April 7, 1989.
Deng Nan-jung, the editor-in-chief of a magazine called the “Freedom Era Weekly” set himself on fire in his Taipei office as police tried to arrest him. His crime? Sedition, or publishing a proposal for a constitution for the Republic of Taiwan in his magazine.
Just a few months later, students in China would face similar repression on a much bigger scale on Tiananmen Square, yet Taiwan had always prided itself on being a “Free China,” a lighthouse in the darkness of authoritarianism.
While Deng’s actions in the face of repression have been marked by sympathizers and supporters for many years, his significance has taken 27 years to be recognized on a wider scale.
President-elect Tsai Ing-wen said Thursday that as soon as her administration took office, the next April 7 would be earmarked as “Freedom of Expression Day” for the whole country. Of course, that will not be enough to safeguard basic freedoms. Legislative proposals in the works to prevent the monopolization of the media and to restrict the involvement of political parties in the media will be the more practical sides of the same thinking, pushing through reforms to anchor the changes already achieved and make sure the gains become permanent.
The change is but a small step but it shows how much work is waiting for the new government, which is scheduled to take office on May 20. At the moment, the media are focusing on prospective appointments, an interest which Premier-designate Lin Chuan played on Thursday by announcing a raft of new Cabinet members, mostly ministers without portfolio.
More important than the names will be the new policies, which will have effective enough to correct the mistakes of the past years. The new administration wants to be more transparent, more in touch with public opinion, more efficient, and push the economy away from over-reliance on China while making sure the government lives within its means.
The task will be immense, especially since expectations are high. When Chen Shui-bian became the first-ever candidate from the Democratic Progressive Party to be elected president, in the second direct presidential election in 2000, the public expected too much. The Kuomintang still had a majority at the Legislative Yuan, while the Chen era ended in a morass of scandals.
KMT candidate Ma Ying-jeou won the 2008 presidential election by raising expectations that his party was the only one able to restore the economy to its previous status, especially since his vice presidential running mate was ex-Premier Vincent Siew, who had earned praise for taking Taiwan without too much scratches through the 1997 regional financial crisis.
Again, expectations came to nothing, leading to voters giving Ma a massive vote of no confidence, first in local elections in November 2014, then in the presidential and legislative elections last January.
The DPP will be back in the saddle, but the major difference will be that unlike 2000, the party will not only control the Presidential Office but also the Legislative Yuan, where it obtained a healthy majority of 68 out of 113 seats.
That fact can raise expectations, but it should not raise them too high. Any new government will face a whole range of issues, and its approach might be handicapped by old skeletons falling out of the closet, or by unexpected international events, such as a new economic crisis.
Even though optimism has become the norm now that a new administration is taking shape, it would be wrong to expect too much too soon. Situations that have gone wrong over many years, or even decades, cannot be put right within just a few years, and often not even within four years, the term of the new president.
Tsai and Lin will need to be given patience that should last longer than the traditional “honeymoon” for newly elected leaders.
In the meantime, the transition period is still slated to last more than a month and many preparations can still be made so the Tsai Administration can shoot out of the starting block come May 20.
A package of measures to facilitate the transition is likely to come too late, though meetings between President Ma Ying-jeou and Tsai, and between Premier Simon Chang and Lin can resolve any pressing issues.
While Tsai and her top advisers can plan how they want to tackle major issues, unexpected problems can still show up, with a prime example the sudden ruckus surrounding Academia Sinica President Wong Chi-huey.
A new head of the country’s most prestigious academic body is to be named before October in any event, an occurrence which usually hardly stirs any interest outside the academic community. The difference this time is the whirlwind stockmarket scandal allegedly involving Wong, which has turned the issue into a frontpage topic, and into a potential source of conflict between the old and the new administration.
The process to name a successor to Wong has already started, but the question is whether the ultimate nominee will be chosen by the sitting president before May 20 or by the new one who will be in office when the new head of the Academia Sinica will be inaugurated.
The case has been further confused by reports that Ma would be likely to favor a former school friend who has been criticized by some as being too close to China.
Common sense would dictate that an official who starts work in October would be nominated by a president who starts work in May, since both will have to cooperate. If unable to find a solution, both sides should meet to resolve the impasse.
The long transition might lead to more unexpected problems surfacing, with the problem being that the old government’s solutions do not corresponded to the wishes of the new public opinion, whose new government is not yet legally allowed to take and execute its own solutions.
However the transition turns out, the changes now starting to show would have been hard for Deng to have imagined in his time, when only a small part of the Legislative Yuan was up for election and choosing the president was still a distant dream.