Monday, December 5, 2011

When 300,000 Pigs Fly

     In the West, we have an expression: “…when pigs fly.” When we say that such-and-such will happen when pigs fly, we mean it’ll never happen.
     That expression may have to be retired. In Taiwan, pigs are flying—over 300,000 of them.
     It all started about a month ago at a campaign rally for Taiwan presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen. (Interestingly, my spell checker suggests that the name should be “No-win.”) At the time, odds makers gave her as much chance of defeating President Ma Ying-jeou as pigs flying.
     A set of three-year-old triplet girls showed up at a Tsai Ing-wen rally and each of them presented her with a small piggy bank filled with coins as donations to her campaign.  No one seriously thought that these three-year-olds were the actual donors; no doubt the parents had produced both the money and the piggy banks.  Still, everyone thought it was cute—well, not quite everyone.

      The three little pigs gained the attention of the big, bad wolf. The Control Yuan (pronounced ywen, as a single syllable), a government agency whose responsibility—on paper, at least—is to root out government corruption, was shocked—SHOCKED—to discover that three-year-old girls were corrupting the political process. Since the triplet girls were not qualified to vote in Taiwan, these little criminals were not qualified to donate money to political campaigns. Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Chairman/presidential candidate Tsai had to return the donation.

     It didn’t escape the public’s attention that the Control Yuan was appointed by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidents and approved by the KMT-controlled legislature. The Control Yuan appears to be curiously selective when it comes to spotting corruption.
     In the backlash against the Control Yuan’s highhandedness, a strategist for the Tsai campaign saw an opportunity. In any culture, piggy banks signify small amounts of money—make that, small donations. It would make an ideal symbol to counter the KMT, one of the world’s richest political parties, which is awash with ill-gotten gains and with the support of well-heeled corporate socialists feeding at the trough.
     The Tsai campaign bought a few thousand cheap plastic piggy banks and distributed them to supporters to fill and return to campaign headquarters. The piggy banks went out and came back so quickly that the campaign ordered 100,000 more and declared the next thirty days Little Pigs Month.
     Since the beginning of Little Pigs Month, more than 300,000 piggy banks have flown off the shelves and into the hands of ordinary citizens eager to financially support the Tsai campaign. In a country with twelve million voters, we’re talking about 2.5% of the voters actively engaged in campaign fundraising.
     (If even 1% of ordinary American citizens who call themselves the 99% were actively involved in the political process, we defeat the evil empire and restore the republic.)
     Dorothy and her friends in the Land of Oz were less vexed by the flying monkeys than the Ma campaign was vexed by the flying pigs. Throughout the Little Pigs campaign, a series of big bad wolves huffed and puffed but couldn’t blow it down. The biggest problem for the wolves, though, was that the mud that they slung was not splatter proof.
     First, a KMT mouthpiece and supporter of the Ma Ying-jeou presidential campaign announced that all this use of plastic in the Little Pigs effort was environmentally hazardous. Aside from the absurdity of the remark, the remark caused people to recall the poor farmers who were driven from their land, and the sensitive wetlands that were threatened, so that plastics manufacturers could expand their—what’s the term for it? Oh, yes: “environmentally hazardous” activities.
     Farmers and environmentalists personally had pleaded with President Ma and his buffoonish henchman, Premier Wu Den-yeh, to stop the destruction, which was well within their power. In the end, the farmers lost their land, but the Environmental Protection Agency and the courts stopped the Ma administration’s destruction of a wetland area.
     President Ma also tried to counter the Little Pigs effort by publicly asking average citizens to make small donations for his campaign. Guffaws could be heard all over the country. According to the Taipei Times, the KMT is one of the world’s richest political parties, annually raking in “NT$3.5 billion (US$116.1 million), NT$2.9 billion of which came from stock dividends.”  (link) Under legal and public pressure to divest themselves of billions of dollars in assets that had been stolen during the Martial Law Era, then-KMT Chairman Ma Ying-jeou sold them and deposited the moneys into the KMT’s account for use and reinvestment.
     On the Northeast Coast, the government confiscated farmland to be developed into luxury hotels. (With favors like that to your credit, who needs small donations from farmers and other Taiwanese?)
     Premier Wu, who is running for vice president under Ma, has repeatedly shown his contempt for average Taiwanese and their struggles. Responding to concerns of Taiwanese given forced, unpaid leave even from healthy businesses, Wu said that the person who invented unpaid leave should receive the Nobel Prize for Economics. When criticized for that remark, he responded that his critics should develop a sense of humor.
     I mention these words of callousness to highlight the temerity of President Ma’s criticism of the Little Pigs campaign: “We store our wealth among the people and create opportunities for people to become more affluent, rather than send out piggy banks to raise money from the people.”  (link) At that remark, loud groans of ridicule have drowned out the raucous guffawing. 
     Lately, Ma has been trying a new gimmick to counter the Little Pigs campaign. He’s giving out good luck amulets to supporters, failing to realize that a candidate shores up voter commitment by getting the potential voter to do something to show that commitment, such as making a small contribution. Ma is doing the opposite. That gimmick calls to mind erstwhile President Gerald Ford’s curious strategy for defeating inflation: handing out lapel buttons with the acrostic WIN (Whip Inflation Now) printed on them.
     The lucky amulet tomfoolery has all but died on the vine, though Ma is trying to keep it on life support. In this morning’s paper, I saw a picture of him hanging a good-luck amulet around a legislative candidate’s neck as if it were the Medal of Honor. The unfortunate candidate looked embarrassed to be seen accepting it but more embarrassed to refuse it.
          A spin-off of the Little Pigs campaign included a limited edition of piggy banks wearing Robin Hood bonnets. The inspiration for this originated with an Associated Press article comparing Tsai Ing-wen to Robin Hood. This image of a champion defending the poor against powerful, rapacious rulers has really torqued Ma Ying-jeou’s jaws.  (link)  
     According to Chen Shih-hsien, known as the “pigsty calligraphist,” Taiwan’s “pig culture” has played an important role in the way the Little Pigs movement has caught on. His comments are worth reading.  (link) 
     The January 14 Taiwan presidential election is still a month away, and pigs are still flying. Since the beginning of the Little Pigs campaign, poll numbers have marginally shifted in Tsai Ing-wen’s favor.
     Politically, culturally, and socially, the Joushuei (pronounced Jo-shway) River, separating Chunghua and Yunlin Counties, is Taiwan’s Mason-Dixon Line. North of that river, situated in the subtropics, a majority of the voters tend to support the KMT. In the tropical south, they tend to support the DPP. Tsai’s strategy had been a southern strategy: Win 60% of the votes in the southern third of the nation, over half in the central counties, and more than 40% in the north.
     Now her campaign is talking about “crossing the Joushuei River.” In politics, a month is a long time. We’ll see if the bookish Tsai Ing-wen can hold onto—or expand—her lead against the formerly charismatic Ma Ying-jeou.

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