Interview: Shinichi Chen

Shinichi Chen is the founder and chair of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party. The following interview was conducted on April 1st, 2019.


Brian Hioe:  Could you first introduce yourself for readers that don’t know you?

Shinichi Chen:  The Taiwan Statebuilding Party (基進黨, also sometimes seen as Radical Party, formerly known as Radical Wings) started in southern Taiwan. At the time, it was 2012, when the Ma administration won a second term. A group of us were overseas at the time in Europe. I was also in Europe then, in Holland. I came back to Taiwan to vote and after I went back.

After the defeat, many elders were quite disappointed. They wondered if some young people could work on things. I worked on political economy. I analyzed Taiwan’s situation, so I felt that Taiwan needed some young people to work on these issues. Because we had an analysis as to what Taiwan needed. The results seemed to confirm my analysis to me, I thought that it would be very important for Taiwan to have this kind of force.

Do you want me to talk about my analysis? [Laughs]

Photo credit: 陳奕齊 – 新一/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  Didn’t you start by having a website?

Shinichi Chen:  In the beginning, we had a blog in Europe. Everyone wrote on it together, that blog was called ‘Overcoming Green and Blue”. It started in 2008 when there was the defeat. Later on, in 2012, we thought that we should do some more things. We decided that we shouldn’t ask the DPP to do things, we should do things ourselves. “Save your own country”. That was the most popular slogan during the Sunflower Movement.

So we began in southern Taiwan. In 2013, we had a street demonstration with that slogan, “Save your own country.” We wanted to see what we could do for Taiwan if we self-organized. Austin Wang at Duke University later proposed something similar regarding flanking theory.

My own view was that corporatization would lead to a race to the bottom, but Taiwan’s political spectrum would race toward China if you didn’t change things. It’s like that now. The KMT’s way of tricking the Taiwanese people is by using the 1992 Consensus and “One China, Two Inteerpretations.” But as you see, since there has been nothing maintained, this has led Taiwan’s political spectrum to shift. You have “One Country, Two Systems”.

The KMT currently hopes for “One Country, Two Systems,” so the DPP has pressure to recognize the 1992 Consensus. With the DPP, any protests have to be very moderate. Like the Sunflower Movement. I actually even believe the Sunflower Movement was a rather conservative movement.

Although we all participated in the Sunflower Movement and many of our friends in Kaohsiung here also charged in. I went up myself the next day and we were there for many days on the outside of the Legislative Yuan, then we had an action to surround the KMT party headquarters in Kaohsiung and Tainan. That was us from the Taiwan Statebuilding Party, though we weren’t in the spotlight.

At the time, we felt Taiwan needed a radical force. This radical force, we translated it as “基” from fundamental, and “進” from progressive. That is to say that, compared to Europe, it might be a very fundamental or basic demand, but for Taiwan, conservative as it is, it’s comparatively progressive. You need some fundamental anchor so things don’t skew towards the pro-China end of the political spectrum.

The other side of things is that my own views differed from others because in 2000, Taiwan entered a new historical period. That change began from that it was originally Lee Teng-hui’s “local faction” of the KMT, which was pushed out of the party and formed the Taiwan Solidarity Union. It formed the so-called pan-Green alliance with the DPP. The so-called localization of the KMT can be said to have had a setback in that way. So it returned to its external status, there was no localized aspect of the party, so it would lean towards China. After it lost again, then in 2005, it went to China when everyone was concerned with the anti-separatism law.

You’ll discover that if the political competition between parties is an important force for the deepening of Taiwanese democracy, this led to an important phenomenon. This phenomenon is that our political competition parties are distorted. If the pan-Green alliance is in power, this is a local political party. If it’s the pan-Blue party that has is in power, you have a pro-China party.

This has a large difference from America. America has a complete form of sovereignty, so whether Democratic or Republican, both parties put American interests first. Whether Democratic or Republican, they are both American parties. But within Taiwan, if you have the pan-Green alliance, they might put Taiwanese interests first, but if you have the pan-Blue alliance, they would put Chinese interests first. And they are in competition with each other.

