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Political satire spices up Taiwan campaign
By Laurence Eyton

TAIPEI - Although Taiwan's presidential election is not until next March, and the campaign does not officially begin until next year, it is in fact already under way, with weekends throughout November having been devoted to mass rallies by the contending camps and the release of platform statements timed to keep public interest at a peak.

The public, however, has been diverted by something completely different from the dry discussions about constitutional change the parties intended to focus on. Instead it has been treated first to a series of irreverent video compact discs (VCDs) targeting opposition politicians, then to the quite extraordinary lengths the opposition parties have gone to try to have the VCDs suppressed, civil-libertarian outrage, the government reversing itself - some of its supporters would say finding itself - on a free speech issue and finally, some pointed questions about how much of the old dictatorship lingers on, both in government institutions and people's minds.

The VCDs - there are supposed to be four of them, of which only three have so far been released - are part of a series called Special Report. Their content is satire, much of it in the Taiwanese dialect rather than the Mandarin that Taiwan uses officially, aimed at some of the more notorious grandstanders among Taiwan's politicians, particularly among the opposition.

To an outsider familiar with the sometimes scarifying political satire in Western democracies - one only has to think of the jokes told by the likes of Jay Leno during the recent California recall vote - Special Report is not exactly humor with an edge. In Taiwan, however, it seems to have cut to the bone. In particular it has angered politicians in the People First Party (PFP), some of whom it has targeted, as well as the party's leader James Soong.

Soong is a hugely controversial figure in Taiwan politics, equally adored as a savior or loathed both as a human-rights violator and a common criminal. But it is no accident that a satirical VCD made in Taiwanese, the language of Taiwanese nationalism, should target him. It was Soong, after all, who 20 years ago, as the head of the Government Information Office (GIO), which is both the government's spokesman and the nation's official censor, banned Taiwanese-language programming from the airwaves. Soong, a hardline supporter of reunification with China, is seen by advocates of Taiwan independence, to whom the use of the Taiwanese dialect is a sign of identification, as being the unificationists' only real hope of regaining power in Taiwan and independence's biggest threat.

Although in the upcoming presidential election Soong is only the running mate, with Lien Chan of the Kuomintang (KMT) heading the ticket, Lien is looked on as a vain and idle individual, who is likely, if he wins the presidency, to let Soong take the position of premier, or head of the executive branch, as well as the relatively powerless vice presidency and, in effect, let Soong do all the work in preparation for his own bid for the presidency in 2008.

The VCD therefore, by attacking Soong in Taiwanese, stands astride two of Taiwan's more visceral divides: the ethnic one between Taiwanese - those whose families have lived in Taiwan for several generations - and the mainland exiles of Chiang Kai-shek, of whom Soong is one, and who excluded most Taiwanese from political power for 40 years, and the divide between unificationists and independence supporters.

Even so, this hardly explains the rabid reaction of Soong's supporters. There have been attempts to sue the producers, distributors and even the actors in the VCD for defamation. The actors, in particular, have, by their very visibility, been the target of such an astounding torrent of hatred and abuse that one of them, actress Wang Hsiao-fen, attempted suicide.

And there has been more than just the legal harassment of those involved in making the VCD. No sooner was the first disc in the series available than PFP legislators demanded to know of the head of the GIO how his office could pass such material for distribution. The GIO director general, Huang Hui-chen, said that in fact the GIO had never approved the VCD for distribution and determined they were therefore, illegal. It was, however, up to local government authorities to police this.

Huang's admission brought two immediate reactions: the KMT mayor of Taipei, Ma Ying-jeou, who has ambitions to be Soong's running mate in 2008, launched police raids around the capital to stop the sale of and seize the VCDs. Legislators from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), on the other hand, pointed out that the GIO head both didn't know what he was talking about and had gravely offended against the principle of free speech, a principle that, although written into Taiwan's constitution, has been more often honored only in the breach in the past half-century, most notoriously by James Soong himself.

The exact bone of legal contention of the legislators was that that the GIO was attempting to regulate the VCD under the Broadcast and Television Law, according to which TV programs need prior approval before they are aired. But the VCD was not meant for TV broadcasting. Given the lack of any specific policy dealing with VCDs, the GIO was treating them in the same way as videotapes made for broadcasting. But Special Report was neither a tape nor was being broadcast - it was in fact being sold in night markets. While it is true that originally the producers of the VCD had hoped to sell the shows to a TV company, it was absurd to apply laws relating to broadcast media to something being sold from market stalls.

