Sex and Democracy in Taiwan

Fairly or not, sex scandals in politics have acquired a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon ring. The French boast of taking a more sophisticated view of the private lives of public men—that is to say, those lives are shielded from public scrutiny. Germans smack their lips when their betters stray but do not let this behavior get in the way of politics. (The British smack their lips too, even as they bring their culprits down.) Many Asian strongmen have positively reveled in being cocks of the walk. When a blackmailer once threatened President Sukarno with photographs of the Indonesian leader striking up an intimate acquaintance with several Parisian hookers, Sukarno told him to make sure every Indonesian saw them at once. It could only enhance his reputation. To be sure, a Japanese prime minister was once forced to resign when his girlfriend, a minor geisha, made trouble, but that was because he wasn’t paying her enough money to remain discreet, and not because extramarital sex was considered a bad thing in itself.

Patrick Lin/AFP/Getty Images
Kaohsiung Mayor Frank Hsieh (in blue jacket) joins Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian to campaign in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, a day before the presidential election of 2004.

All this is by way of registering my surprise about the presence of sex in the Taiwanese mayoral elections at the beginning of December. I arrived in Taiwan from Washington with the hot lips of Starr and Lewinsky still freshly imprinted on my mind. And one of the first things I read in the papers was that the mayoral candidate for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party in the southern city of Kaohsiung had accused his opponent, the incumbent mayor, of lying about having had an extramarital affair. To prove his case, a tape was distributed of a telephone conversation between the said mayor and his girlfriend. The mayor, a member of the ruling Kuomintang Party, was heard whispering “I love you.” But the mayor denied that he had ever spoken these words. The tape, so he wished us to believe, was a fake.

Now, why should this have become an issue? Sure enough, opponents of the allegedly amorous mayor used the same arguments as enemies of President Clinton: it wasn’t the sex, it was the lying. He was insincere. If he lied about one thing, how could he be trusted about anything else, and so forth. But these arguments had a hollow ring. The fact is that a man’s alleged sexual infidelity was used to denigrate his character.

The mayor, named Wu Dun-yi, then decided to strike back with even heavier guns. The DPP candidate, a lawyer by the name of Frank Hsieh, had once taken on the case of a kidnapper who had murdered the daughter of a well-known show business figure. In the middle of the mayoral campaign, the girl’s mother, who happens to be close to the KMT, decided to release a videotape, which was consequently distributed all over Kaohsiung, in which she declared, in tearful anger, that a man who defends a vicious killer must be a very bad man himself. The hope was that the citizens of Kaohsiung would have only a very hazy idea of what constitutes a lawyer’s job—so much for the notion of strengthening the “rule of law.”

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Why the sex? Why the mud? I can but speculate. The Westernization of life in East Asia, and in Taiwan in particular, might have something to do with it. But puritanism has deeper Chinese roots. It is no coincidence that the accusation of sexual misconduct came from the opposition party, which has been allowed to exist legally only since 1989. The DPP consists mainly of so-called “native Taiwanese,” whose ancestors arrived centuries ago. The KMT, most of whose members arrived in Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek after their defeat by the Communists in 1949, was always the party of the mainlanders. Even though the current president, Lee Teng-hui, and many of his KMT supporters are in fact Taiwanese, the tension between the “natives” and the newcomers has never disappeared. The DPP, whether openly or not, favors Taiwanese independence. The KMT still clings to the formula of one China.

This difference doesn’t directly account, however, for the injection of sex into politics. What is more to the point is that rebels against the old order in China have always had a moralistic streak. In the Confucian tradition, it was the role of intellectuals to restore virtue and purge moral corruption in society. This explains the puritanical nature of Maoism, which, despite the voraciousness of the Chairman’s own sexual appetites, surpassed anything in the Soviet Union. It explains why Lee Kuan Yew, who began as a socialist rebel against British colonialism, turned Singapore into a sterile island of moral righteousness. It also explains why Chen Shui-bian, as the former DPP mayor of Taipei, closed down the licensed brothels and massage parlors for which his city was famous. This didn’t really help anyone, least of all the prostitutes, who are now left without protection and medical supervision. But closing the brothels was a sign of public probity and private virtue.

Chen, defending his job in the December election, ran into some peculiar opposition as a consequence of his actions. When I visited his campaign headquarters in Taipei to attend a press conference, the entrance was barred by riot police wrestling with a man in a pompadour hairdo who was surrounded by young men carrying election banners but who would have looked more at home bouncing undesirables from nightclubs. It appeared that the man in the pompadour was an entertainer turned brothel operator who was running in the elections as an independent candidate. He, like many disgruntled taxi drivers and other paid cicerones, felt that Chen’s moral zeal had put a crimp in his business.

The Western element of Taiwan’s neomoralism came in with the gradual and still by no means complete social emancipation of women. Professional women’s groups have an important part in opposition politics in Taiwan, just as they have had in Japan since the 1940s. These groups are in the forefront of campaigns to crack down on vice and promote “family values.” They find a common cause with opposition parties, because prostitution, the keeping of mistresses, and other such practices are associated with the traditional order, represented by the KMT, which must be overthrown. Marital fidelity, the clean family life, and so on, are associated with progress, modernity, and indeed with the West, which is supposedly the model of these fine things.

This is, perhaps, a somewhat simplified view of the West, but as far as sexual politics is concerned, America has indeed served as a model. Zealous talk of family values by the Christian right notwithstanding, the importance attached to politically correct sexual behavior has been driven by “progressives” in the US as well. Think, for example, of Anita Hill’s attack on Clarence Thomas or of Catherine McKinnon’s juridical feminism. And if the President of the United States can be publicly held to account for ignoring the rules of behavior he himself has professed to promote, then why not the mayor of Kaohsiung? It is a form of Americanization, then, but it is the America of Starr and McKinnon, which is hardly representative of the entire Western world.

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There is, however, one more reason why sex scandals are playing a part in politics in Taiwan as much as elsewhere. The election campaign was conspicuous for the absence of political or ideological issues. The DPP talked a bit more about social welfare than the KMT, but it is increasingly hard to divide the two parties in terms of right and left. As is true in many places, the end of the cold war and the death (de facto even in China) of communism have broken the old ideological divisions. The one issue that separates the Taiwanese parties is the question of Taiwanese independence, but since that is too hot to handle right now all candidates dodged it. What is left is the politics of ethnicity, sentiment, and moral virtue. Chen tried to discredit his opponent in the Taipei election, Ma Ying-jiou, for being a mainlander. (Ma came to Taiwan as an infant.) Candidates courted sympathy by having their wives cry in public and beg the voters not to let their husbands down because they were such fine, upstanding fellows.

The sexual angle is an ambivalent one in Taiwan, however. This is because the traditional acceptance of and even admiration for the powerful man’s sexual prowess clashes with the half-American, half-Confucian demand for the man of public and private virtue. In Kaohsiung, many people thought the DPP tactic against the amorous mayor would backfire. But in Taipei, Chen’s moral zeal was regarded as an asset. In fact, in the end neither sexual politics nor indeed ethnicity seems to have mattered much. Frank Hsieh won in Kaohsiung, but Chen Shui-bian lost in Taipei. Just as most Americans support Clinton, despite Paula Jones and Lewinsky and who knows how many others, Taiwanese voted for the men they thought would most ably represent their interests. It is often said Chinese neither understand nor care about democratic politics. In their superior wisdom, the Taiwanese voters proved such theories wrong.