Given this situation, if you want to complete Taiwanese democratization, sovereignty, or independence, you must have a second party. You can see this in history. Democratization during Lee Teng-hui’s period in power, the second foot was the opposition DPP party. But now you have no second party, so we need a second foot. This is what I think the Taiwan Statebuilding Party needs.

I also believe that Taiwan’s future depends on young people, so I look forward to the young people of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party twenty years from now having the political ability and sense to work together as a large team able to compete with the DPP and succeed power from the DPP. In this way, Taiwan will progress towards what we hope for, in terms of having an independent nation.

We always support something. They often say that the pan-Green camp is as bad as the pan-Blue camp. We say that the pan-Green camp is bad apples, whereas the pan-Blue camp is poisoned apples. You have to admit, that if you eat poisoned apples, you’ll die, but if you eat bad apples, you may just have diarrhea. If you can’t get rid of the bad apples, what you have to do is get rid of the poisoned apples first. They’ll say that both sides are the same and that they’re both garbage, mixing these things up.

They take this view because they think that the political transition of powers in Taiwan is stabilized, but what I have to say is that this isn’t right. Because after 2000, our main political enemy the KMT, is pro-China, and in the political competition which exists in a normal country, this shouldn’t exist. The KMT should be eliminated.

It was like that with the Sunflower Movement as well. It was only when I got up to the north that I found something was off in terms of the movement’s demands.

Brian Hioe:  The Taiwan Statebuilding Party had a stage set up then if I recall.

Shinichi Chen:  On Zhongshan South Road and Qingdao East Road. After maintaining that for a few days, I left. I returned to the south, because I was still teaching, then. The stage was mostly people from the south. We opposed the services trade agreement with China. Yet we found that most people in Taipei opposed the black box, what they wanted was transparency. For me, it was a bit shocking. Because your trade, in terms of imports and exports, was over 42% with China. That was overreliance on China.

You can use a metaphor. If you already eat too much Chinese salt and you’re getting sick, of course, a doctor would tell you to stop eating this. But this logic was not opposing Chinese salt, you just request transparency and keep eating. I felt this was wrong.

Shinichi Chen. Photo credit: 陳奕齊 – 新一/Facebook

And because of this logic, they proposed the cross-straits oversight trade bill. I also felt that this was wrong. A doctor wouldn’t tell you that after going through the correct procedures, you can keep eating. So later on then, I found Taipei was like this.

Also, some were, I wouldn’t say left, but they just opposed free trade. They opposed globalization. I thought this was impossible. If you sell things to others, like Taiwan, you can’t request that other people don’t sell things to you. If Taiwan has an economic plan for being self-sufficient without trading with other countries, I think I can agree. If you don’t have this and you just oppose all free trade, this is something you can do intellectually, but in practice, it is impossible.

So there was the other view present in the movement, which opposition to the free trade, along with the view of opposing the black box. We opposed the services trade agreement with China. It later became that those opposed to the black box became the New Power Party, those opposed to free trade were the Social Democratic. And those opposed to the services trade with China was the Taiwan Statebuilding Party. We just didn’t want these agreements to continue to be signed with China. The situation was like that.

In 2016, we also wanted to run, but we had issues. After 2014, we decided that we wanted to run for office, so we ran. We registered as Le Flanc Radical and prepared to run, but we discovered that everyone was preparing to run at the same time. Then the Taiwan Citizens’ Union fragmented into the NPP and SDP. Everyone prepared to run and they prepared to run non-party list candidates. In 2016, we had to win. We started an action to have a referendum on the KMT’s party assets, hoping that everyone can have a shared base. That we have a shared enemy, which is the Chinese  KMT. We didn’t want to have so many splits.

We decided to run. But some elders formed the Taiwanese Independence Action Party and they didn’t really form it in the end and decided to support the NPP. So we had some issues as a result. Then the TSU approached us about cooperating. I said no in the beginning. However, we were approached by Yeh Guo-xin, currently, the deputy executive secretary of the National Security Council, to discuss. They said that Chinese infiltration was very deep. So we thought that about promoting the idea that the new legislature needed a division of labor. That Tsai Ing-wen could focus on domestic politics since she likes to focus on domestic politics.

The other side of it was addressing what I called the “Chinese termite problem.” Well, I get criticized for nationalism and racism, or called a fascist or skinhead, because I said this. Blah, blah, blah. But I didn’t come up with this term. China did themselves, they called it a “Termite Policy”, directed toward Hong Kong.

