by Taiwan News editor
The year 2015 is just weeks away from passing into history, and as usual that timing is giving rise to lists of the best or the most of the past twelve months. Time Magazine has chosen German Chancellor Angela Merkel as its Person of the Year, while the best movies, photographs and designs of the year will not be far behind.
In Taiwan, one of the ways to mark the end of the year is to determine which Chinese character best represented the period.
The practice, organized by a media group and a foundation, has been going on for eight years now, and the final choice has often been telling for the spirit of the era.
For 2015, the choice was announced this week as being the character meaning “to replace.” Coincidentally, it received more than twice as many votes as the character finishing second, and that was “change.”
Both words are obviously inspired by political developments in the country over the past year.
The term “to replace” reached its most frequent use in early October, when the ruling Kuomintang made the unprecedented move to drop the presidential candidate it had only chosen a few months earlier through a legal and democratic process. Legislative Vice Speaker Hung Hsiu-chu supposedly ran in the primary race to force more senior party leaders into the race, but none of them showed up. Once a KMT congress proclaimed her as the party’s contender for 2016, opinion polls soon showed that the public was not coming around to the notion that Hung signified a new beginning. Her comments about China seemed to indicate even closer relations, while one of the main qualms with the government of President Ma Ying-jeou was precisely that he moved too close to Beijing. Hung was taken her candidacy in the wrong direction, according to Taiwanese public opinion.
When KMT leaders, including party chairman Eric Liluan Chu, realized the Hung candidacy was headed for election disaster, the call to “replace” her emerged in the media. While the move was unprecedented and for some hard to believe, the replacement made headway and was launched by a little-known member of the KMT’s Central Standing Committee.
Less than a month later, a full congress revoked Hung’s candidacy and nominated Chu as the presidential candidate. The replacement caused less friction and internecine struggle than might have been expected, but it did little to increase popularity for the KMT in the election campaign.
Chu’s ratings in the opinion polls lagged more than 20 percent behind those of Democratic Progressive Party Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen, leading to only half-humorous comments on talk shows that the KMT should replace him as well.
A more recent development was Chu’s choice of running mate, former Council of Labor Affairs Minister Jennifer Wang. As a woman and a former workers’ rights and women’s rights activist, she was expected to complement Chu’s image as a senior professional politician.
However, she soon became embroiled in allegations of real estate speculation with apartments targeted at low-income military families, whom she bears no relation to. The issue has led to court cases, public apologies, news conferences and new accusations, with campaign officials admitting it had damaged their standing.
No doubt, the KMT would now like to “replace” its vice-presidential candidate as well, but unfortunately for the party, the registration period for contenders in the January 16 elections has closed.
If the KMT thinks that replacing a candidate would take away public dissatisfaction and provide potential voters with an occasion to rally behind Chu, it was completely wrong.
Opinion polls have indicated again and again that the public does not just want to replace candidates on the KMT ticket.
Not coincidentally, one of the celebrities who chose the word “replace” for the poll was the DPP’s Tsai, who is the person in Taiwan most likely to become responsible for executing the meaning of the word next year.
What the public really wants to replace, is the KMT administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, which has “bumbled” its way through the past years on issues as wide and varied as relations with China, energy, the economy, urban development and food safety, to name only the issues with the highest profile.
Voters want to “replace” Taiwan’s rulers of the past seven years with a government that’s efficient, that knows how to run the economy, makes housing more affordable and education more effective, and which closes the gap between rich and poor.
The January 16 election could take the replacement much further than for example the 2000 presidential election, which saw a member of the DPP elected president for the first time. While the change was unprecedented, it was not complete, because the Legislative Yuan remained in KMT hands, preventing President Chen Shui-bian from realizing all elements of his program.
Because of the mood of “replacement” now prevalent, both the presidency and the Legislature might see a change in control come through. A generational transformation is also taking place, with a new generation taking over leadership positions and younger voters playing a higher part in the election than ever before, mainly due to last year’s Sunflower Movement.
Taiwan’s basic political values could see a replacement in 2016, with not just a new president – for the first time a woman – but also a new Legislature, a new generation of politicians, a new political culture and a new set of policies.
The choice of the Chinese character “to replace” carries more meaning than any character chosen before. Last year, the selection resulted in the character for “black,” which was a reference to the numerous food safety scandals authored by “black-hearted” business people.
The choice for 2015 goes far beyond one issue, but encompasses a general trend in society not seen for several years. The change about to hit Taiwan could be more thorough than anything seen before, and form a major step in the country’s history, as important as the abolition of martial law in 1987, the first direct presidential election in 1996 or Chen’s victory in 2000.
“To replace” has been voted the Chinese character of the year 2015, but the people of Taiwan will have to exert some more patience before they can turn 2016 into the year of the character “to replace.”