On top of this was a simple free-speech issue: who was the GIO to decide what political satire people could and could not see? Even after the end of martial law in the late 1980s and Taiwan's democratization, the GIO has been left with a formidable arsenal of censorship powers - used to such memorable effect in the bad old days by Soong - but these have in recent years, by a sort of gentleman's agreement, only been used in cases regarding possible obscenity or endangerment of national security. Damage to James Soong's amour-propre, the DPP legislators said, hardly falls into either category.

While the GIO didn't concede the point about the non-applicability of the Broadcast and Television Law, it made a change in regulations removing the need for prior GIO approval for "programs concerning current affairs" and "VCDs circulated with publications". It did this, it said, in the interests of free speech.

In theory this should have stopped Mayor Ma's crackdown on sales of the VCD. But Ma was anyway already in trouble. His opponents quickly pointed out that Taipei's night markets were awash in VCDs both unlicensed and - many of them - obscene, and questioned why political satire merited a crackdown when pornography didn't. And then it was discovered that, as part of his re-election campaign last year, Ma had distributed a promotional VCD that also had not received prior clearance from the GIO. On top all this was the absurdity of having the half of the Taipei metropolitan area controlled by Taipei city Special Report-free, when it was freely available in the half run by the DPP-controlled Taipei county government.

PFP efforts to suppress the VCD were not to be frustrated, however. As well as intimidation of the actors and production team, Soong's acolytes tried to get the production company, Bi-Sheng Broadcasting Co, closed down on the basis of also being improperly licensed. This failed when the company produced a business operation license granted, embarrassingly, by Ma's Taipei city government.

Having lost its various legal challenges, all the PFP can do now about the VCD, the third and fourth of the series of which were released this week, is muster its formidable array of commentators on to TV talk shows to argue that it welcomes the VCD because, by showing how crass and uncultured are the Special Report team and, by implication, the DPP government - which is supposed to tacitly support the VCD - the satire will alienate voters from the DPP at election time. This is, perhaps, a far better joke than anything in Special Report itself.

In its reaction to the satire, the PFP has done itself remarkable harm. The VCDs raise a laugh at the expense of Soong and some of those close to him. The PFP, in trying to turn this into an act of lese majeste has only shown itself to be extraordinarily intolerant.

At the grassroots, a large number of Taiwanese who otherwise would have paid no attention to the disks have now watched them to see what the fuss is about, have deemed them innocent fun at the expense of the puffed-up and have judged the PFP's behavior to exhibit their intolerance of free speech, especially free speech that involves Taiwanese laughing at mainlanders rather than kowtowing to them as in the days of the Chiang dictatorship.

But there is a bigger issue at stake. Despite 15 years of apparent liberalization, Taiwan's media are still largely in the hands of pro-unification mainlanders. Partly this is the result of the political vetting of media ownership carried on by the likes of James Soong and other GIO heads of the martial-law era; partly it is because of the educational imbalance between mainlanders and Taiwanese during the same period; and partly it is simply because the pro-independence Taiwanese camp has rarely had deep enough pockets to be able to get its own media up and running in Taiwan's viciously competitive environment.

As a result, the progressive and Taiwan-nationalist DPP government has met a huge amount of hostility from the conservative reunificationist media. Taiwan's laws of defamation are so weak that it has become a common practice in the unificationist media to print the most outrageous slurs about members of the government - a recent example involved an attempt to hound a health minister out of office on a completely false charge of sexually harassing another male employee - safe in the knowledge that they have little legal recourse to clear their name.

Special Report can be seen as a reaction to this media dominance and the culture of defamatory mud-slinging that provides its common fare. It is an attempt by pro-independence Taiwanese to find a voice and an audience that is denied to them in the mainstream media. Given the popularity of Special Report, more of these guerrilla productions can be expected.

Also in question now is the role of the GIO. Few people gave the organization much attention until the Special Report fracas. But now opinion makers are asking why this remnant of the bad old days still exists. Its administration might, currently, be benevolent. But that is no guarantee for the future. Why should it exist at all? A ministry of information could serve the purposes of providing important information domestically and overseas and a communications commission could perform such functions as broadcast bandwidth licenses. Let the courts handle issues such as obscenity. What Taiwan doesn't need, say civil libertarians, is an official censor.

Overall, the lasting impression of the Special Report storm in a teacup is that Taiwan might be a democracy in the sense of having regular free elections, but 15 years has been far too little for libertarian values to become deep-rooted. And some of Special Report's supporters claim that, as long as assiduous servants of the former dictatorship such as James Soong remain electorally viable, liberal democracy's roots in Taiwan will remain shallow. For this reason the upcoming election is being seen as a watershed.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
Nov 27, 2003


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