPP will get a successful result in the election. But there should be a clearer political line. I think the NPP’s political line isn’t clear right now, and that might bring inner party struggle in the future. You can imagine the NPP’s five legislators already have a lot of different opinions on a lot of different issues, including conflict concerning the recent labor amendment reforms. You can already see a lot of inner party struggle about this. If those city council candidates don't share a common political line, then in the future you can expect that they may be contradictory to each other on certain issues.
In terms of the Green Party and the Social Democratic Party, the problem is not only with funding, the problem might be that they can’t find an effective strategy. Should they stand with their base on social movements? Or should they move to a position closer to electoral politics?
Q: Do you feel a lot of pressure to run for office?
A: Not now. It’s just not a priority I’m thinking about right now. Taiwan doesn’t need another young face right now. There are already a lot of young candidates. If I did join a political party right now, I wouldn’t do anything different from these young people. It would be very similar tactics and strategy.
In my generation, there’s not that many people doing work in international affairs. Especially people that were born out of Taiwan’s social movement campaigns. What I’m trying to do is more international relations stuff. That’s what I’m currently thinking.
Q: I’m going to propose an imaginary situation here. Huang Wei-cher (黃偉哲) of the DPP will likely win the Tainan mayoral race in 2018.
Fei-fan: In fact, he’s already won. (Tainan reliably supports DPP candidates in local and general elections.)
Q: That’s right. That also means there will be a by-election in 2019. Would you be tempted to run?
Fei-fan: No, I don't think so.
Q: Let's look at some of the news that is happening with China. Xi Jinping pushed through a constitutional amendment to scrap presidential terms, essentially becoming president-for-life. How do you think this will affect Taiwan?
Fei-fan: I think that would be a very dangerous thing for Taiwan, especially if you look at the recent organizational structural change. They just upgraded the status of the Taiwan Affairs Office, and placed it under the direct control of the vice-president of China, which would be Wang Qishan (王岐山), directing China’s policy towards Taiwan. It's quite clear that Xi Jinping (习近平) is looking to greater control Taiwan affairs and also Hong Kong affairs. So it’s quite a dangerous thing. Trump also just recently signed the Taiwan Travel Act. So you can see the tensions rising now. But Taiwan is always very passive.
Q: Do you have any worries that some kind of conflict may happen in the near future?
Fei-fan: I think there might be a small conflict, like the M503 air route issue from a couple years ago. They’ll use these small conflicts to pursue their political ends.
Q: What do you hope for Taiwan during these tensions? Taiwan doesn’t have many options.
Fei-fan: Yes. So on one hand, we have to maintain our close relationship with the US and Japan, and some other countries. But on the other hand, we should put more efforts into making friends in progressive campaigns and political parties, like the Democrats in the U.S. or left-leaning political parties in Japan and Europe. We should let them understand what the situation is in Taiwan right now and let them know Taiwan’s progressive civil society has the ability to cooperate with them, including on ideological issues.
Q: How do you personally think things are going in U.S. administration right now? I’m sure you know about figures like John Bolton and others close to Trump are quite friendly to Taiwan.
At the same time, Bolton is also seen as a dangerous figure. Do you see this is an opportunity for Taiwan?
Fei-fan: I am quite ambivalent about that. Because, on one hand, no one but Trump would ever accept Tsai Ing-wen’s phone call. But on the other hand, Taiwan doesn't really have the choice to keep their distance from certain Republicans or dangerous figures. So that also provides an explanation for Tsai Ing-wen's low-key policy for dealing with cross-strait relations, and Taiwan-US relations.
Q: So how do you feel about Tsai’s handling of cross-strait relations?
Fei-fan: I think so far, I won't criticize her cross-strait relations policy. She’s not using any risky measures, and she’s also not trying to provoke China. On one hand, Tsai is maintaining a non-provocative attitude towards China. But in the meantime, she has been actively building ties with the US, which has mostly been kept away from the public. The Tsai-Trump phone call was not arranged by the Taiwan government, everyone knows that it wasn't. The Taiwan Travel Act was also not a part of the Taiwanese government’s agenda. It’s not because of some unilateral action by Taiwan, but from the US side. So on those terms, Tsai has kept a pretty low-key approach. I think she played it well since she didn’t provoke China, and also didn’t offend the US. So I’m not going to criticize her foreign policy.
Q: But don't you think her current policies move Taiwan further away from the road to independence?
Fei-fan: Yeah, this is another problem. For those people who are pro-independence, for us, we think she is not making any progress, and not being radical enough about this. We think this is the time for her to push this issue forward.
However, I thought about this a little more. As a Taiwan independence supporter who also holds progressive values, we can’t just simply look for a declaration of independence, we also have to support other important progressive values. I think Tsai is relatively conservative in terms of the way she is dealing with China and the US. But I’m not going to criticize Tsai for not radically pushing independence forward, or not pushing for a referendum for independence. I’m able to understand the political decisions that she has to make on cross-strait issues.
The important part is that she has to explain the reason why she changed her political direction to the general public. I think the reason why most of Taiwan’s pro-independence supporters are not satisfied with her political performance is because she hasn't proposed any agenda in terms of independence, especially after the phone call with Trump and the passing of the Taiwan Travel Act. People want to know what will be next and how she is going to deal with the independence issue. Furthermore, because she’s a political leader coming from the DPP, what is her agenda for legitimization Taiwan's sovereignty, or “normalizing” Taiwan’s status as a country? This uncertainty is what makes her pro-independence supporters the most dissatisfied.
Q: Do you think third-force parties like the NPP need to have a clear agenda for dealing with cross-strait issues, as well as a plan for Taiwan independence?
Fei-fan: I think they really do, because it is fact that the DPP has moved towards the centre of the political spectrum. It’s even to the extent that all the policies proposed by the DPP are moving closer to the right. I think if any of the third-force political parties want to emerge in Taiwan's political arena, they have to have a very clear political agenda for promoting progressive values, and even for promoting Taiwan’s independence.
What I worry the most is that, as I have mentioned, the problem with the current path the NPP is on, there isn’t a clear consensus on many issues. This will be a big challenge for the NPP if they want to become a major party instead of a just third-force party. For example, how far to the left on the political spectrum would the NPP be willing to go, or how much support are they going to integrate into their agenda for supporting the independence movement?
Overall, I think for most third-force parties in Taiwan, whether it be the NPP, the SDP, or the Green Party, taking a path that sticks close to concerns of local people is important. If the public has a variety of political parties with different stances on progressive issues and independence, that’s a good thing.
Q: During 318, a favorite slogan of protesters was: “If the KMT doesn’t go down, Taiwan won’t be OK.” Is it still important to persist in this mission?
Fei-fan: I think there are multiple layers to that question that complicate the answer. I know that there’s a lot of elder “deep-green” supporters who believe the top priority is to defeat the KMT so they can’t survive as a political party anymore; we can deal with all other problems after this task is completed. Or to take it a step further, there shouldn’t be any internal conflict or criticism of the DPP until we deal with the political system put in place by the Republic of China, and Taiwan achieves independence.
I think these two interpretations are pretty far away from reality, and they are most likely to be incorporated into the slogan and agendas of radical pro-independence parties. I think these thoughts result from the confusion of what the system is within the Republic of China, because when you say you want to eradicate the KMT, to what extent could this aim be fully achieved? If the KMT still has political representation at the county and city level, or in the legislature, would you say that this aim is achieved? If you only focus on how to eradicate the legacy of colonization, you might have to ignore China as the main threat to Taiwan. So I think that the slogan we used before is no longer applicable today in 2018.