I just used the term. But a lot of people don’t know this in Taiwan. That’s why we had what happened in 2018.

I’m more sensitive to these shifts in the political situation because I studied political economy. In 2018, the political spectrum shifting toward China and the political spectrum shifting toward China in 2008 is different. There was a world economic crisis in 2008. That’s why the world economy shifted toward China. But in 2018, with the trade war between America and China, as well as with Europe also treating China as a competitor—though America had done so already—this may be a new long-term confrontation. In the course of this confrontation, why would you choose China? So this time with elections, it was disappointing.

It’s quite interesting. After elections in 2018, people found that the infiltration we were talking about was real. Not that we were just trying to frighten people or couldn’t let go of grudges.

Brian Hioe:  The KMT is even raising the idea of signing a peace treaty with China now.

Shinichi Chen:  It’s all real. Things are going in that direction. Many people aren’t optimistic about elections next year.

Brian Hioe:  How do you look at what has changed from 2014, up to now? Some people look at what has taken place as the emergence of a new generation of young people, with the appearance of new parties, including the Taiwan Statebuilding Party.

Shinichi Chen:  I feel that the Sunflower Movement led many people to become conscious about these issues. But we were active since before the Sunflower Movement. Of course, the Sunflower Movement made it easier for us to communicate to young people that politics is something which is very important.

Yet the Sunflower Movement also led to some issues. When the KMT is in power, it has to maintain the banner of One Country, Two Systems. What is left for the DPP is the 1992 Consensus. The social forces behind the DPP hope to be more moderate. They see the pan-Green and pan-Blue as both bad. It’s the White Force, as we were talking about earlier.

They want you to participate, to feel that political participation is clean, but because of this, five years later, if we had just firmly told young people what the real problems that Taiwan has encountered are, we wouldn’t have these issues now. You tried to simplify things to pull young people in to participate. So you use the cheapest, laziest, or convenient means of participation, but you don’t realize where the issues are. This has dragged on for five years.

You have to turn back and tell them that. That’s why many people feel that because the DPP isn’t doing well, they will vote for someone else. But it’s not like that. If the DPP isn’t doing well, you can’t vote for the KMT, you should vote for someone else. And if there are no alternatives, you can just not vote.

This is why I think that, as a politician, you have to be frank when you talk to the people. I believe that how you run your campaign, that will determine how you are when in office. Since that builds your support base. If you trick people or simply say what sounds good, there’s no way you can actually do things.

Average voters don’t have too much time to actually participate in politics. Because you’re the person who is always participating in politics, who is researching this, you should tell them. Average voters are working all day, they don’t have the time for this. Even if you’re only telling part of the truth, you might not necessarily be lying, but I still feel that this isn’t earnest. If you really treat the people are your friends if you see a hole in front of them that they’re about to walk into, of course, you’ll tell them about it.

If we had been frank about this five years ago, many things would be clearer now. You wouldn’t have these issues in the legislature now. But nobody is discussing China’s agenda now.

Chen during his 2016 run for the legislature in cooperation with the Taiwan Solidarity Union. Photo credit: 陳奕齊 – 新一/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  So you feel that the Taiwan Statebuilding Party differs from other political parties that have emerged after the Sunflower Movement? It is quite interesting to me that the Taiwan Statebuilding Party seems stronger in southern Taiwan, for example.

Shinichi Chen:  That’s a difference. It’s very simple. In Taipei, we are weaker. But most aim for Taipei, since there are a lot of resources there. Because of that, I don’t want to go there all the more. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that when young people run in an environment in which there are a lot of resources, or there is a lot of media, you get big-headed. It’s very easy for that to happen. I know this very clearly. In training members of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party, I make them be very clear about knowing that their opponent in the future is their peers in China. So I hope that they are skilled in many respects, since it’s not so easy to beat them.

If you’re in Taipei, I also think you have less creativity or the ability to imagine things. Things come from having the point of view of others. You know that apart from highly urban places, like where we live in, there are other situations in Taiwan. You know their situation, so you know that politically, that’s not the only situation. That’ll make you realize there’s not just one way of doing things politically. You might miss something. So you have to see if there are other possibilities, in looking at the overall picture.

