The Diplomat: James Soong: The End of an (Authoritarian) Era in Taiwan

Amid the coverage of Tsai Ing-wen’s resounding victory and re-election as president of Taiwan last week, scant attention was given to political veteran James Soong’s showing. The former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) heavyweight finished a distant third place with just 4.25 of the vote. This represented a drop of more than 8.5 percent from his 2016 campaign, though an improvement on the dismal 2.77 percent he received in 2012. More tellingly, 2020 marked the first year Soong’s People First Party contested an election without winning a single seat in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan.

Prior to the election, the 77-year-old Soong had promised that this would be his last bid for power. Given his status as a perennial loser in democratic process – he was also trounced in the 2006 Taipei mayoral election – the fulfillment of this pledge might seem long overdue.

During his tenure as director-general of the Government Information Office (1979-1984) and director of the KMT’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs Committee (1984), Soong waged a campaign of repression against hundreds of writers, journalists, publishers, and artists. He is said to have pursued and persecuted his targets with zeal. Prominent on his resume is the crackdown against Formosa Magazine and Tangwai leaders in the aftermath of the Kaohsiung Incident of 1979.

He also famously stripped Associated Press reporter Tina Chou of her credentials over the reporting of the autopsy of Carnegie Mellon assistant professor Chen Wen-chen.

One of Chen’s most prominent actions was to draw attention to the “professional students” – a euphemism for KMT spies – who were alleged to be present across campuses in the United States and elsewhere. While these claims are now known to be true, as GIO head, Soong poured scorn on them. Interestingly, former President Ma Ying-jeou was one of those accused of being a stooge. Specifically, there were accusations that he had taken photographs of Chen and eventual Vice President Annette Lu, among others, at pro-independence events.

For those who did not experience it, it is hard to convey the tinder-box levels of volatility that permeated Taiwan’s sociopolitical fabric at that time. Yet, far from attempting to mollify their irate supporters, Soong, Lien, and other Pan-Blue politicians actively encouraged the excesses. Several PFP lawmakers called for Chen’s murder – one of them on the floor of the legislature.

Asked to condemn these threats, Soong stonewalled. Lien went further, asserting that people would have the right to kill Chen if legal action failed. One should bear in mind that these men were key figures in a regime that had had Chen imprisoned on libel charges in 1986. As a close associate of the plaintiff, the academic and Pan-Blue politician Elmer Fung, Soong was said to have been instrumental in securing Chen’s conviction. In light of this history, these words could have been seen as more than empty bluster. At the very least, they were grossly irresponsible.

The protests continued for weeks, and the Pan-Blues’ final lawsuit to have the election results annulled was only rejected by the Taiwan High Court more than nine months after the election.

“By taking up these themes in its post-election demonstrations and declarations, the [Pan-Blue] Alliance and in particular Soong showed that these abuses were part of a deliberate tactic to assimilate Chen to a dangerous dictator,” writes Frank Muyard, assistant professor of  at Taiwan’s National Central University. “Thus, the KMT and the PFP were purported to be the real democratic parties fighting for the people, and the DPP the dictatorial party. The success of this tactic rested on a particular conception of democracy dominant among Pan-Blue supporters, in part linked to their feeling of having had power stolen from them by Chen Shui-bian in 2000.”

In their study of the social psychology of the 2004 elections, Olwen Bedford and Kwang-kuo Hwang make a related point about the KMT’s inability to demonstrate social responsibility in accepting defeat or to at least “play by the rules” in (initially) pursuing legal redress rather than mob violence: “There is little precedent within the KMT for rule-of-law thinking or democratic procedures as the party has largely retained a highly bureaucratic traditional top-down power structure in which subordinates have the habit of doing only what they are told to do and discussion of alternate viewpoints is discouraged.” Bedford and Hwang point out that Pan-Blue supporters who objected to the course being pursued were branded “wimps [who] should leave the party.”

This neatly captures the warped logic of the KMT old guard. It explains how a man like Soong, who thrived under an autocratic system of government, can play the victim, cast democratically elected presidents as tyrants, and hold forth on democratic values, as he has done in each election he has been involved in.

On January 11, hours after voters had once again overwhelmingly rejected him, Soong appeared to flip-flop on whether this was his last hurrah. Demonstrating the kind of nonpartisan attitude that does Taiwan proud, Tsai has twice appointed Soong her envoy to the APEC summit, so it’s not impossible that he still has some role to play.

Read the full fascinating history here:

Related Posts