This will lead young people to think of other possibilities. This is why the theoreticizations raised by the Taiwan Statebuilding Party are completely different from what you see in the north. Their views are very superficial. I can’t accept this.

You tell the voters the situation bluntly. That your running for office isn’t for the sake of getting votes. You do this because today in Taiwan, you face a historical task. In facing this, you have to lead Taiwan forward, to complete what it is supposed to complete. It’s not that you are right because you win. If so, well, Han Kuo-yu is right, and we should all go from him.

And it’s not just winning, it’s how you win. You could buy votes too. You could cheat to win. Do you really want to do that? But then you get caught up in that. You’re stuck doing that. This is why it’s also been very difficult for the Taiwan Statebuilding Party. We have higher standards. So it’s tough for us in Taipei.

You mentioned you’re Hakka. Well, most people in central and southern Taiwan speak Taiwanese. We’d also feel that Taiwanese is important, we try to teach young people to speak Taiwanese in public speeches.

It’s gotten better in the past years. Those who criticized us in the past may be more accepting of some of our ideas now. People in Taipei may have disliked speaking in Taiwanese in the past, but now, they know that they have to speak some Taiwanese.

In the past, they also claimed that the Taiwan Statebuilding Party only knew to oppose China. For me, it’s not opposing China. But things have priorities. This is a higher priority right now. So it’s not that we just oppose China. I myself began from labor studies. I also don’t work on researching China directly, though I got to understand the China studies from studying abroad. So it’s not that we only know about opposing China.

And we were proven to be right. Just others weren’t paying attention.

Brian Hioe:  What does the Taiwan Statebuilding Party plan for the next set of elections?

Shinichi Chen:  First, we want to start a campaign, to set up laws to protect Taiwan from China. We translated the laws from Australia about foreign interference. On this base, we want to have a new legal means to oppose China. And we want to make a campaign.

I believe that in 2020, there needs to be a voice of opposition to China for us to win elections. Because we can’t lose in 2020. If we lose, things are lost.

We also hope to obtain some seats in terms of legislators, whether in district areas or by proportional representation. But we know that this is difficult if the rules of the game don’t change. We’ll try, anyway.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think any shifts have changed in terms of how China reacts to Taiwan?

Shinichi Chen:  One change is that elections last year has proven something. Chinese infiltration of Taiwan has been successful. Second, it confirms to China that it can use campaigns online, or in terms of the media. China can use election campaigns to decide who Taiwan’s future leaders are. It used elections as a means of winning over Taiwan. It’s possible and it’s something worth doing.

How do you address this in the future? From when Ma Ying-jeou was in power up until these few years, you’ll discover that China’s influence hasn’t been broken just because of our election victory in 2016. Whether with the traditional DPP, or the new politics currently in the legislature, they haven’t done anything to deal with China. I don’t know why. But when you have to take care of it, you discover that if you had started trying to take care of this, two or three years ago, things wouldn’t be like this.

Photo credit: 陳奕齊 – 新一/Facebook

Taiwan is like this. This is also why Tsai Ing-wen and William Lai would get into this kind of competition. Because the voice of the people directed at Tsai Ing-wen is also very loud. You find that there’s no way around this. There’s the sense that the country might disappear.

A friend of mine working in China said that after the election, he feels like he’s counting down for Taiwan. He was in a very bad mood. So it’s like that. Whether you like Trump or not, he’s sincere toward America. People may not how he looks or how he talks, but in protecting American interests, although we may feel that Trump—if you’re the world policeman, you have a duty toward the world.

Some people see Trump as an isolationist, but I don’t agree with people on this. Trump may not agree with the rules of the game of this world, but he wants to rewrite these rules. It’s a long process regarding this. Yet because he wants to rewrite the rules of the game, so it became that in the process of the rules changing, I don’t think Trump has any other choice.

I can raise an example. Trump withdrew from the human rights committee of the United Nations. If it was me, I would do the same. China is also on the committee. Everyone is. If human rights really universal, then? It becomes all relative. You can’t do this. You have to withdraw. That’s why after withdrawing, they released a report criticizing China. It’s like the WTO as well. China has abused the WTO. It’s abused the rules of this game. So I believe that this is what Trump aims for and why I support him rewriting the rules of the game. It’s not that this is simply isolationism.

America and China are both pursuing their interests, but without any other choice, which would we choose? It would be America. I’m very clear about this. We can only be dogs now, but dogs in China are food. In America, dogs are pets. It’s better to be a pet than to be eaten. At the very least, America plays by the rules. You don’t have these rules in China.

China also uses the rules of the game to strengthen itself. So you’ll find that China tries to act as though it were the protector of the rules of the game. It’s quite strange. Things have changed. This is why Trump would point out this abuse of the rules. I think the world needs a new set of rules to hold China in check, otherwise, there’s no option.

Looking back on these five years, it’s very much a shame that we didn’t take care of this in 2014. I don’t know why either. Who could have said what would happen then? We didn’t know Trump would launch a trade war against China. Australia also began efforts against China in 2016 up until now.

Whether we have time or not, I don’t know. I feel pessimistic, given last year’s election. These are the views of the Taiwan Statebuilding Party. Our views are different from other parties. Many people may feel that, during this period of time, what we need to address is our first priorities. Some may criticize us for not discussing other issues, but it’s not that we’re not discussing them, it’s a question of timing.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think Taiwan can influence the international world in this way?

Shinichi Chen:  It’s quite simple. Because I feel that we’re people who are influenced. If Taiwan keeps making it too costly for America to defend Taiwan…Does America really need this first island chain? Doesn’t it have a second island chain? Technology changes geopolitics.

For Kaohsiung to going to Taipei or going from Kaohsiung to Miaoli. In terms of distance, Miaoli is closer. But in terms of time, Taipei is closer. If you ask the majority of Kaohsiung residents, they’ll think that Taipei is closer. This is what I mean about technology changing time or distance, as well as geopolitics.

Do you want America to think that Taiwanese people like China and that they should protect themselves? You have to lean toward China. But you know the president of Venezuela had a scandal, in terms of elections. America and the European Union supported the head of the legislature, Guaido? And China backed Maduro. Venezuela is still in chaos now.

If in 2020, Taiwan votes a pro-China president in, without a clear scandal, what then? How will America come in? It isn’t a bad joke if you pick a pro-China president in 2020.

Something Trump has really emphasized is which side you stand on. If you pick China, it’s like that. In democratic theory, if we pick one side, and we pick China, sure. But Trump may wonder, should I keep selling weapons to you? You may send them to China the next day.

If so, in working with you or protecting you, American support will decrease. This is why I am quite gloomy about 2020. This is why, for me, I feel it may be good that the Sunflower Movement brought out so many people, but I feel that the effects of the Sunflower Movement aren’t what people say, that it was something historic. So I don’t usually discuss the Sunflower Movement. I talk about it quite rarely. People don’t come to us to talk about it either. It’s the north which controls the discourse, not us.

Brian Hioe:  Is there anything you would like to say in closing to readers, Taiwanese readers or international readers?

Shinichi Chen:  Is there anything I should say in particular?

Well, the majority of young people aren’t concerned with things. They only see what it in front of them. But it’s a divided society. Because the information that you can get in society is all divided. Their views are quite shallow.

Something quite interesting about the Taiwan Statebuilding Party is that most people in the party are young people. So it also is a voice among young people, who are divided among themselves. But I have to say, the majority of young people are still unconcerned. The Taiwan Statebuilding Party can attract young people from many backgrounds, which is to say that young people can change.

Photo credit: 陳奕齊 – 新一/Facebook

We’re pretty rarely interviewed. People from the north. But I don’t think we’ll lose to them either. I also don’t think we’ll lose in the future. We’re clearer than they are about the future. The Taiwan Statebuilding Party is clearest about this. They talk about whatever issue floats up at any given moment. On the other hand, the Taiwan Statebuilding Party has always focused on the same issue. And from this issue, you can see many others.

It’s like that with issues in general, if you focus in on an issue, you can open up many others. But Taiwan is always focused on single issues. We don’t want to go with the trends. This doesn’t build up and this doesn’t have a holistic picture. I don’t believe that this is very healthy. That’s my personal view.